On July 4, 2015 Monsignor Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo inaugurated a new workshop - "Rebuild in order to stay" - using these words: "If you want to help us, help us stay at home.”
When Monsignor Jeanbart becomes aware of the singular woodworking skills of a volunteer, he asked us to teach the basics of woodworking to young Syrians. Therefore, they would be able to manage their own project, as well as take part in the city reconstruction.
This project is also part of a broader desire of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient to re-establish the links between France and the countries of the Middle East, through the preservation of their cultures and the transmission of special skills.
Nine Syrian students have registered to attend this special course! The program will consist in learning how to use various hand tools and, in a second time, the mechanism of woodworking machineries.
Once completed the presentations, the demonstrations begin, as the translator integrates and re-explains simultaneously the different concepts to young students, attentive and curious.
Then I handed tools over. If the first saw-cuts are imperfect, each new test gains in precision and accuracy. In a desire to be as professional as I can be, I ask for exactitude in their measurements.
I explain the use and handling of the various tools: gauge, chisel, sliding caliper ... The translator struggles to find some of the Arabic translations, and sometimes, they do not even exist!
The wooden chips gradually cover the ground with a golden carpet, filling the room with a sentor of fresh wood.
The saw biting the wood fills the workshop with its sound.
A pupil comes to see me and gives me his piece, proud of his drawing. We do not understand each other but I guess in his eyes, he seeks an approval in mine.
The atmosphere is light, as much as studious ... If they do not miss an opportunity to laugh at my very poor Arabic, in this workshop I can see their thirst to learn and understand, as the gesture only arouses their admiration.
The daily class ends with a brief cleaning session, which will not dampen their enthusiasm.
The reconstruction of Syria will probably require the participation of external actors but will first be done by and with the Syrian people. Training for young people, especially in building jobs, must become a priority to help them rebuild their own country.
SOS Chrétiens d’Orient valued Monseigneur Jeanbart actions toward the Christians in Aleppo. From the reconstruction of buildings to the implementation of educational programs, he helped Christian families to stay in their country. He invested his strength to support and assist his people and will remain a model for all of us to follow, and for everyone who believes in Syria.
Leaving the house behind me, I walk through the silent streets in the coolness of this winter morning. Aleppo awoke with me. Sometimes I would like to have time to get lost in its pathways, but I am heading towards the workshop; there is a lot of work to be done before the first group of students show up. They will arrive in less than an hour and I still have many things to prepare. I have to assemble the demonstration pieces and to sharpen the tools we need. In no time I am covered with wood shavings and dust!
Our translator, Rasha gets here first, with her natural enthusiasm and high motivation. Indeed, she quickly became a cornerstone of this project, being able to teach autonomously. She gently guides the pupils with difficulties and yet she is firm and fair with younger students who are sometimes distracted.
The course starts with a quick presentation of the lesson objectives. Beginning with a sawing exercise, I use sketches to explain the principles of sharpening. The instruction is technical and precise, but the students are determined and persevere. “Try, try, try again.”
At the same time, I explain to the French volunteers the mechanism of one or two machines. Each has its own use and requires precise instructions. Wood shavings scatter and pile up at the base of the workbenches, adding to the smell of oil, a lighter smell of freshly sawn wood.
As the clock struck twelve, signaling the end of the course, our apprentices tidy up the workshop and in no time the floor recovers its original aspect. Each tool returns to its original position in the studio, which will remain silent until the next class.
His name is Joseph, and every morning, at the appointed hour, he opens the door of the workshop. Later in the morning he brought us tea and coffee. Indeed, he very quickly noted our habits: sweet for one, strong for the other. The oriental hospitality ... The warm welcome we had in this Aleppian workshop will remain forever in our memory.
Today the owner of the place, Monseigneur Jeanbart, Greek Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, pays us the honor of his presence during a brief visit. Greeting every student, he asks about the progress of the course and the projects we have been developing during the last two weeks. It was, for some of our pupils, the first occasion to meet the Archbishop, who kindly opened his workshop for the young people of his parish to learn about wood working, also offering us the possibility to make windows for a house that we restore.
For them, the training goes on; today they are learning another of the foundations of carpentry: mortising. I explain the different ways of tracing and the gestures to adopt, while our translator transcribes while becoming a professional in the use of technical terms.
Some students stay well beyond the hours we agreed ... Their enthusiasm and their application gives me the energy to wake up every morning to transmit what I have received and to put my knowledge at their service; and more specifically at the service of Aleppo and Syrian Christians.
Tomorrow I will salute my students, I will salute their work and progress, I will salute their thirst for learning and their love of work well done. Tomorrow, last lesson, last opportunity to share some of the string of the profession, in the gesture, a hundred times repeated, erased, traced, for half a millimeter missed, in patience at work, in love of the beautiful work. Perhaps, among them, there is a famous future carpenter, a new Aleppin who will put his head and hands at the service of his own people, who will spend twenty, thirty, or forty years of his life behind his workbench, in this darkness that is the apanage of artisans workshops, to draw and create to restore its city. But it doesn't belong to me anymore! They must now choose to continue learning or find another way to earn their bread.
Our actions in Syria and everywhere in the Middle East cannot be limited to donations or rebuilding, today the urgency is also to the preservation and reconciliation of our cultures, and to all that help Christians to remain on the land of their ancestors.
On behalf of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient I would like to thank him again for the welcome he was given to me at “Building to stay” and for the possibilities he opened to us by giving us free access to his workshops. I would also like to thank the employees of the centre, especially for the dozens of litres of tea prepared and served in a few weeks, Rasha our translator, for her eternal good mood and for her work with the young people, and finally to the eight students who were entrusted, for what they taught me about the profession of teacher and with whom I rediscovered the joy of passing on.
Titouan, volunteer in Syria in winter 2017-2018.