ACN's Advent Appeal 2021
Please find below some stories of project examples that ACN is helping to fund and some videos.
In the face of suffering and persecution of many Christians, in the Middle East, but also increasingly in Africa, the number of Christian refugees has spiked. As we entered 2021, the number of forcibly displaced people due to persecution, conflict and violence was the highest on record (82,4 million according to UNHCR data). Africa saw the highest increase of internally displaced, and Syria remains the country from which the greatest number of people has been forced to flee. Each number is a life, a story of loss, trauma, and suffering. The magnitude of the need calls for urgent help. Helping Christian refugees was the impulse for ACN’s foundation as a charity after WWII – now, 75 years after its foundation, we continue this work.
Through the local Church, ACN is supporting displaced families, attending to their basic needs, providing shelter, seeing to the education of the children and youth. However, they also hunger for the healing power of the sacraments, for God’s Word and His love brought to them by those entrusted to continue His work among us. The presence and tireless efforts of the sisters, the priests, the catechists and all those working to build His Kingdom is a true source of consolation and hope. As they attend to the needs, they fill the hearts of the tired, traumatised, bereaved and the hungry with renewed faith but also a perspective for the future.
From cars for priests to faith and support programmes, radio stations, scholarships for university students, classrooms for school children, or psychosocial courses and spiritual accompaniment, on top of basic food and medical supplies, and even gifts for the children this Christmas, these projects aim to reach Christian refugees so that in this season of joy and thanksgiving for the coming of Christ, they may receive hope.
“They wouldn’t let us ring the church bells”
Christian IDP’s from northern Syria need our help to survive in a country still suffering from international sanctions and the destruction left by the civil war in the country. This Christmas, you can support the priests and religious who are struggling to ease the loneliness of the sick and elderly in Aleppo.
Hugo Alaniz is a missionary priest of the Institute of the Word Incarnate. An Argentinian, he has been a priest for twenty-five years and arrived in Syria at the end of 2017. During an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Father Hugo recalled travelling at the height of the war from Damascus to Aleppo, a city that was still under the control of the rebel groups. “It was a very long and dangerous journey. We travelled through the desert because the main road was not fit to travel on. I witnessed a desolate scene, with many abandoned towns and villages, and in the outskirts of Aleppo nothing but ruins.”
“Until a year and a half ago many of the areas around Aleppo were still full of terrorists, and we witnessed clashes very close to us. We saw some very sad and shocking things in the hospitals, with many people wounded by bullets or shrapnel from terrorist attacks launched from outside the city,” Father Hugo recalls.
The fighting has now ceased in Aleppo, but the economic situation has changed little. At the present time, according to official figures, around 90% of Syria’s population is living below the poverty threshold.
“I estimate that a family of four or five people would need around $480-550 AUD a month to live on, yet salaries are usually around $34 AUD a month. In other words, they are not living, but simply subsisting. It is very difficult for them,” Father Hugo tells ACN representatives during their visit to Aleppo.
He reports that there is food in the supermarkets, but people cannot afford all the necessities like milk, because the prices are so high. Besides, because of sanctions it is almost impossible to get products from abroad, such as medicines, spare parts for machines and cars and certain types of clothing and food that are not produced in the country.
When he arrived in Aleppo in 2017, in response to an appeal from the Latin Bishop George Abou-Khazen, Father Hugo took charge of the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, in the eastern part of the city. It was an area that had been very hard hit during the fighting and most of the population had already abandoned their homes.
“People had either moved to the centre of the city or left the country altogether. Even the religious community who lived in this church had gone. Bishop George felt it was time to start renewing the church and a small parish centre, to encourage people to return,” Father Hugo explained.
They began in April 2018 and Father Hugo is pleased with the results so far. “It was significant, because amid all the ruins all around there was something like a little ray of light for the local people. Slowly, they began to return, not only from other parts of the city, but also from elsewhere within Syria. In the last two years some families have even returned from Lebanon.”
Among those who have suffered most since the end of the devastating war are the elderly and the sick. During the war, many families who had male children left because of military service. Even now, after the war has ended in most of Syria, compulsory military service still lasts many years. Many families prefer to leave the country, but as a result, the elderly, the sick and the handicapped are left behind alone. The missionaries of the Incarnate Word are trying to ease the burden of their terrible loneliness. “They are very much alone. We visit them and see what they need. We start by providing medication, and incontinence pants for the sick and elderly. We also have a community kitchen, where a group of volunteers cook three days a week, to provide these people with food in their homes. On the other three days they cook for the other people living or working in the surrounding area.”
Many of the old people living in the area are getting this help, including Moufida Jallouf and her husband Mousa, who fled to Aleppo via a humanitarian corridor from the north of Syria, where the armed conflict is still ongoing. They have effectively become internally displaced: refugees inside their own country. Her husband, who is seriously ill and unable to walk, sat by her side during ACN’s brief visit to their home, together with Father Hugo. Moufida recalled how the armed Islamist groups invaded their village. “They took away our livelihood, our money and our homes. They wouldn’t let us ring the church bell either, but we continued praying and making the sign of the cross privately inside our homes.”
“We can’t afford even the basic necessities of life now, so thank God the Church is helping us. We want to thank ACN International for supporting the parish of Our Lady of the Annunciation, so that we can survive,” Moufida adds.
The work to be done is immense, and the situation might seem absolutely desperate, but the Argentinian priest is quite clear: “It was from here, from Syria, Palestine, Jordan and what is today Israel, that the first Christians came… I believe that it is an obligation for us, as a Church, to help the Christians of the Middle East. Not only because this is the Holy Land, but because it is thanks to them that we came to know the Gospel message.”
“Thanks be to God, we have been able to help many families, and so our appeal to the benefactors of ACN is ‘please don’t forget us, please don’t forget our communities here who still need outside help’. Thanks to your help we can continue to play our small part in supporting the Christian community, here in Aleppo, in Syria, in the Middle East. It is an immensely precious help. Whatever you can continue contributing will have great significance, especially for these people, who have lost everything, who continue to be in great need, who need your help,” Father Hugo concludes.
“I became a refugee, just like the Child Jesus”
“My name is Majed. I now live with my family in Lebanon, but my father tells me that we are originally from Syria and that our real home is there.” This twelve-year-old boy is one of the thousands of refugees who were forced to leave their country and seek refuge in the town of Zaleh in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Majed was just three years old at the time and has no memory of the horrors of the war in Syria, which his father describes to Aid to the Church in Need. “At least fifty people in our own locality died in six months, while others were abducted. Many others had their possessions and their means of survival destroyed and burnt. We endured it for a year, living in hell – with no work, no electricity, no schools, no food. We daily ran the risk of being shot by snipers. The closure of the schools left an entire generation without education.”
Ever since the war began, the Christians were aware that the only thing the terrorists wanted was for them to go away. Many Christians in Syria relate how the terrorist groups would repeat a simple formula – ‘the Alawites to the grave, the Christians to Beirut’ (the Alawi, or Alawites, are a Shiite religious group to which President Assad also belongs). “It was a war, with everything that that implies. Even before the situation had deteriorated, we and our Christian neighbours knew that our streets had already been shared out, some of the neighbours were even guessing who was going to get one house and who another,” Basman Abboud explains, with immense sadness.
Majid doesn’t even recall how they fled from their country, but his father Basman Abboud will never ever be able to forget it. “They attacked us with guns, although we were completely defenceless. They killed fifteen young people and burned down five houses. Everybody fled. We ran, along with everybody else, not taking anything with us except the clothes on our backs. We ran out of our homes and fled.” They arrived in Zahleh on March 20, 2012, a date the family will never ever forget, since it remains a tragic event in their history. Initially they lodged with a relative who had sought refuge in Zahleh a few months earlier; fifteen people in the same house, sleeping in turns, because there were not enough places for them all to sleep. It was winter and they didn’t even have coats. It was during this situation, Majid’s father explains, “that we heard that the Catholic archbishop was providing aid for refugees. What would have happened to us without this help from the diocese? We’ve had to cope with so many different problems since we arrived here.”
Although after a few months he found work and was able to move into a two-roomed house, the money he earned was barely enough to pay the rent and electricity and other essential household expenses. And so Basman and Majid and their family were grateful to be able to take advantage of the food aid programme known as the “St. John the Merciful Table,” an emergency meals programme for the Syrian refugee families and the Lebanese families thrown into poverty by the terrible crisis.
“Thanks be to God, without this aid we would not have known what to do, since on top of everything else, owing to the COVID-19 crisis, we had no work for a whole year. If the Lebanese themselves don’t have any work and face a very difficult situation, then what can be said about us? We are refugees in Lebanon. Without the help of the diocese, including the medical care, since the Tel-chiha hospital, which is run by the diocese as well, also helped us with surgery for my wife,” Basman explains.
Prayer has always been the great support and strength of this family during these years of such great privation and suffering. “The Lord is present, and we trust in his presence. We are still all alive, and we are grateful to all those who have been so good to us, and we pray that God may reward them, because we can never repay them for what they are doing for us. But God sees and knows everything they are doing for us,” he said.
Majid is happy at the thought that Christmas is coming soon, but things are still difficult at times. “I have become a refugee, just like the Child Jesus, who also had to flee together with his parents. Sometimes my family gets sad and feels nostalgic and there are also tears when daddy tells us that we once had a beautiful house that was light and spacious. The church used to be decorated and welcoming for everyone at Christmas time, but now everything has disappeared. My desire for Christmas is that people may think of families like mine and help refugees to have hope in a better future. Happy Christmas everyone!”
History of sorrow and salvation in Pemba
There are stories that begin like many others. This is one: “My name is Francisco Faustino Francisco, but they call me Chico. I am a 52-year-old father of five. I am from Muidumbe, from the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish, in the Nangololo mission. I arrived in Pemba in December.”
Chico's story is unique, an unrepeatable abyss of sorrow. Since 2017, Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado province (northern Mozambique), has been targeted by terrorist groups and Islamist extremism. More than 3,300 people have died and nearly a million have been displaced. Chico is one of them.
Muidumbe had almost 80,000 inhabitants. As Chico recalls, it was attacked twice: “In the first attack, two people were brutally beheaded and houses were set on fire. The second attack, in late October 2020, was more violent; the insurgents stayed in town for more than two months. We wandered in the forest, trying to get water. The town was full of terrorists, so at night we went out to look for water or food, like dried cassava. Days went by and our homes were torched and destroyed. I sent four of my children to Montepuez to stay with a relative; the oldest, who was 24, stayed. When people were caught trying to get food they were killed, so I told my son not to go into town because it was very dangerous.”
With no food nor water, the situation for those fleeing was desperate. “After five days, I had to go to the lower area to get closer to the river so I could drink water and wash. On the seventh day, acquaintances showed up and told me that my son had been beheaded. He had gone out with a group of young people and encountered the terrorists.” Chico went to look for his wife to give her the terrible news. Tears flowed aplenty. But amid the sorrow and fear, the father of five children was not afraid, living the fourth commandment in reverse; he wanted to bury his son’s body: “I went back into the town at night and took the spade from my home. After two weeks, we found the body already decomposing. Full of fear, we dug a grave while one person stood as a lookout. We were on the town’s outskirts. We dug a little, made a hole of half a metre, dragged the body. After we finished, we hurried back.”
In addition to the murders and life as a displaced person, Chico has also experienced more tragedy related to the conflict: the disappearance of loved ones and the separation of families. His 95-year-old mother, who lived with a sister, went missing during an attack: “I went to that area myself to look for her, but I didn't find any bodies, nor clothes. No one knew anything about her. I realised then that I would never see my mum again.”
After worrying so much, Chico was reunited with his wife in Pemba, where they now live, coping with huge hardships. He tried to reunite his family, but in Pemba conditions are difficult and they did not have the means to keep their children with them. They have to sleep outdoors, in a backyard, which a good woman, Mrs Rosalina, has given them, under plastic tarps to protect themselves from the rain. Their children have been sent to different places, one in Chiure, one in Nampula, and two in Montepuez. Chico has a dream: that one day he will be able to build a house to bring all of them together. “We already have two beds; later I will set up a room, and one day I hope to have a home for my family. This is what I want the most.”
“Before all this started, I struggled so that my children could grow up better than I did. I was born at the time of the armed struggle against colonialism, then came the civil war. The war and the armed struggle lasted more than 16 years. I didn't have a lot of money, but I worked very hard in the fields so I could support our children. I lived very close to the mission and all my children went to school. I had to work hard for this. We harvested pumpkins once a year,” the Mozambican explained. Like most local residents, Chico had some land to farm. At first, he thought to continue taking care of the land, even after the terrorist invasion, because farming was his only source of livelihood. Once, he took a risk and went out to prepare the ground for planting, but since then he has not been able to go back.
With the help of a microcredit project set up by Father Edegard Silva, a member of the Missionaries of La Salette who also had to flee Muidumbe, Chico opened a little street stall: “I sell all day. Every two, three, four minutes, someone shows up looking for soap or something else. There is demand and there is respect. I am busy from the start of the day. It's important to me; when you are busy, war traumas start to subside and so you can overcome difficulties.”
Displaced people are not the only ones who suffer from traumas; Mrs Rosalina, who gave him a place in her yard, cannot sleep at night. She sees and feels so much sorrow around her: sorrow for the loss of loved ones, the disappearance of others, the separation of parents and children, language difficulties, sadness and nostalgia about lost land and home... The diocese set up a psychosocial support group led by two nuns, Sister Aparecida and Sister Rosa, both of whom are psychologists. They formed a very well-rounded team whose mission is to listen to people. Hearing this abyss of sorrow is the first step to healing wounds.
Christmas will soon be upon us. But can one celebrate it in a situation like this? What does Christmas mean to Chico? “Christmas means to be born again. It means recovering your spirits and strength. It means the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the human being in his fullness, welcoming those who suffer, being close to family and friends, sharing what little one has, celebrating together, helping the hungry, clothing the naked. Visit your neighbours, listen to them, give something. That's what Christmas is all about.”
This is Francisco Faustino Francisco’s reaction, that of a 52-year-old displaced Mozambican who fled to Pemba after his town, Muidumbe, and his home were destroyed by terrorists. The father of five saw one child killed and four forced to become refugees, separated from their parents. This is what Chico says. He lives under a tarp in the backyard of Mrs Rosalina's house, selling soap on the street in order to survive. This story of sorrow is transformed into the Gospel, it shows the true Christmas, when God became man to bring salvation to humanity. In Pemba as well.
Christmas, with over a million internal refugees
Bartholomew, a father of seven children, was born in Dablo, in the north of Burkina Faso. He was a simple peasant farmer and kept various kinds of livestock. His family lived in peace. Although the Christians were a minority in Dablo, there was a Catholic chapel, and in 2013 a parish house was also built. It was a historic moment for the entire Christian community because it was now finally possible for the priests to come there and help the eight catechists who were ministering to the community. Dablo is situated in an extremely poor and drought-ridden region of the country where crops are scanty owing to the low rainfall, but there was no sense of any danger for the Christians living there when the parish was established. “Our life in Dablo was peaceful. Not easy, but friendly and peaceful”, Bartholomew recalls.
But the crisis spreading from neighbouring Mali and the incursions of terrorist groups of a Jihadist stamp began to infiltrate a form of radical Islam that undermined the existing social cohesion. In 2019 the Christians began to be deliberately targeted by the Jihadists with the aim of destabilising the country. Killings, abductions, intimidation and threats began to multiply everywhere.
On 12 May 2019, a Sunday, Bartholomew was at Mass with his family. “The terrorists surrounded the church and forced their way in, fully armed, shooting at us. They killed five people, and the priest as well. I can still see their faces. Some of them had revolvers, others held steel bars in their hands,” he explains as he relates his harrowing experience to representatives of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International).
“After that, they dragged everything together, the benches, liturgical items and books, in the centre of the church and set fire to it. They ordered all the women to cover their heads and stole our motorcycles. We ran out of the church. I can only thank the Lord that they didn’t kill me and my family as well,” he recalls.
The priest they murdered was Father Simeon Yampa, who had arrived in Dablo in September 2018. That Sunday, as it happened, was Good Shepherd Sunday. Those who were present recalled how their priest, instead of running away, attempted to mediate, and this cost him his life.
The next day the family fled – the father on a bicycle, his wife, Antoinette Sawadogo, and the children in a car. “I had to leave behind eight cattle, fifty goats and all my chickens. Everything ended up in the hands of the terrorists. We arrived here, 120 miles (195 km) from Dablo. We came to Ouagadougou, because it is where my eldest son lives. He came here to study and then stayed on.” One of Bartholomew’s brothers chose to stay in Dablo. A week later the terrorists abducted one of his sons.
Burkina Faso has been living through this silent torment for years now. It is a slow agony that has prompted an exodus of over 1.3 million internal refugees.
Most of those who have fled are now either sheltering in refugee camps or have been taken in by relatives or other generous families. Like Bartholomew, those who fled had to abandon everything – food, land, savings and possessions. The local Church is endeavouring to alleviate the suffering of these uprooted people all over the country.
Many of the refugees who arrive are fearful and despairing. The parish teams and their coordinators are organising the aid, and the local basic Christian communities are in direct contact with the refugees and the needy. Also in Ouagadougou. “The situation arose quite suddenly. It wasn’t easy for us. We had to improvise and organise ourselves rapidly. We endeavoured to find solutions to contain the situation and palliative measures to ease the crisis. Some of the refugees died. Most arrived with absolutely nothing. We tried to give them what they needed, and at least they survived. Now the future is in God’s hands. We are doing everything we can at our own level, and the parish is trying to provide food, thanks to the donations we receive”, explains Leon Emmanuel Baii, one of the leaders of the small local basic communities.
“In Burkina, traditionally, on Christmas Day the parents would try to organise a family celebration because Christmas is the feast of the children”, Bartholomew explains. “After Mass, the parents would prepare dishes of rice and other things and we would all visit one another dressed in our best clothing. The children would make Christmas cribs which they took round all the houses, singing and praising the Lord. It was a very beautiful feast”, he recalls nostalgically.
So how will they celebrate this Christmas in Ouagadougou, Dori or Ouahigouya? “We are one big family; we live as God has taught us, not only with the other Catholics but accepting everyone and living in friendship with all around us. We welcome everyone who comes, including Catholics, Muslims, Protestants and animists, we include them all just as they are. They are very happy with the welcome we give them, but there is still something missing. It is not easy, there is always a shortage because we ourselves don’t have enough for our own needs. But the little we have we share with them all”, Leon explains to ACN.
In Ouagadougou and throughout the country, this Christmas will no doubt be characterised by the face of Christ in that of our refugee brothers and sisters. And the Christmas cribs that the children carry from house to house will likewise recall how the Child Jesus, when He came on earth, also had to live by the charity of the shepherds and humble people.