Three weeks after the earthquake there are still dozens of people sheltering in churches and Church-run schools in Aleppo.
The first figures regarding the number of houses damaged by the earthquake in Syria indicate 2,500 Christian homes in Aleppo in need of repair. While costs are being calculated and details finalised for the work to begin, the priority at the moment is “to rent temporary lodgings for those families who cannot return to their houses, because it is neither sustainable, nor dignified, for them to continue to sleep on the floors of Church halls”, says Xavier Bisits, head of projects for Syria with international foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Xavier Bisits explains that the foundation has just approved a partnership programme with the Joint Church Committee of Aleppo, which includes Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant representatives, to provide aid for temporary rentals for around 430 families affected by the earthquake. These families are unable to return home in the near future, because the buildings they lived in were either partially or totally destroyed, or suffered severe damage.
According to ACN, the priority is to provide aid for the first six to twelve months of rent for people whose houses need to be demolished because the government has deemed them structurally unsound.
ACN’s head of projects visited some of these houses in Aleppo and explains that at least 60 buildings in Aleppo collapsed in the earthquake; but the number of houses that may need to be razed will probably be in the hundreds, since “the engineers say that even if the building itself is not in ruins, there could be structural damage and it may be necessary to tear it down. In any case, we are working with the local churches to help the families with their rent, so that they can remain in a safe place while the buildings are inspected or repaired, as we do hope that they can be repaired in some cases.”
A further fifteen families are receiving aid for rent through a partnership with the parish of the Annunciation, as part of ACN’s support for 450 families affected by the earthquake in a poor Armenian quarter of Aleppo.
One of the affected houses belongs to Clemente, an elderly Syrian of Armenian descent, who explains how she was awakened by the earthquake in the early hours. “The windows began to break, and the walls began to collapse. We were terrified. We very nearly died. I cannot move easily, so my son helped me out of bed and we went out into the street as quickly as we could. There were many people, and it was raining heavily. We sat on a block of stone and gave thanks to God for being alive.”
However, Clemente is now unable to return to her home: “My brother is an engineer and he surveyed our house. He told us that it was too badly affected and that we should move out. We live on the fourth floor, and a neighbouring wall fell on our house. A huge block of stone fell on our veranda. Everything is destroyed”.
Sawsan, another Christian in the same area, was also affected by the earthquake. She and her sister point out the cracks in the wall as they recall what happened. “We woke up around 4.20 a.m. We were very scared and the walls were falling around us. I fainted and I don’t know or remember exactly what happened next, but my sister took me by the hand and we were able to escape from the house. We went to a nearby school, and we sheltered there. We are still unable to return to our house, because it is full of cracks, and we have to wait for it to be repaired.”
For now, according to Bisits, the priority is to help people return and stop living in very poor conditions with relatives, in churches, or in their cars. The second phase will involve repairing damage to houses, and ACN is already studying a project with that aim.
The population is still gripped by fear, many have been left traumatised. After a 12-year war and a deep economic crisis, the occurrence of a natural disaster has made the situation, which was already very difficult, even worse. Many have come to request help and support from the Church. Sister Siba Khoury, from the Institute of the Teaching Sisters of Saint Dorothea, Daughters of the Sacred Heart, is one of the religious who, along with Father Hugo Alaniz, parish priest of the Annunciation, has been accompanying families in these difficult times: “We have visited the most badly damaged houses. There are six families in a very serious situation. We try and give them a bit of support. We also offer many other families support in the form of food. We are very grateful for your assistance to be able to help them, and they thank the Lord for our presence, which gives them relief and support. Thank you, thank you for being with us”.