On Monday afternoon, the volunteers visit the elderly people of the evangelical retirement home in the Bab Al Siba district of Homs, in order to break the solitude in which they have been immersed for many months because of the pandemic. On this occasion, they met Sister Valentine and Suzy, two valiant souls that life has not spared and whose testimonies resound like a call to remember that faith and family move mountains.
At the grand old age of 90, Sister Valentine, in impeccable French and with a wide smile full of simplicity, welcomes us in "her" retirement home slightly out of Homs.
Sister Valentine is of Lebanese origin and comes from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Hearts. A little over twenty years ago, she was sent to Tartous as a nurse to care for tuberculosis patients and left her native land for Syria. Again in 2007, she left everything behind for the retirement home in Homs where she spent some peaceful years.
But in early 2011, the protests quickly spread to the city, which became the "capital of the revolution". The retirement home soon found itself at the epicentre of the clashes.
Like the 47 elderly people in her home, Sister Valentine is not prepared to live amidst the fighting and death, but she never stops praying and spreading good around her. During the siege of Homs, which lasted from February 2012 to 2014 and at the end of which the Syrian Arab Army recaptured the city, the building was hit hard by bombing. Its roof, windows and terrace were blown off.
Sister Valentine and her residents were taken hostage in the clashes between the terrorists on one side of the building and the Syrian Arab Army on the other. She frequently receives war-wounded patients for treatment, but medical care is difficult to provide. The lack of electricity and water is compounded by the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of obtaining basic medicines and medical equipment... Despite all these hardships, she feels no fear: God is there for her.
After listening to this poignant story, we go up to the rooms to meet the elderly. The first floor is occupied by men, while the second and third are occupied by women. I sit next to Suzy, an eighty-year-old resident who speaks French very well. This proves to be a real help, especially when Bushra, our Syrian translator, is at the other end of the room with other volunteers.
Suzy's smile is contagious and lights up when she starts to tell me about her children. "You remind me of my daughter! I haven't seen her for ten years." Suzy has four children. The eldest is a doctor in Toulouse, the second is an engineer in Germany and her daughter has emigrated to Canada. The last one stayed in Syria but she has no news of him since the war started. She breaks down when she mentions his name. "I've been told he's dead, but I'm holding on to the hope that one day I'll see him again, walk into this room and say 'hello, Mum'. Her children all fled Syria at the start of the war, seeking a better future for themselves and their children. She often hears from them, but they haven't been back to see her for ten years.
I have been living in Lebanon for a year and having met many Lebanese people, I know how important family is. It is the same for Syrians and for all Orientals in general. It is the pillar of their lives and when we talk about emigration, I feel that the tear is deep. They are torn between the future of their children, which will always be better elsewhere than in Syria, and the need to be together. The problem is that once they cross the border, Syrians do not come back. So they leave behind lonely parents, who look forward to the Sunday evening phone call to hear from them.
"I used to live in Aleppo before the war. I had a wonderful life, a big family and I liked to receive people. Even when the war exploded and the city was occupied, I stayed. My children left. But I never stopped believing in God and praying to Saint Charbel." A year ago, an accident brought her to this nursing home for treatment. She had to leave her town, her landmarks, but she knows that it is for her own good. "The conditions are sometimes complicated, especially with the high temperatures that plague Syria in the summer. The electricity goes off very often but I'm used to it."
I am impressed by her story and her persistence in thanking me over and over again. "Thank you all for coming to meet us, for listening to our stories and for remembering those family moments so dear to our hearts."
On the one hand, Sister Valentine gave her life to God at the age of 18. She left her family and the Lebanese countryside to enter a monastery near Saida. She does not know her younger brothers. God sent her to earth to help... He "wrapped her in His cloak to protect her".
On the other hand Suzy gave her life for her children, who later left the country in search of a better life. As someone who is very attached to my family, I can't imagine the pain of seeing your loved ones leave overnight. Nothing is prepared in advance, everything is done at the last minute. It starts with a friend, then a sister, then a child... You can't blame them but it hurts.
Through these visits, I see the consequences of the war not on a material level but on a psychological level. Of course Suzy was not physically affected but she lost what was dearest to her: her children...
Prudence and Maxime, volunteers in Syria.