By Ingunn Brandvoll, Norwegian Church Aid
”Damascus used to be one of the safest cities in the Middle East”, explains Lana. “We used to be able to stay out with friends till after dark. We were ignorant not to appreciate it more. Now we do not dare to go out after sunset.” Lana is one of the young people working with the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (GOPA) in Syria. Together with her colleagues she is providing essential support to the many displaced and affected families in Damascus. Prior to the escalation of fighting in and around Damascus, many displaced families fled to Syria’s capital. Now many Damascenes find themselves being amongst the currently 4 million people in need of assistance in Syria, including 2 million internally displaced people.
Lana and her family is one of many, who now share their home with relatives. Her uncle moved in with them, when his area no longer was safe to live in. In March 2012 Lana lost her job. Her employer gave two weeks’ notice. “It was very difficult for my colleagues and me. It felt like losing a family, and sixty families lost their income”. She feels grateful for her new opportunity of working with IOCC/GOPA on their program assisting fellow Syrians with necessities such as food, blankets, hygiene articles and psychosocial support.
Lana represents many young Syrians, who have decided to use their energy and skills on helping others during a national crisis. Syria is a country of youth. One of every five Syrians is between 15 and 25 years old.
Lana describes the situation in Damascus, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. She explains about the challenges of finding bread for people in insecure areas, prices going up on staple food and fuel, and the increasingly more unreliable supply of electricity. “As it gets harder for people to buy gas and diesel, people rely more and more on electricity to warm up their houses and to cook their food. However, while electricity cuts last winter were scheduled and lasted only 3 to 6 hours, this winter we may be out of electricity for 10 hours or more each day”.
In this situation maybe it is not strange to hear that people prioritize food and other material aid. However, Lana has seen how IOCC/GOPA’s psychosocial program has changed people, and how they have come to appreciate it. She tells: “I never forget an old man, who got very upset with me, because he was offered to participate in a psychosocial support program instead of receiving a food parcel. I took time to explain to him the purpose of the program, and in the end he decided to participate together with his family. After the program he came back to our office, gave me a kiss on my cheek, apologized for the incident and exclaimed that this was more important than food.”
Lana explains: “The war creates a lot of stress and anger. Sometimes this contributes to family conflicts. It affects the relationships between the parents and the children, the mother and the father, and with other relatives living together. This is why the IOCC/GOPA’s psychosocial program focuses on how people can decrease stress and solve conflicts”.
Besides lectures and workshops with adults on how to handle the family’s challenges, improve communications, and defuse conflicts, violent behavior and thoughts, the IOCC/GOPA psychosocial program also includes activities for children. The aim is to bring children together in a secure environment, where they have the opportunity to interact, communicate and build confidence and relations through games, sports, arts, crafts, singing and music.
However, the need for psychosocial support is not limited to Damascus. Based on the many positive responses from participating families, IOCC/GOPA plans to expand its program to other parts of Syria. At the beginning of December, several people were brought together for a training of trainers’ course, which included also “first-aid psychology” i.e. how to counsel people, who find themselves in the middle of a traumatic event. “Most had a background in psychology or social work, and many were young”, Lana says.
Part of the explanation for Syrian youth’s positive engagement for helping fellow citizens, may lie in Lana’s statement: “Every individual in Syria is now affected”. She continues: “When I got involved with IOCC/GOPA’s relief work, I was personally not affected. Although I could feel sorry and express sympathy, I could not fully comprehend what others were going through. Now I have myself experienced explosions, shelling and losing a friend”.
Regardless of their motivation, it is the social engagement of these Syrian youth that gives a lot of hope for a country in midst of a deep crisis.
The United Church of Christ is supporting the relief work of our partners International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (GOPA) in Syria.