Nabil Antaki, a medical doctor and project partner of Christian Solidarity International (CSI), remained in Aleppo throughout the Syrian civil war to care for those affected by the conflict. In an interview with CSI Germany, the co-founder and director of the Blue Marist relief organization describes the disastrous effects of economic sanctions on Syria, where 90 percent of people are now living below the poverty line. He calls for public pressure for the lifting of the sanctions.
The bombed-out old city of Homs/Nabil Antaki. csi
Dr. Antaki, how would you describe the humanitarian situation in Syria currently?
What is happening in Syria at the moment is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is worse than during the war, when we were bombed every day, when there was fighting every day. Amongst other things, inflation is rampant, so the cost of living has risen immeasurably. Prices have risen, but wages and salaries have largely remained the same.
As a result, poverty has increased significantly. Around 80 percent* of Syrians are living below the poverty line. So, they are dependent on humanitarian aid from international organizations and the UN to survive. What the majority of people in Syria earn is not enough to live on for even a few days. This is due to the general poverty, of course, but also to the lack of essential commodities.
What shortages are people facing because of the sanctions?
In fact, there is a shortage of everything: wheat and therefore bread, gasoline, heating oil. The Syrians have been putting up with the cold for years. We have no way of heating in winter. And winters in Syria are cold, with temperatures averaging between two and six degrees.
Gasoline and electricity are rationed. There is only 25 liters a month for everyone and two hours of electricity a day. There is a shortage of medicines, especially medicines for cancer treatment.
This poverty and these shortages of essential goods are causing Syrians real suffering. In the past few months people have repeatedly told me that “it’s almost impossible to live in Syria.”
What impact did the earthquake in February 2023 have on the situation?
Of course, the earthquake has significantly worsened the humanitarian situation, which was already difficult. I would also mention that while hundreds of planes carrying aid have arrived in Turkey, very few have arrived in Syria because of the political situation.
I must emphasize that international Catholic aid organizations and also Christian Solidarity International (CSI) have shown outstanding generosity towards the Syrian population.
How do you help locally?
The task, the vision of the Blue Marists, which I head, is to live in solidarity with the poorest and alleviate their suffering, to open up prospects for people and to sow hope. With 150 volunteers, we run 14 support, development and education programs.
For instance, we distribute food baskets to 1,100 families and milk to 3,000 children every month. We cover the medical treatment costs of 150 sick people. We provide meals to 250 people over the age of 80 every day.
But, of course, we also want people to be able to live in dignity and make a living from their work. This is why we also run projects to enable young people to earn a living so they are not forced to leave the country.
We also have a project to provide psychological support for children and young people who have experienced great tragedy. What we offer is help, development and education.
What are you trying to achieve?
Our goal is to alleviate people’s suffering: We want to help people develop skills and find a job so that they don’t emigrate. We also want to sow hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel for people after all.
Of course, we also have the secondary goal of keeping Christians in Syria. Our numbers are falling dramatically, and when we consider that Syria is the cradle of Christianity, this is particularly sad. Christians were actually the first inhabitants of Syria. We are not new converts; we have been here since the time of the apostles.
Christians are an important, essential part of the social fabric in Syria. Christians also play a role as a moderating influence in a predominantly Muslim society.
What can people in Europe do for those in need in Syria?
First of all, people in Europe should show solidarity with the Syrians; no political judgments should be applied to humanitarian emergencies. Of course, the people of Europe can also support aid organizations that are doing good in Syria.
The public in Europe should also be aware that the European Union’s sanctions against Syria are ineffective and unjust and serve no purpose other than to make life impossible for ordinary people.
Public opinion can also be brought to bear on political leaders to create a movement that will lead to the lifting of sanctions. In other words, we would like to see the Syrian people reintegrated into the international community.
What will the consequences be if the situation does not improve?
Poverty and misery will continue to grow. People will become even more desperate, even more hopeless than they already are, and even more will leave the country. Thirteen years of seemingly endless tragedy is enough. The people of Syria do not deserve what they are enduring right now.
Syria used to be a stable and safe country with a growing economy. It has a history spanning several thousand years and it had a promising future ahead of it.
Before the war, there was very little poverty in Syria and people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds lived in harmony. There was no fanaticism in Syria. Words like “jihad” and “Islamism” were not part of the Syrian vocabulary at all.
* The United Nations estimates that 90 percent are living below the poverty line
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