“I entrust it all to the grace of God”
For years, Father Ziad has been helping refugees in Syria – Now he is leaving the country – “I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the support of aid organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need,” he said in parting.
At the moment, there probably is not a more dangerous or arduous job that the Jesuit order could have assigned. For years, the Syrian Jesuit Ziad Hilal has been helping the victims of the war in Syria. From Homs, a city that has long been the focus of fierce battles between the Syrian government and the insurgents, he has been organizing humanitarian aid for refugees through the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
Large parts of the city have completely been destroyed. One of Father Ziad’s fellow monks, a Dutch Jesuit by the name of Father Frans van der Lugt, was murdered here in 2014. “We already began providing aid to war refugees in 2011,” Father Ziad said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t run out of work since.” After all, the priest continued, the people usually arrive with no more than a suitcase. “They have lost everything and are thus dependent for all of their needs. We make sure they have a flat, food, clothing and hygiene items.”
Demand is great
The latest wave of refugees is coming in from Aleppo. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in what was once a metropolis of millions in the northern part of Syria and among them, tens of thousands of Christians. However, a growing number of them are leaving the city because of fighting between the government and the rebels. “At the moment we are taking care of about 300 Christian families from Aleppo. They have found refuge in our centres in Marmarita, Tartus and in other places. However, we are expecting even more refugees from there.”
The difficulty, according to Father Ziad, is finding suitable housing for them. “The towns are overflowing. Demand is great. After all, most of the people have nothing. They also don’t have jobs. And so we pay the rent for them. But unfortunately, there are those who exploit the emergency situation. Christians included.” Father Ziad knows of cases in which Christian landlords demand grossly overpriced rents. “We even had a landlord who evicted a refugee family because another could pay him more. War also brings out the worst in people.” However, there are also other examples, Father Ziad continued. “A lady offered us a building that we could use to house refugees at no cost. Another man made us a similar offer. Thankfully, there are also people of good will.”
All Syrians are suffering from the war
After the government troops were defeated in Idlib and other places this spring, rebel groups, including such extremist militia organizations as al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, began to advance. Father Ziad emphasized that all Syrians, no matter whether they are Muslim or Christian, are suffering from the war. “But as a minority, the Christians are of course vulnerable. Then there are the jihadist groups, from which the Christians feel especially threatened.”
God loves us. He will not forsake us. You have to have faith, even when the situation is bad. This is what I call out to the Christians of Syria: have faith. The country needs you.
Incidents such as the kidnapping of the Syrian-Catholic monk Jacques Mourad have also given rise to a feeling of insecurity about the future. Father Jacques was kidnapped by unknown persons at the end of May. “This hit the Christian community hard. After all, Father Jacques is not just anyone. He is a symbol for the people. From the very start he helped the refugees and worked towards reconciliation,” Father Ziad said. “Of course, not everyone likes this.” The Jesuit then said that the kidnapping once again made him realise just how precarious the situation in Syria is for priests. “The kidnappers of Father Jacques may have also thought about me or another cleric. Before, I never left the house by myself. Now, I absolutely never venture out alone. I always take one or two friends with me.”
The service is worth it
At this point, the question may arise why one would expose oneself to such danger. Father Ziad’s immediate response, “As a person, but especially as a Christian and priest, it is my duty to help people in need. That is what our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us to do in the Gospel. However, this willingness to serve others in a war as brutal as the one in Syria also has its price. My life has completely changed since 2011. I was not able to continue with the doctoral studies I had begun. I also no longer have time for myself. I can no longer meet with friends and acquaintances. There is just too much work to do. But that is okay. The service is worth it.” Father Ziad said that his prayer life has also completely changed. “Before the war I prayed a lot by myself. Now I pray a lot more with others and for others.”
Father Ziad’s superiors have now decided that it is time for him to take on new responsibilities. At the end of the month he will thus be first heading to London, then on to Dublin to continue with the standard training of the Jesuit order. “I am leaving Syria with peace in my heart. I know that our team will continue the work. It is not dependent on me.”
Father Ziad said that this has become increasingly clear to him as the years have gone by. “I would not have been able to do anything without my colleagues. And without the support of aid organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need and others we would not have had anything to give to the people in need. For this I am exceedingly grateful to my colleagues from the refugee service, my team and the nuns of the Most Holy Redeemer, who all supported me in Homs – and of course to the benefactors.
In the end you realize that you were nothing more than a simple organizer. This makes you humble.” Ultimately, according to Father Ziad, it all comes from the hand of God. “God is the Giver of all good things. We just pass it on. In my opinion this is the spirituality of all Christian aid work. And so I entrust our refugee work entirely to the grace of God.”
Trust in God is also the message he wants to leave behind for Syria’s despairing Christians. “I emphasized this in each of my sermons: God loves us. He will not forsake us. You have to have faith, even when the situation is bad. This is what I call out to the Christians of Syria: have faith. The country needs you. And this is not my opinion alone. The Holy Father Francis has emphasised this repeatedly. The former UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also once told me in Geneva that Syria needs its Christians. We are the ones who can bring about reconciliation. We are the agents of peace. And he is right: that is our job as Christians. We are on the side of peace and reconciliation.” Father Ziad then said that this is what he always tried to live through his work. “We serve everyone, be they Christians, be they Muslims. We serve Syria.”