Exactly one year has passed since 6 February 2023, when a devastating earthquake hit Turkey and northern Syria, leaving behind it 56,000 dead (at least 7,200 in Syria) and tens of thousands of casualties and homeless people.
“People joke saying that there will be another earthquake. It’s only a joke but it reveals the state of anguish that people are still experiencing,” says the parish priest of Aleppo, fra Bahjat Karakach, of the Custody of the Holy Land. “I myself at times, while I’m asleep, have the sensation that there is an earthquake and I wake up with a start. We still have that fear in our unconscious.”
Homes and bread
The Franciscan convent in Aleppo opened its doors from the very beginning, taking in people who were looking for shelter. It was home to hundreds of people for many months and here they found a bed, food and affection. “There is no longer anybody living today in the parish. This year we have worked above all to repair the houses that were damaged. We were able to do about 70. There are many problems, often there are no craftsmen or professionals. Many people are still living in unstable homes. The rents have shot up.”
“This morning we woke up to the news that the cost of bread has gone up by 100% and the price of fuel has also gone up. This means that everything else will go up in price as well.” It’s not an earthquake but it’s definitely a big shock in a situation that is already difficult after years of war and economic crisis.
In this situation, the Franciscan friars try to share and help the population as much as possible. “An oven will soon be working,” fra Bahjat announces. “We already have some premises for it and we will adapt them to be able to serve thousands of people. We are also studying the possibility of setting up a centre for physiotherapy and psychotherapy.” This is a way to offer concrete help and also to “be close to those who are suffering and try to offer spiritual accompaniment as well. The projects of the “Franciscan Care Centre” in Aleppo also go in this direction, with a series of recreational activities and psychological support for children, one of the most fragile age groups.”
God speaks when everything seems to be collapsing
At present, the Franciscan community is made up of five friars. “The months after the earthquake were very stressful, because our community life was a little “violated”, we no longer had any private space where we could meet, talk and discuss. But we lived through this as participating in the lives of the homeless, who for a period of time did not have homes or the intimacy of a family. It was a very strong moment of communion.”
In the midst of the difficulties of these months, even in the moments of dejection – “at times I rebel because I cannot understand why there is never a light at the end of the tunnel,” fra Bahjat was able to rediscover the presence of God. “God is always working, even when things seem to be going to ruin. A boy told me that that days of the earthquake were days when he rediscovered God. Coming to church here and taking part in what we were doing, his life changed.” Looking back at the past year, “I thank God that in the middle of all this suffering he has used us and our presence and testimony to reveal his mercy and his love to people. It was and still is an opportunity to strengthen our presence and our mission.”