Monday 6 August 2018

"The cities can be rebuilt. But children who have known nothing but war, that’s more difficult"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Fr. Fouad Nakhla, a Syrian Jesuit who works with displaced people in Damascus. Fr. Fouad was in Portugal for a conference organised by JRS - the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Esta é uma transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista com o padre Fouad Nakhla, um jesuíta Sírio que trabalha com pessoas deslocadas em Damasco. O padre Fouad esteve em Portugal a convite da JRS - Serviço Jesuíta para os Refugiados. A reportagem que foi publicada no site da Renascença está aqui.

You told me you are from a small town North of Damascus. What Church do you belong to?
I am Greek Catholic, Melkite.

The town where you grew up, was it mainly Christian?
No. Around 10%.

So, more or less the same proportion as the country.

When did you feel a vocation to become a priest?
Actually, after high school I went to Aleppo, and I did my studies in Aleppo. And there I met the poor people. I was working and studying, and then I thought, well, what should I do after that? And when I met the poor I began to think about my future, what would make sense for me? I went to a Jesuit Center, Saint Vartan, which is where JRS started in Aleppo - now it is destroyed - and I started to work with the Jesuits, and there I thought maybe this way could bring more meaning for me. So I went to spend one year with the Jesuits before entering the society, in Homs, with Fr. Frans van der Lugt, who was killed in 2014, and then I decided to join the society, so I joined in 2002.

At this time Syria was in peace, nobody could imagine the Arab Spring, as it came to be known, what was life like at the time? Especially between different religious communities?
We can say that at that time we were all living together, there was no difference between religion, between rites, or even between cities. We could find work. Life was not easy, but it was stable.

You became a Jesuit, you did your training in Paris... Where were you when everything started to crumble?
I left Paris in 2012, and the last year was very hard, and then I went back to Damascus in June, 2012.

So by now, things had already started. And you had family in Syria?
Yes, for sure. All my family was in Syria.

They were not among those who left? Were they all safe?
They did not leave the country, but they left the city for about 8 months. Then they went back, and now they are safe.

When you went back, did you start working with displaced people straight away?
Yes. Because it was the main activity, and that was where I was most needed. So, when I went back, in 2012 I went straight into the project, in Damascus, and I was responsible for this project for two years, from 2012 to 2014, working in the field. A lot of change happened over these two years.

So, what is the work of the Jesuits currently in Damascus? Because we hear of them working with refugees, we imagine, normally, in refugee camps, but in your case it is mostly people who fled from other places in Syria to Damascus?
That's right, because it is very difficult to work with IDPs without camps in the city. It is very different from the work with the refugees in the camps. It was very difficult for us in Syria to work in this situation, because we were all affected, and all our team was affected also. JRS started in Syria in 2008 to help with the Iraqi refugees, and it was very difficult for us to be in the same situation and to encounter this suffering among our own population, seeing our cities destroyed, it was very hard. So, when we started, we started with people who were coming from those cities, which had been destroyed, but who wanted to help their own people, they couldn't stand to not do anything. That is how everything started in Syria, especially in Damascus.

The work with IDPs started in Damascus. When the first displaced arrived, it was from a neighborhood around Homs, and they were living in the streets. There was nowhere to go. When we started it was with the distribution of sandwiches and water, with a small team of volunteers. Then we started to organise this work. At the beginning it was only with some donations from people in Syria who wanted to help, then it grew, and grew, and we had many projects at this time. We had distribution for food or non-food items, health support, and then we began to work more specifically with women and children, running some workshops, and fortunately we had begun JRS in 2008, so in 2012 we had the structure to help them further.

Actually, at the moment, we have only one project for the psycho-social support for the children. We work mainly with children who are not attending school, but now most of them are going to school, but they had been away for two or three years, so they don't have the capacity to follow. So what we do is help them to catch up and to continue with their studies.

And you work with people from all communities?
Since the beginning we have been helping people without asking where they are coming from. We seek out the suffering people and we help them. That is what we do.

Speaking of the children, this has been going on now for almost 8 years. We have now had a whole generation of children who have not known peace. What does this mean for the future of Syria?
I think this is the most difficult situation that we have. The destruction of the cities... They can be rebuilt. But for the children who have now known anything other than war and violence, that is more difficult.

We have two groups of children. The children who grew up in the city, in the country, who suffered a lot, being displaced. They have a lot of trauma. And most of them have no education, they were out of school for many years, and they grew up with this situation. They have to work. Most of the children we are working with are working, they have jobs, sometimes very risky jobs, so they have to deal with that. Somehow they grew up too early, they take the responsibility for their family, even if they are only 10 or 11, and they try to cope with all of this.

The second group is the children who grew up in the camps. I don't have details about that, but I think it is also a very hard situation. They have lost contact with the country, with the cities, so they don't even know their cities from before. So for both groups it will be very hard for the future. And we all know that the future of the country depends on those children. What we are doing now is trying to build the future through those children.

This work is, obviously, so important. Does the regime help you? Do they let you work and not bother you? What is the relationship?
What we do is to help people, and since we are helping people we are not taking any position. That is why we can continue to work until now.

I asked about what this means for the future of Syria, how about for the Church? Has it affected vocations for example?
I don't have statistics, but even before the crisis the vocations were already in crisis. The numbers of people wanting to join the church were already very small. I think it is the same now. I think we have noticed some improvement in that respect, over the past two or three years, but it is still very timid, in terms of numbers of people wanting to join religious societies or the church.

And then, many of the Christians have already left the country. The percentage now is not the same as it was.

Do you have reliable figures?

Many Christians lived in and around Damascus and Aleppo, which are now fully controlled by the regime. As you said, many others have left. There are many still living in areas dominated by the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Front. Do you have contact with them?
We have some contacts, because in the East of Syria, in this region controlled by the Kurds, we have some contacts... Well, life is difficult for everyone, everywhere. The conditions are different from area to area, but I can say that most of the Syrians inside the country now are in need, and they are suffering a lot. It is not an easy life. Now it is becoming safer, but still, the prices are very high, and there are a lot of challenges.

The Christians I have spoken to in the SDF controlled area speak of a project for Syria which would see decentralization, each community having a say, including the Christians... It seems that most of the anti-regime opposition has been defeated, and the regime and the SDF will emerge at the end. They have refrained from attacking each other, mostly, do you think there may be a conflict in the future, between them, or will they manage to work out an agreement for peace?
It is very hard to estimate and to imagine what things will be like in the future, because in this situation there is a lot of misunderstanding, and a lot of coming and going... One day you are friends and the next day you are not, so it is a little bit difficult to imagine.

But what I really believe is that if we want to build a new future for Syria, we can't do it in a federal way. I believe that we can build a future if we keep the unity of the Syrian people and the country. How it will be done, if it is possible or not, I don't know. I don't know what the future holds, but this is what we believe and we are working for that.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

I know that before the war, at least, families with only one child were not required to do military service. Did you?
I would have had to do it, but I didn't, because I joined the Jesuits.

But your brothers?
Yes, of course.

During the war?
I am the youngest, so they did theirs before, in 1991 and 1998.

The idea that we have in the west is that most of the Christians support the regime, in these conflicts that there have been. There are exceptions, I have spoken to a few, but most tend to be guardedly in favour of the regime. Is this a correct perception?
It is always very hard to generalise. But as a Jesuit and as JRS, we are always outside of these positions. We are not in favour or against, we are with the suffering people, and we are working for that. That is our position. But still, it is very hard to generalise.

When I asked you about a possible conflict with the SDF, you said it was hard to guess the future. But now that it seems like most of ISIS has been eliminated, and even the FSA, and Al-Qaeda linked groups have been pushed away and are now in areas mostly controlled by Turkey... How do you see the future for Syria now? Is it looking better than it was a few years ago?
I don't know how to answer this question, it is too hard.

Al-Qaeda and Isis, these are ideologies. They are not only groups, they are ideologies. They could be defeated, for a while, but they are ideologies. If we don't work on the root of these ideologies, it is useless. And we can see what has happened. Al-Qaeda was defeated in Afghanistan, for a while, but the ideology is still around, and it becomes more and more general.

So it is not white and black... You have to be more delicate on this kind of position.

So we have seen them being militarily defeated, but your concern is that the ideology remains among some of the people.
Yes, and it is easily reignited. That is why it is so difficult.

I believe in peace for Syria, and we are all working for that, and it is only possible if we work for reconciliation with people. Because used to live together, and we can live together again. That is what I think, and what I believe. But it is only possible if we start to work for reconciliation.

You did a Master's in Conflict Resolution, which I imagine is very useful... Can there be reconciliation without forgiveness?
Forgiveness comes at the end, it is a process, it doesn't just happen. It could come at the end, and there are a lot of steps before forgiveness, especially forgiveness in politics, which is not something very usual. So that is why I think we have to start working for reconciliation as soon as possible, hoping that at the end we will reach some kind of forgiveness, otherwise it will be too late.

Speaking of forgiveness, is the understanding of forgiveness and its implications, the same among different religious communities?
During this crisis we have seen that what brings people together is not words, but the suffering, the pain, and when people meet each other and realise they are suffering as much as me, if not more, that makes the difference, and that makes me see the other as a Human Being, not as an enemy, or just another person, no, it is somebody who can suffer, and who suffered more than me, possibly. Experience can talk, more than words. Words can't do anything. We can make all the sermon's possible about forgiveness and love, etc., but if we are not experiencing that, it is not possible.

When the USA bombed military targets in Damascus, recently, there was a joint statement from the Patriarchs of the Christian Churches in Syria. Is it fair to say that the leadership of the different communities have the same position in their vision of Syrian and outside interference?
I don't know how to answer that. But what we can say is that it is not fair to bomb in this way. Whatever the situation. And it is not right.

The problem in Syria is that now the crisis is no longer a Syrian crisis, and that makes all the people angry.

Was it ever just a Syrian crisis? There was always outside interference, no?
But now it is too much. It is very harmful to see that everybody is bombing and they don't care about people's lives. People are dying everywhere, and life has meaning on all sides, and bombing in this way is not fair.

The division of Christian voices, is this a problem?
We don't feel that Christians are divided.

Sure, there are many rites, but we are all Christians. It is not the divisions which matter.

Now, what we have to do is to help the Christians to be part of the country, and not outsiders. That could help for unity in the future, and that could help bring them to have a role in this country.

So on the ground one does not notice this division among the different traditions?
Actually no. We have many centers and churches around, and we receive people from all rites. We don't ask, it’s not a question that matters in the country, because we are used to this, to being very different. It is somehow difficult, but also very rich. We enjoy it. When you have seven different masses, in different rites, it can be confusing, but for us it is very rich and wonderful.

What do you do among the Jesuits? Do you celebrate one rite?
Actually we have the privilege to celebrate all the rites, as Jesuits. It is a great and very beautiful privilege. I am ordained in the Melkite rite, but I can celebrate in Maronite, or in Copt, or in Syriac and in each church, so we have this privilege.

All Jesuits, or just in the Middle East?
I think in the Middle East. I have no idea if others can do the same, but at least we can.

Fr. Frans van der Lugt
You mentioned Fr. Frans van der Lugt, Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, as well... What do these names mean to you?
Well, for Fr. Frans van der Lugt... He is a model for all of us. His example to choose to stay with the people who were suffering most, until the end, and to share their lives until his death, for me, personally and, I think, for all the Jesuits in the region, is a model, a big witness for us.

His life, and his death, give us a lot of strength to continue, and also a lot of hope, to continue and to believe that even among suffering and the darkest of situations, life is more powerful and God is present everywhere. That has helped us a lot.

Paulo Dall'Oglio is also a big voice, and also one of us. The first mission of his monastery, Mar Moussa, is to promote peace and dialogue, and it is still going until now.

Has their death and example given fruit for relations among communities?
For sure! And very often we meet people who we don't know, and they talk about Fr. Frans, his example and his way. Some new him, some didn't, but only heard about him. So we have a lot of testimonies and a lot of people are talking about him and his life.

For us, Fr. Van der Lugt is still alive, so many people talk about him, we feel that he is still with us. Because his life continues to inspire our life.

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