[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] A Syrian Anglican priest has launched an innovative educational programme which is helping to turn young Syrian adolescents away from their feelings of hopelessness, despair and anger; and into Ambassadors for Peace – who then help to teach younger generations of Syrians.
The programme began last year in Lattakia, a town on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and has now expanded to Iraq. There is also talk of expanding the scheme into both the United States and Great Britain.
The death toll in Syria’s civil war has now topped 350,000; and some 11 million people have been forced from their homes either as internally displaced people or refugees. But the Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest now working in the Church of England’s Diocese of Southwark, says it is wrong to think that the country is being deserted.
“We are not in the process of evacuating Syria, and will the last one to leave switch off the lights. It is not going to happen,” he told a gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders at an event in Westminster this afternoon to mark Interfaith Week.
“I say to no-one: ‘stay and die’, and I say to no-one: ‘Leave for the rosy road of welcome.’” Instead, he said, “People in Syria know their situation” and should be supported in whatever they decide to do.
Many Syrians now saw their choices as a fast death, through bombs and destruction beyond the next corner; or a slow death through the desperate situation facing refugees and asylum seekers. Added to that, he said, was the “nightmare” of being captured for military service which, for 90 per cent of those called up, was a death sentence.
Such a bleak outcome has created the situation where many young people are feeling frustrated and angry. “They feel the whole world has let them down; the Church has let them down; and they feel that God has let them down,” he said. “They feel hopeless. They feel despair. They are angry.”
But, through his Awareness Foundation, Father Nassar has developed an “Ambassadors for Peace” programme that helps those young people turn such feelings around. So far, some 270 young people have gone through the six-day course.
The first day was spent exploring the reasons behind the young people’s despair. And for the rest of the week the young people were helped to “build the tools needed to empower them”.
After the course, the young people helped to lead a summer school for younger Syrian children in the town. Through funding obtained through the Awareness Foundation, the children at the summer school were given a simple back-pack containing a bottle of water and a pencil case.
“You should see the joy in their faces,” Father Nassar said. “For them, it is as if you have given them the world.”
After the educational programme, the young people – who come from a number of different Christian traditions – have been working in their own communities to “build better ecumenical relations and to encourage understanding and renewed trust between the faiths.” Father Nassar hopes to extend the scheme to include people of all faiths in the future.
“Now, we look to the future,” Father Nassar said on the Awareness Foundation’s website, “and we hope and pray that those who participated in these two events can also see a future for themselves now – in safety, in community, and in Syria.
“We hope that the seeds that we have planted will now grow, turning these young people into real Ambassadors for Peace.”
Father Nasser was speaking this lunchtime at an event hosted by the Council for Christians and Jews discussing the situation facing Christians in the Middle East. He thanked CCJ for an initiative earlier this year, “If not now, when” – which saw Jews and synagogues across the UK pray for Christians in the Middle East; and said he wanted to extend the scheme – “If not us, who.”
The event was also addressed by Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK; and was chaired by the Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave.