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In Aleppo, Houses Are Half a Quarter

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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“There’s more garlic hanging from those balconies than is used in all of New York!”

That was my first thought as I looked at a block of apartments, laundry drying from the balustrades. Father Nicholas, my hospitable host, laughed when my thought became comment.

In April, Father Nicholas was escorting this writer – fresh from a grueling flight from Chicago to a Beirut under siege, via Bucharest; a three-hour drive to Damascus; and a five-hour bus trip north to the Syrian city of Aleppo – to see his parish’s housing project. And my first comment was a flippant one about garlic! One balcony though was a veritable still life: neatly arranged garlic bunches hung next to tiny cages housing canaries who sang away. A curtain, ready to be drawn to shield against the inclement elements that make up this climate of extremes, completed the picture.

The Rev. Nicholas Sawwaf, a priest of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, looked at the same balconies and saw something much more important: the beginning of a new Christian quarter in this corner of Syria’s second largest city.

Cement is also important to Father Nicholas. Cement blocks form houses. Houses provide shelter for families. Families develop neighborhoods. Neighborhoods cultivate communities. And communities, provided with opportunities, prosper. Father Nicholas wants cement to provide members of his Christian community with grounds to remain in the land of their birth, to carry on with their trades and businesses, to continue living as their ancestors have for more than 1,500 years.

The expression on the face of this jolly priest changed when he listed the problems his community encounters. Obviously, housing ranks at the top of his list. Not only are apartments difficult to find, they are enormously expensive. Most Syrian couples are one-income couples. A single family home, American-style, with a garden and white picket fence, is a fantasy in Aleppo and in virtually every Middle Eastern city.

This housing problem has its most dramatic impact on single men. College graduates and those with marketable skills are lured abroad by attractive opportunities. If those who emigrate are married, the families emigrate with them. If the emigrants are single men, they often never return, except to find brides, who then settle abroad with their husbands.

This emigration pattern also affects young women: those of marriageable age find few partners in their social circles. As love and life take their course, a number of these women marry outside their community and their faith.

Couples that marry, but cannot afford housing, move in with Mom and Dad. This living arrangement generates tension and domestic unrest, comparable to the plots of American soap operas, which are not televised in Syria. Young witnesses to such dramatics often shun marriage or, once married, commit themselves to smaller families.

Other obligations, e.g., health care and tuition for church-affiliated schools, complicate matters further. Those that manage to afford these necessities of life do so with the help of family members working abroad But Father Nicholas spoke of these remittances from family members in the Americas as mixed blessings.

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Tags: Syria Emigration Melkite Greek Catholic Church Homes/housing Socioreligious programs