Robert Chelhod was born in 1963, in Aleppo, Syria. He is now stationed in Italy at the headquarters of AMU (Action for a United World) close to Rome, to take stock of the social projects and the organization of aid. In 1990 he returned to his country of origin to open the first Focolare centre, and remained in Aleppo for 18 years before going to Lebanon in 2008.
What do you remember about Syria?
“The regime has not blocked progress. I saw a blooming at all levels: Syria was once full of tourists, and the economy was at its peak. Before the war the minimum wage was $500, and now, just to give you an idea, it is $50. The apex was in 2010. With the Arab spring in 2011, internal problems started which led to the war.”
What was your idea of the war in Syria, seen from Lebanon?
“I would have wanted to be with my people, but I couldn’t leave Lebanon at that moment. The biggest pain was to see the Syrian refugees enter Lebanon. I knew those people! They were honest people, hardworking, and would have been a resource for the country.”
In January 2017 you returned to Syria, a month after the liberation of Aleppo.
“I stayed at “home” for three months, in a restricted circle. Only after three months did I pluck the courage to go out to see the most beautiful part of the city razed to the ground. Seeing again those places I had always “boasted” of, or rather, seeing that they no longer exist, was a shock. When I went to the old Suk for the first time, where you see only rubble, someone explained: “the rebels entered here, and here the army came…” I thought of all the people who died in that place. I felt I shouldn’t judge even those who have destroyed my city.”
How did you find the people on your return?
“Discouraged and disappointed. But also with the desire to move on. All feel the exhaustion of the past years, the living conditions, but at the same time the determination to start again.”
What can we do for Syria today? “For those who have faith, continue to pray. And you can bet with the Syrians that the country is alive. We need support in Syria. Not only from the economic point of view, which is certainly vital, but in believing that with us, this country, the cradle of civilisation, can be reborn. That peace is still possible. We need to know that the world feels our suffering, that of a country that is disappearing.”
You coordinate onsite the social projects funded through AMU. How does this come about?
“The projects range from aid for food to schooling. Then there is healthcare aid since public healthcare is unable to meet the minimum standards of assistance due to the lack of doctors, medicines and instruments. Besides help for families, there are more stable projects: two after-school organisations in Damascus and Homs with 100 children each, Christians and Muslims; two specific healthcare projects for the treatment of cancer and for dialysis; and a school for the deaf and dumb children, that was already operating before the war. These projects offer the possibility of work for many local youths. The employment issue is fundamental. We are dreaming in the near future of the possibility of working on microcredit to relaunch the activities. Aleppo was a city brimming with merchants who today would restart, but the initial capital is lacking.”
Instead many continue to leave…
“The exodus, especially of the Christians, is irreversible. The reason is the insecurity, and lack of jobs. The Church suffers in this land which was a land of Christians before the arrival of Islam. And it is trying to do what is possible to help and support all this. But there are few resources. Most of the youths are in the army. You may find some university students, or kids. But the 25-40 age bracket is inexistent. In the city of Aleppo, the estimated further drop of Christians is 140,000 from 130,000, while many Muslims have arrived, evacuated from their destroyed cities.”
What impact does this have on interreligious dialogue?
“In Aleppo the Christians considered themselves somewhat like the élite of the country. With the war, since the Muslim zones were hit, many took refuge in the Christian zones. So the Christians opened out to the Muslims, and had to accept them. The Latin Bishop Emeritus of Aleppo, Bishop Armando Bortolaso, during the war told me: “Now’s the time to be real Christians.” At the same time the Muslims have got to know the Christians personally. They were touched by the concrete help. There are negative and positive aspects. The positive one is that this war has made us Syrians closer with one another.”
Source: Citta’ Nuova Magazine