Syria: ‘The thought of continuing my studies was what kept my hopes alive’

CHRISTIAN COLLEGE students in Syria have been able to continue their studies, thanks to the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which has spent more than $4M on this project since the start of the country’s civil war.

Christians in the Middle East are under siege, and Aid to the Church in Need comes to their aid in a variety of ways, including helping Catholic students continue their college educations
Raja Mallouhi (l) and Issam Ahwesh, students at the University of Homs

That aid program is helping students in Homs, in Syria’s Valley of the Christians. “Little by little, the situation in Syria is beginning to improve. Daily life and public transport are gradually returning to normal, although we still face many economic problems.” This is how daily life in his city is summed up by one student, Khalil Al Tawil.

On this occasion, the faithful have gathered in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Homs for Mass. The restoration work inside the cathedral is still ongoing, however. The jihadists made a point of shooting at the paintings, and especially shooting out the eyes of the icons of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles.

In attendance are some 300 university students who have been able to continue their studies thanks to ACN, which channels funding through the local Church. Khalil explains: “I was given a stipend for educational materials, so I could take a course in French. I was also given help with paying for transportation to the university.”

“There has been a great deal of suffering in Homs, and many families have lost everything in the war,” says another young student, Anaghem Tannous, who is studying civil engineering. He adds: “Being able to continue with my studies is what has helped me to remain hopeful and stay happy through these years. Now I want to be able to deepen my knowledge and help other people here in my country.”

Every young man aged 18 or over is liable to conscription in the army for an indefinite period. The only grounds for exemption: if someone is the only male child in the family or else engaged in university studies. This was one reason why millions of young people fled the country, hoping to escape conscription and having to fight in the war.

“Many thanks for your help. There are many of us facing difficulties, but you never failed us with your support”, acknowledges Wissam Salloum (21), who is a software engineering student. He says: “I’m in my fourth year; hopefully, next year I will graduate, but I would like to continue my studies in order to avoid being sent to war. I want to remain in Syria and I am hoping that very soon we will have peace, peace for everyone.”

“One of the most difficult times I experienced was when the university was forced to close down a few years ago, for several months, because of the intensity of the attacks. We all thought that we would no longer be able to fulfil our dreams and finish our university careers and one day enjoy a better life here.”

The cathedral courtyard is a meeting place for these young people, where in addition to celebrating their faith they can share their everyday lives through sport and friendship. Wissam explains: “Obviously, the majority of the students in our university are Muslims. It is rare to meet with another Christian at university, so for that reason our friendship is all the stronger.

“We are friends with everyone, and in fact our Muslim fellow students have a high regard for us. They greatly appreciate the peace-loving attitude of the Christians and the fact that we don’t want to quarrel with anyone. They look to us with hope in the face of so many difficulties.”

The meeting ends with lunch on the edge of the basketball court next to the cathedral. The first buses soon start to arrive to carry back the people who live on the outskirts of the city. A group of friends say goodbye with a hug. “These are the same buses that take us to the university. The Church takes charge of the expenses, and it is a big help to our families, since we barely have enough to eat with or to pay the rent on our homes,” explains another student, Sandra Satmeh.

Her friend, Pascal Napki, thanks her benefactors in the West: “We know now that we are not alone. This gives us the motivation to complete our studies and at the same time to help those who are most in need here in Homs.”

Josué Villalón