The Rev. Ibrahim Nzeir, pastor of the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo in Syria, stands at the site where his church once stood. The building was destroyed in 2012, hit once in May of 2012 and then again more seriously in November of 2012. They built a new building in a differ part of Aleppo in 2015. Rev. Nseir’s church is a local partner of Foodgrains Bank member Mennonite Central Committee Canada. (Photo credit: MCC/Emily Loewen)
Winnipeg-based writer travels inside Syria; meets with families receiving emergency help, brings back message asking Canadians to pray for peace
Emily Loewen is a digital content specialist for Foodgrains Bank member Mennonite Central Committee Canada, based in Winnipeg. In January, she travelled to Syria, where she visited the churches and partners who are on the ground providing lifegiving emergency food from the Foodgrains Bank to people caught in the throes of the brutal civil war.
It’s hard to believe I’m really here.
I’ve been reading about and reporting on Syria over the last five years. I’ve heard the news about the bombings, chemical weapons, ISIS takeovers and refugees fleeing. Now I’m inside Syria with a group of my colleagues visiting our relief programs; it feels surreal to be here in this country still at war.
One day we split into small groups to hear from people who’ve been displaced and receive monthly food packages through a project support by the Foodgrains Bank. I meet with five different families, in rented apartments, in a shelter attached to an abandoned factory and in what used to be a farm building for animals.
Salim* and Rima* were displaced from Homs and told us about the food relief they receive from MCC through the Foodgrains Bank. (Photo credit: MCC/Emily Loewen)
The first family we met was Salim and Rima. They were forced to leave their home near Homs. Salim has difficulty working because he has diabetes; the monthly food basket they receive helps them get by.
Each month Salim and Rima receive a cardboard box filled with rice, pasta, chickpeas, lentils, oil and canned meat. They stretch the food to make it last, having smaller portions and sometimes eating only two meals a day. It’s hard to imagine; one day you’re able to go to the grocery store to buy what you need, then conflict breaks out and suddenly you need to rely on the generosity of others to feed your family.
Salim and Rima’s story is just one of many. The average family in Syria has been displaced more than three times, living constantly on guard, fearing that conflict could force them to flee again.
I felt in awe of the scale of need and displacement. In one morning in just two villages I met family after family who had lost their homes and their family members. I know there are many more villages and towns just like these across the country.
This project provides the monthly food packages to 6,000 families in the Qalamoun area, Homs and rural villages around Hama. In some places in the Qalamoun region, MCC’s local partner, Forum for Development Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), is the only international organization providing relief.
Amid years of violence and uncertainty, this emergency food can be a lifeline. “We’re helping those who are in dire need to survive,” says Rev. Riad Jarjour, president of FDCD. “You can’t imagine the number of people who ask us to thank you.”
During our visit, I was reminded that in many places, it’s local Syrians carrying out the relief work that MCC and the Foodgrains Bank support. Rahaf Abdo, our guide and translator for one morning, grew up in Deir Attieh and now works for the Islamic Charity of Deir Attieh helping with the food package distributions. She started out as a volunteer, but gave up a job lecturing at the nearby university to do relief work full time.
Rahaf Abdo works with the Islamic Charity of Deir Attieh and helps coordinate the food distribution program. (Photo credit: MCC/Emily Loewen)
As we drove between villages, she shared some of her own story. Deir Attieh was taken over by ISIS in 2013. Rahaf remembers hiding from fighting in the basement of her parents’ house, their neighbours joining them for shelter. Her fiancé still went out to help deliver the food packages during that time, he was nearly killed several times.
Though Deir Attieh is no longer under siege, Rahaf lives with the fear of that experience. She also feels a stronger desire to do good. “Sometimes I think I can’t live here anymore. I get panic attacks because of what I’ve seen,” she says. “But then I think I’m helping people.”
I’ve always been amazed by the courage of the local groups MCC partners with. Now, having visited some of that work in person, I have a deeper appreciation of what they do. Without the dedication of local Syrians like Rahaf we wouldn’t be able to provide the monthly food packages. People like Salim and Rima and many others would be left hungry.
The Rev. Riad Jarjour, president of MCC partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, shows items in the monthly food packages given to families.(Photo credit: MCC/Emily Loewen)
Months later, I still think a lot about the people we met. In particular, the message of Reverend Ibrahim Nseir, pastor of MCC’s partner’s the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo, stand out to me. For Reverend Nseir, emergency relief from church partners overseas is a sign that “God is doing a lot in the country, God is not absent.”
He and his community have been encouraged by the prayers of people from around the world.
“We always knew that we were not alone,” he says, asking that people of faith around the world continue to keep Syria in their prayers.
“Pray that God’s grace should continue over these people,” he says. “Please pray for peace in Syria, pray for smiles to come back to faces.”
Although I am home in Winnipeg now, I know that returning to peace and safety is a privilege our partners in Syria don’t have. So I keep peace for Syria in my prayers, and I hope you will too.
The Foodgrains Bank, through its members, began responding to the Syrian conflict in 2012. Since then, we have committed over $50 million toward providing emergency food to Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as to households within Syria itself. Some families receive emergency food through the Foodgrains Bank for only one month, while other families have been receiving food since the beginning of the conflict. In total, 791,500 food baskets or food vouchers have been delivered since the start of the conflict.
*Real names not used for security