Fulvio Scaglione, of CIVG, relates his phone interview with Sister Yola Girges, at the site of Saint Paul’s conversion, in Damascus:
There are times when even a automatic rifle fire seems nothing. A kalashnikov volley resounds in the phone, while on the line with Damascus, and I am speaking with Sister Yola Girges. It is the ritual shooting in the air that accompanies the funeral of a Syrian soldier who died in the battle for Ghouta, the suburb still controlled by Islamist terrorists. Sister Yola, born in Damascus in a family originally from Ghassanieh (province of Idlib), a Christian village in the north where the Franciscan father Francois Mourad was killed in 2013 and where the terrorists of Al Nusra are still based, is one of the missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary working in the house of the Custody of the Holy Land at the Memorial of the Conversions of St. Paul, in the Syrian capital. We are in the neighborhoods of Tabbaleh, Bab Touma and Dawaleh, where Christians are concentrated. And like many other Christians and religious in Syria, Sister Yola is also outraged by the way the war is told in Europe.
“Today, in the Jaramana district, the funerals are being held for twelve civilians killed by the missiles fired by the rebels of Ghouta. Two weeks ago a mortar shell exploded in the garden of our house. A few days ago another rocket hit a building on the other side of the street and all our windows exploded. For weeks now, when we leave the house we do not know if we will return. In this period, moreover, the terrorists began to strike just when the lessons ended in schools, to create even more panic. Just in our nursery school, last year we lost four children, killed by a mortar together with their father and in 2012 a girl, killed by a missile on the street together with her mother, who was our catechist. Not to mention the injured or traumatized children Yet nobody talks about it, nobody says anything. Who takes any concern for our dead?”
Now all the attention is focused on Ghouta, and the humanitarian organizations talk about the many civilian deaths… “We need to tell the whole truth. Ghouta is an area of 1800 square kilometers. It has been occupied by terrorists since the beginning of the war. In these seven years, the rockets they launched have caused more than a thousand civilian deaths in Damascus alone. How long could you endure all this? Furthermore, everyone knows that the militants of Isis and Al Nusra concentrated in Ghouta have brought families with them, which they now use as human shields, either to stop the army attacks or to arouse the world’s compassionate reaction. Nobody wants civilians to die, anywhere. But the tactics are clear. “
The House of the Custody of the Holy Land at the Memorial of St. Paul has been a faithful witness in these years of Syria’s martyrdom. Founded as a home for pilgrims, it became available when the war started to those who suffered the most.
“At the beginning,” explains Sister Yola, “we welcomed 30 refugee families from Homs, where there was a neighborhood with 75 thousand Christians. After that phase, we made ourselves available to the sick, especially those of cancer, who from the most diverse areas of Syria, who could only get apt rtreatment, because of the war, in Damascus. Finally, we gave housing to families, and unfortunately they were so many, that they had decided to emigrate and had to stop here in the capital to get visas. Some of those families, unfortunately, have been swallowed by the Mediterranean.”
“In the last few years, however, the House has tried to provide for the needs of the weakest and most defenseless children. “We have a nursery school with 150 children,” says Sister Yola, “most of poor families or refugees in Damascus are from areas occupied by terrorists or hit by fighting. Then we have a catechetical center with 400 children and young people, from those of elementary schools to university students. Last year, then, we started psychological support for children traumatized by the war and this year, at the request of the same parents, we have expanded and deepened. We work with children up to 13 years and with the help of twelve volunteers, university students we have prepared with special courses taught by specialists. Finally, two months ago, we also launched music education courses, also to give youngsters an alternative to the interminable days spent at home because it is too dangerous to play outside. 50 are enrolled but we are sure that the number will grow.”
Now, however, the activities of the House, like those of all the other Christian Churches represented in Damascus, are blocked. It is raining missiles and, as Sister Yola says, “we could not ask parents to risk their children’s lives to bring them here.” It is Syria, beset, for too many years, by the war.