(Giampaolo Silvestri, secretary general of the AVSI Foundation (L), Cardinal Mario Zenari, Vatican envoy in Syria, and Franciscan Father Fady Azar, head of the Open Hospitals medical dispensary in Lattakia (R), speak to the press on Sept. 2, 2022.)
ROME – With Syria’s civil war well into its 12th year, the Vatican’s envoy to the country, Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, has said high poverty rates and the lack of reconstruction is turning the population into “beggars” who are beginning to lose hope.
Speaking to journalists Friday, Zenari said that today, “Syria has lost its youth, money, gas, and a voice. We must give a voice to Syria. Syria, which has lost so many lives, is losing hope.”
Zenari said, “there is no reconstruction” being done, and that most of the money being sent is allocated to humanitarian needs.
If reconstruction efforts were to begin tomorrow, Zenari said he could return to Syria with millions in his pockets, and the needs still “wouldn’t be satisfied.”
Sanctions and the ongoing war in Ukraine have complicated the situation, and many donors are experiencing a giving fatigue, he said. “Don’t turn Syria into a beggar.”
Zenari said he frequently travels the world to meet with different leaders and organizations in a bid to raise money for Syria, but “one day we have to stop.”
“We are transforming Syria, the dynamic of Syria, into beggars. It’s not the dignity of a population. It’s a population, and we risk transforming the entire population into beggars,” he said, and lamented the fact that Syria’s plight has mostly been forgotten by the international community.
“We are not selling the news about Syria anymore, we’re not selling. It’s terrible,” he said.
Zenari spoke to the press ahead of a Sept. 2 conference organized by the AVSI Foundation for their Open Hospitals’ project in Syria, which has been active since 2017 and is supported by AVSI, the Vatican Dicastery for Eastern Churches, and the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
As of Sept. 2, the Open Hospitals initiative in Syria has provided 80,006 free treatments, regardless of religion, in hospitals and dispensaries attached to the project, which supports Syria’s three Catholic hospitals and four walk-in clinics.
With an operating budget of around $17 million, the project guarantees medical treatment to the growing number of people who are too poor to afford it; it pays operating costs of the hospitals and dispensaries; and it also pays the salaries of doctors, nurses, and medical personnel who work at the structures.
The project’s goal is to guarantee care for a total of 140,000 beneficiaries by 2024.
Syria’s war began in March 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa. The Syrian government used deadly force to crush the dissent, sparking mass nationwide protests demanding Assad’s resignation.
The unrest spiraled out of control as Assad’s attempt to squash the uprisings intensified, and opposition supporters began taking up arms, throwing the country into a full-on civil war.
The situation quickly escalated beyond an internal war, with hundreds of rebel groups springing up, and foreign powers sending money and weaponry as extremists also poured in, taking advantage of the chaos to make advances.
While fighting is largely over and Assad remains in office, the United Nations estimates that at least 350,209 civilians and combatants were killed between March 2011 and March 2021.
More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million have fled their homes, and so far, few have returned given the lack of any rebuilding efforts. Of those who fled, 6.9 million are internally displaced, and 6.8 million others are either refugees or asylum seekers abroad, with more continuing to leave each day.
Within Syria, poverty rates have soared, and basic food and medical needs are difficult to meet. According to UN estimates, around 14.6 million people in the country required some form of humanitarian support as of last month, including around 5 million who are categorized as being in extreme or catastrophic need, while roughly half a million children are malnourished.
Speaking to journalists, secretary general of AVSI, Giampaolo Silvestri, said “no reconstructions” are happening, and the resources they have “are insufficient” compared to the growing needs of the population.
Solutions are hard to find, he said, saying, “Our appeal today is not to forget Syria.”
Franciscan Father Fady Azar, head of the Open Hospitals medical dispensary in Lattakia, said the project has been “an act of divine intervention, a miracle for the Syrian people.”
Many facilities would have closed, and many doctors would have left because they have no salary, but thanks to this project, they stayed, meaning that not only can the sick be treated, but those who require ongoing prescriptions can consistently access their medicines.
However, that has not erased the vast poverty and sense of hopelessness many Syrians have about the future, Azar said. “In Syria, the dream of every child is to live outside of Syria.”
“There are shortages of everything; life is impossible” for many, and the number of youths who want to leave is a source of sadness for religious who are trying to encourage their communities. “Syria is tired,” Azar said, and voiced hope that “something can be done soon.”
In a speech to attendees of the Open Hospitals’ conference Saturday, Pope Francis noted that Syria’s internal crisis remains “one of the most serious worldwide, in terms of destruction, growing humanitarian needs, social and economic collapse, and poverty and famine at dire levels.”
He praised the work done by the Open Hospitals’ project, saying the commitment to serving all who come regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation “is the hallmark of a church that seeks to be a home with open doors, a place of human fraternity.”
“Your initiative, together with others that have been promoted by the church in Syria, blooms, as Saint John Paul II said, from the ‘creativity of charity,’” he said.
Noting that Syria’s many needs can seem daunting, Francis said the support provided can seem like “a drop of water in the desert,” but that “even the rocky Syrian desert, after the first spring rains, is clothed in a blanket of green.”
He told those present to “keep pressing forward” in their efforts and assured them of his prayers.
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