By Marianne Ejdersten*
WCC News met with the Very Reverend Archimandrite Dr Alexi Chehadeh, who leads the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development (DERD) for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East (GOPA) in Damascus, Syria. He is an impressive role model and peacemaker in Syria.
We discussed the state of the crisis in Syria and the many challenges that aid workers face there. His organization, DERD, is the largest independent local NGO operating inside Syria. He shares his passion for finding ways to distribute aid to people of all faiths, despite the particularly vulnerable situation of Christians in a country where ISIS has a horrendous record of crucifying them.
The interview took place at the Cumberland Lodge in the UK at the Global Conference on Human Rights, which considered the theme “Towards Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities.” The conference was organized by the Conference of European Churches, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and Cumberland Lodge.
Participants at the conference discussed cultural and religious diversity as a source of richness. Remarks and reflections centered on religious plurality in the Middle East from both an inside and outside perspective and the challenges and opportunities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt.
Fr Alexi presented the current situation in Syria and the main challenges to his humanitarian aid and development work there. Seven years of bombs and bullets have left thousands of families homeless and traumatized. They urgently need food, shelter and medical care. Many years of fighting have brought death and destruction to the country of 22 million Syrians, with 13.5 million people needing humanitarian assistance, among them more than 6 million internally displaced. Another 5 million people have fled, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond.
The conflict in Syria has also left many children and youth without an education. Most of them are too young to remember life without war. Inside the country, 1.75 million children are currently out of school – and for those fortunate enough to be in the classroom, the risk of dropping out is quickly rising.
DERD was founded in 1994 with the blessings of His Beatitude Thrice Blessed Patriarch Ignatius IV (Hazim). In 2012, His Beatitude Patriarch John X (Yaziji) carried this mission forward, and he appointed Fr Alexi as the new director of the organization in September 2015. Like the Good Samaritan, DERD serves others regardless of their religion, race or color, offering compassion and extending a helping hand to them, simply because of their humanity.
Why did you join the centre in 2015?
Fr Alexi: I was called by HB John X to take up this mission as head of the department at the end of September. I moved back to Syria after almost 20 years in Germany. I feel very humbled to serve in Damascus. I joined the team at a very crucial time, with fires everywhere. We have to believe and have faith in what we are doing. We need the grace of God to do this work and the support and blessings of Patriarch John, DERD’s spiritual Father.
What’s the purpose of the GOPA-DERD?
Fr Alexi: With 44 offices all over Syria, 38 community centers, 1600 full- and part-time staff and 22 international partners, we seek to offer help to those who are in the utmost need of it. We try to ensure that all efforts are made to provide a fair service to more than 2.5 million beneficiaries each year, in an attempt to spread the spirit of humanity, justice, tranquility and peace within these communities where we operate.
We also believe in collaboration with others. We build bridges with various civil society groups in order to reach a wider segment of those in need and those who are affected.
How do you support the people of Syria?
Fr Alexi: GOPA-DERD worked hard to support the people of Syria from the very first, beginning to offer care through a comprehensive set of programmes, including education, vocational training, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services, shelter, psycho-social support, healthcare and many more.
From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, GOPA-DERD implemented its emergency and rapid response programmes, early recovery programmes and those related to livelihoods and sustainable development. The department recruited its team members to meet the needs of those affected: the vulnerable, the displaced, persons with disabilities and returnees. The main aim of these programmes was to provide services to all family members, taking into consideration the importance of covering all their needs in every way possible.
How can others support you?
Fr Alexi: The Syrian people in liberated and hard-to-reach areas are in huge need of humanitarian support. They need basic services, livelihood support and medical services, to say the least, in order to be able to remain in their local communities. It’s important for people to return to their daily lives. They need support in different ways to establish a new life in their own country. They need financial support and education. We are looking for faith-based partners around the world too. It’s very important to have faith-based partners!
We need support from the ecumenical movement to raise awareness. Mainstream media are not following up anymore; and in most cases, they do not reflect nor transmit all messages. In Syria, 75 percent of the population, 13.5 million out of the 18 million people remaining, are in urgent need of support and are living under the poverty line. Of these, 6.5 million are internally displaced. We have to talk about the situation and find a peaceful solution in the country. The displaced and refugees should be able to return. The current situation has to come to an end, and we must find ways to motivate people to reconcile and heal together.
What are the most important achievements?
Fr Alexi: Many areas are liberated in Syria. The war is over, even if we don’t have a peace treaty in place. Although the fighting is over, as mentioned, GOPA-DERD’s team is helping more than 2.5 million beneficiaries each year. We are able to make a difference in their lives. They need to get on a new track to build a new future for themselves. A smile from children, families when their home is rehabilitated, when a mother is helping the elderly in her family, when they merge and adapt in their local community forming social cohesion—all of that indicates the importance of this work. That’s a blessing for me and my team of 1,600 volunteers.
What could the WCC do to support you?
Fr Alexi: We are very well represented in the work of the WCC. We are very grateful for the support from the churches around the world. We need each other and especially at this moment. Please, continue to pray for us and accompany us. It would be very important to have a WCC delegation with the WCC leadership to visit us in 2019, to show visible unity, that we are standing together as Christians. I am also looking forward to receiving visits from sister churches and partners. A visit would mean a lot to our people!
What do you wish for Christmas?
Fr Alexi: I pray for a peaceful solution in Syria. The people of Syria need peace and need to be able to go back to their homes. For our work, I wish to get some funds to be able to buy Christmas presents for the kids. They have to feel like kids in the midst of the turmoil.
A final word to the readers…
Fr Alexi: I would like to thank all the organizations and churches worldwide for helping us with resources and with their prayers at this very difficult time, and I appeal to all people of good will to keep us in their hearts, minds and prayers, their support, and their accompaniment.
Please continue to support us! We need you more than ever. I wish all of you a very blessed Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. It is a time of inspiration, a time of reconciliation, as Jesus came as the savior to save us and reconcile us. We believe in reconciliation. We wish you a happy new year because we love each other, and when we love each other we will forgive. We wish you success, too. In this age of globalization, we say always that the world is like a village through access to social media. That means that we are all neighbours, too, and we have to take care of each other and be there for others. God asked us to take care of each other and be there for each other.
The interview took place in the lobby at the Cumberland Lodge, by the Christmas tree; and during the conversation, other participants joined in. They listened with admiration for the work done by Fr Alexi and his team in the midst of the war in Syria. To my question if there would be any security problem with going public about their work, he responds with a humble smile: “No and I’m not afraid to face any reactions. We are well prepared and blessed by God. We need more visibility. Please, share the work we are doing!”
We wish Fr Alexi and the team a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year 2019. Let’s all pray for peace in Syria and the rest of the world. We are all peacemakers.
Marianne Ejdersten, WCC director of communication
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"What matters is winning the peace in Syria," UN envoy says (WCC press release of 13 December 2018)
*Marianne Ejdersten is director of communication at the World Council of Churches