In Syria and Lebanon, ‘the sisters go to the dark places where others cannot’

THE DIFFICULTIES IN SYRIA AND LEBANON HAVE LED TO AN INCREASE IN THE ABUSE OF CHILDREN AND WOMEN but they are also opening up opportunities for women to take the lead in their families and communities. Two nuns working in the region offer their perspective

Shortly after the end of Lebanon’s terrible civil war, a cardinal visited the country and asked for a meeting with members of women’s congregations, recalls sister Helen Mary Haigh, an English nun with the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, who at the time was stationed in the country, and who has been close to Lebanon and Syria for over 30 years.

“He told us we can go anywhere, we are able to go to the dark places in families where others cannot, simply because we are women, and sisters. This has become true again in Lebanon, and in Syria. The women can go where others cannot, and the sisters can go to darker, difficult, or dangerous places because we are not a threat to anybody. Unfortunately, these dark situations call for this role which we try to fulfil,” she said at an online conference hosted by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

The tragic situation in Lebanon, with its crushing financial crisis, and in Syria, where an equally bad crisis has compounded the poverty resulting from a 12-year civil war, has given the religious sisters of Jesus and Mary plenty of challenges and difficult work.

Sister Annie Demerjian, who belongs to the same congregation, spends her time between her native Syria and Lebanon and has direct contact with hundreds of families that benefit from support provided, among others, by ACN. At the conference she explained that families are breaking down under the social and economic pressure and recalled a very recent episode that showcases the despair many are feeling. “There is much abuse of all kinds targeting children and women. Divorce and suicide are increasing. Just two weeks ago we heard of a woman who tried to throw herself from a bridge because she had no way to feed her children. People talked her down, but for how long? We need a solution. This cannot be solved by two or three people.”

Sister Annie Demerjian

“We used to find ten children begging, now we see hundreds. We didn’t see this before the war. There are many organizations helping women, but the needs are great. I help 100 or 200 women, but what about the rest?” asked Sister Annie. 

Because of the financial crisis in Lebanon many men have emigrated to try and find jobs abroad, and in Syria many fled to avoid being drafted into the army. This has exposed women to more hardship, but also opened opportunities for leadership roles that were previously reserved for men. “We depend totally on the work of the women now. We need to prepare women to take risks and be functioning members of society. They need to step up and fulfil this role,” said Sister Annie.

Both Sister Annie and Sister Helen Mary have experienced years of war and destruction in both countries, but some believe things have never been worse. “Many people say they wish they could go back to the time of war, at that time we used to at least have food to eat and to feed the children. Due to the economic crisis, 85 percent of the population live below the poverty line in Syria. The salary of one family is not sufficient for a week, prices are always rising, many people are really hungry,” said Sister Annie, referring to an example of a family the sisters support.

“We help a family with three children, the husband has psychological problems, because of the war, and because of his medication he sleeps all day. We help with food and money for rent, but it is not enough. The child got sick because of malnutrition, and they have nothing in their fridge, they depend on what they are given. And this is only one family, we help hundreds like this.”

Hope is in the very name of one of the projects that the nuns support in Syria with the help of ACN, among others. The Hope Center was founded by two wealthy men who could have left the country but preferred to stay and help others. “They started opening small spaces for university students to come and study. The idea developed and became a way of trying to help families as a whole. Many families do not want to depend on aid, they want to work.”

“These centers have already helped 750 families get new jobs, and thousands of families are receiving aid,” reported Sister Annie, who hopes the project may be established soon in Lebanon as well.

Sister Helen Mary Haigh

Hope is also what ACN provides every time it sends aid, be it material or financial, but most importantly, through prayer, Sister Annie insists. “Spiritual support is more important than the material. Continue to pray for us that we do not lose hope, and our people do not to lose hope. We want Christians to stay in this holy land. I pray for each one of you, many times we offer mass for you and the benefactors.”

Sister Helen Mary, speaking on behalf of the nuns in Lebanon, agreed. “Lebanon has always been a beacon in the Middle East for Christians. Please let Lebanon continue to shine. It does so, thanks to aid agencies like ACN that continue to believe in Christians in the Middle East and continue to support them.”

ACN currently supports dozens of projects in both Syria and Lebanon, in a variety of fields, including direct provision of financial and material aid to families, help for Catholic schools, construction and reconstruction of infrastructure, and many others. In 2021 the organization supported 79 projects with more than five million euros in Lebanon, alone. In Syria ACN ran 118 projects during 2021, and over the past decade the country has received more than $52M in aid.

—Filipe d’Avillez