As part of Open Doors’ ongoing work in Syria and Turkey after the February 2023 earthquakes, we are committed to providing ongoing impact updates. Our long-term partnerships in the region were able to spring into immediate action, but their work isn’t limited to the earthquake aftermath. Centers of Hope in Syria were providing aid and spiritual discipleship before the earthquakes, and they will continue to do so long after the earthquakes impact has faded from international media.
One of Open Doors’ local partners, Leyla (not her real name), went to Aleppo, Syria, immediately after the first earthquakes on February 6. Aleppo is in the part of Syria that was devastated by the earthquakes. Leyla saw buildings demolished and Christians who were grappling with yet another crisis after years of Islamic extremism and war. But she also witnessed the resilience of believers in Syria and saw firsthand how God strengthened His people.
Leyla recently returned from another trip to Aleppo, so we asked her to give us an update on believers there and tell us how we can continue to support and pray with Syrian Christians.
Author’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Open Doors: Leyla, can you paint a picture for us of what life looks like four weeks on from the earthquakes?
In some ways, [it looks like] life is gradually returning [to normal], at least from the outside. But really people are returning to their homes, knowing that it is not safe for them to return. Until a few days ago, people were still sleeping in their cars. Some people’s homes are being demolished before their eyes because the houses are not safe and there is too much damage to be inhabited again.
As as you walk through the city, you can very clearly see the piles of rubbles on the sides of the streets. It’s a living reminder every single hour of the day that this happened here and it cannot go unnoticed, even though people are trying to resume their lives.
Are people starting to process what happened now and how are people starting to work through the trauma of this disaster?
It’s hard to say collectively what happened and how people are processing this. The people I have talked to are really trying to put on a smile—a fake smile or a real smile, you wouldn’t know really. Most of them are grateful they’re still alive. And everyone here, when they meet each other for the first time since the earthquake, they greet each other by saying, “thank God you’re safe.”
But I feel that some are still living in a kind of—I’m not a psychiatrist, but you can obviously see they are in denial. Others are in survival mode. Others are in a more of a helping mode, trying to help others fix their homes or get food or transportation.
Some people are angry—they’re still not accepting what happened. Some are in kind of an opposite mode—they’re just giving in. They don’t care. One thing is for sure, however: Life for Syrians after the earthquake is not the same as before the earthquake. I’ve heard that sentiment many times now.
You’ve visited some Open Doors-supported Centers of Hope in the city of Aleppo. What are you seeing as the current focus in the recovery effort and how are you seeing the church live as a light in this really devastating moment for Syria?
The church has been there since the very first hours of the earthquake. We’ve recently finalized the assessment that showed the next steps for us. And now we are moving from immediate basic relief assistance—things like food and providing a shelter with a warm space—into a rehabilitation and restoration of houses, especially those that were damaged and destroyed either partly or totally. We work with all Christian denominations and together we are helping around 2,600 houses.
I remember early on you shared that people were kind of asking, “Why has this happened? Why after so many years of civil war, instability and poverty, why did this disaster come and devastate this very vulnerable community?” How has the Christian community responded to these types of questions?
There’s no one answer to this question. It’s really hard and it’s a personal one, and some are still asking the question, “why this is happening?”
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Yesterday, I talked to Julie [a Syrian Christian] and asked her [what] the meaning [is] of all that has happened to her. Her answer was simply: “God wanted me to go out of the safe walls of my home and the walls of the church. God wanted me to reach out to other people.” And she told me that she went from the first 48 hours of total fear, to calmness, and to a huge fire ignited in her to help others, especially the families of the 155 children she’s in charge of in a Sunday school.
She reached out to those children and their families, and in her own words, she said: “I was given five loves of bread and two fish, and I put them in the hands of God for Him to bless.” She’s such an inspiration in what she’s doing and in how she turned this crisis into a blessing for her own family, and for others. And that’s kind of what you see. It’s a common story you see among Christians of how they were able to use this crisis to something bigger and not just drown in the mourning and the destruction they are in.
The Christian community is a minority in Syria. Do you feel like persecution has taken a backseat during this disaster? Or is there still evidence and discrimination in the way that things are playing out in Aleppo at the moment?
Christians in Syria have always faced an existential battle. And when I say existential, I mean you either belong to a country or you don’t.
And in the past, Christians have been excluded from international assistance, and that was one of the reasons why the church has to step up. I’ve heard people here talk about a qualitative privilege. Christians are educated, yeah, but they can’t find a job or they are under-employed.
Of course, they want to stay in their country, but they cannot make ends meet, so they have to leave. I’m not going to tell you that every single Christian I talk to wants to leave, but the vast majority wants to leave Syria. And that’s very sad.
What does long-term recovery look like for the church and the people that they’re helping in Syria, and what does it look like to strengthen what remains in this region?
It means that we need to keep walking alongside the church here. But one of the new, long-term activities we will be implementing is trauma care. So yes, we will be restoring and rehabilitating houses in the mid- and long term, but this is not enough if it is not coupled with trauma healing activities.
I know that trauma care and that psychological help has been a central part of the work of Centers of Hope across the Middle East for many years now, and all the more in response to this earthquake. When Open Doors supporters give to Centers of Hope, how will their funds be used?
What makes Open Doors very unique is the fact that it has been present since the beginning.
Leyla*, an OD Partner
What makes Open Doors very unique is the fact that it has been present since the beginning, not just before the earthquake, but also during the war. And being present here means that we are already aware of how to help people. We already have our mechanisms, our network with the church to do so, and that gives us lots of push to continue doing so.
So when Open Doors supporters give, they can be rest assured that this money is going straight to the people who are affected in the sense that we already have projects in place that are feeding people, projects that will guarantee that they will have restored homes to go back to. This is not a parachuted-in project. Open Doors partners already live here. They know the needs of the people. They are present next to the church leaders. They go to the same churches as the rest of the Christians—they are part of this community. So that makes Open Doors really part of the mid- and long-term work for the church in Syria.
How can we pray for you and for your team and for those who must be absolutely exhausted right now under the weight of this burden?
We really need to pray for Open Doors partners in Syria. They are emotionally stressed and they are physically tired. And this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. This is a long-term thing. So, we need to pray for strength, for peace, for rest, for their emotional healing as well. I was talking to the wife of one of my colleagues, and she said she’s still having nightmares, waking up at the same hour of the night. We need to pray for them to find peace, as well. And for the leaders, whether in our organization or in the church, to have the wisdom to know how to deal with this, it’s such a complicated response.