Plight of poorest Christian families in Damascus is worsening

HERE IN DAMASCUS, everything has become so expensive!” Thus exclaims Sister Joseph-Marie Chanaa. “The worsening plight of the people has forced me to get involved in the social sphere in order to help the poor and the suffering, she adds—for originally she worked as a catechist. A member of the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Besançon in France, Sister Joseph-Marie has been working in the Syrian capital ever since the beginning of the country’s civil war, heading a team of 16 people in helping the poorest Christian families in Damascus, with the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Eldery Christian residents in Damascus
Eldery Christian residents in Damascus

With the civil war now in its 10th year, social needs have continued to grow. According to UN figures, in 2019 some 83 percent  of the Syrian population was living below the poverty line. Bombs have stopped falling on Damascus, but the civilian population is continuing to pay the price for the conflict and Western economic sanctions, which are limiting the revenue of the state and thus cutting the funds available for the salaries of public service workers. Widespread destruction and contamination of the agricultural infrastructure have disrupted the supply chain, such as markets and bakeries; plus, the lack of productive employment and depletion of people’s savings and growing debt have compounded social and economic difficulties; and rents are pushed ever higher.

In Damascus the rent for a small two-room apartment has increased to an average of around 60,000 Syrian pounds, or close to $115. Sister Joseph-Marie cites the example of a family in which only the father has work, earning a salary of 80,000 Syrian pounds ($160). This means that there is barely $45 left for the family to live on. To give some idea of prices, the cost of a sandwich is around $2—“a very high price for Syrian conditions,” says the sister.

To help the poorest Christian families to continue living in Damascus and its suburbs, Sister Joseph Marie and her team provide a subsidy of about a quarter of their rent, thanks to the financial support from ACN. This is just enough to enable the families to be able to remain in Syria and live in dignity. Sister Joseph Marie says: “Generally speaking, the people who were able to emigrate were those who had enough money to be able to do so. This is not the case for the people still living in the country, those whom we are helping with their rent.”

Sister Chanaa

In addition to rent, the price of heating fuel and other basic necessities has also risen. As a result many families are tempted to stop sending their children to higher education in order to save money. To keep young people from dropping out, ACN committed this year to support 550 students at Damascus University. “This is an important project, because we are helping Christian students, of whatever denomination or rite, to continue their studies by helping them pay for public transport and photocopies of their coursework,” says Sister Joseph-Marie.

What makes her particularly happy is the fact that, by and large, these students want to stay on in Syria and not emigrate, except in order to specialize and then return home again afterward. For those who are nevertheless tempted to emigrate, especially in order to escape military service, she always has the same message: “Of course, we don’t know the future, but you should stay on and serve                                                              your country, and the Church will help you to do so.”

War and its aftermath have not spared the sick and those suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Needless to say, the poorest are the hardest hit, since they cannot afford the cost of their treatment—especially given the three-fold increase in the price of most medication since 2016 and the shortage of supplies. Many pharmaceutical outlets and medical storage facilities were destroyed during the war. So there are fewer and fewer medicines available and people are increasingly forced to seek help from the Churches and charitable agencies.

In the areas under rebel and Turkish army control the international agencies provide emergency help. However, in the areas under Syrian government control, as in Damascus for example, these agencies are not so active. This is why ACN is planning to help some 200 sick people in the capital, through the agency of Sister Joseph-Marie, so that they can get hold of medication and get treatment they urgently need.

Since pharmacies and drugstores have fewer and fewer products available, Sister Joseph-Marie encourages her team to build up reserves of medicine for something like three or four months. At present, there is enough in reserve to last until October. But sadly, she says, the number of people suffering from cancer “is growing at a terrible rate among younger and middle-aged people” and “there is very little help for them.”

—Christophe Lafontaine