If rocks could talk, the buildings of Ishakian School and St. Mesrob Church would have told an ancient story that goes back to 1915. It all started when Armenian people crossed the Syrian Desert, fleeing the Ottoman genocide, and settled in the Old City of Homs where they found a shelter.
Their story does not end here, for Armenians experienced injustice once again among Syrians. First, they lost all their belongings and lifetime earnings while their civilization was targeted, then, a big part of their monumental buildings was completely destroyed. Buildings that were not completely destroyed were either partially demolished or deserted as people were forcibly displaced.
Ishakian Private School and St. Mesrob Church were built in 1920 to help the Armenians who settled in Homs and started to engage in public life and practice their professions.
Ishakian School is considered a model private school. Each class can take in up to 22 students as the total number of enrolled students in the school can reach 225 students. The number of administrative and teaching staff is 30. During the Syrian war, residents of the Old City of Homs were forced to leave their homes because of hostilities. The school and the church were used by armed groups as hospitals and all the building was damaged.
A Safe Coexistence
Armenian Orthodox Archbishop of Damascus Armash Nalbandian described war events in a special interview, He said: “War destroyed more than 70 per cent of the Old City of Homs. It ruined the citizen’s social life as they were forced out of their homes and scattered around Syria and abroad. We are afraid that displaced families won’t return to Syria, therefore, our main concern after the liberation of Homs was the church rehabilitation.”
“During the war, we used to follow up on the wellbeing of our parish with the help of the leaders of sister churches in the places they fled to. The result of this cooperation was a relief plan that included distribution of food and hygiene kits as well as rent payment,” he added.
He talked about the church and school rehabilitation, saying: “We, the Armenians, have experienced a painful genocide and were displaced around the world. Today, Armenians have been displaced once again along with Syrians. The rehabilitation of the church and school is important to revive the social and local life of the population of the Old City and our parish.”
He continued: “This Church and school will be the lighthouse bringing back citizens to their city and neighborhoods. The school will provide education to students and job opportunities to citizens, encouraging them to return. We will organize masses and development projects to citizens living in difficult conditions. We will be using the church hall to organize meetings for youth and citizens in the area, no matter their religions, to get them to get to know each other, promoting mutual understanding and setting the foundation for co-existence in peace and security. We will also organize vocational trainings for women and youth such as tailoring, embroidery, photography, computer skills and language learning as well as educational courses for students under the supervision of teachers to complete daily homework.”
Archbishop Armash concluded with a word to sister churches in Netherlands: “The experience of war is harsh and bitter. The biggest of our losses was the displacement of our parish from Syria. The church must stay strong to reflect strength to its children so they don’t leave their land. Therefore, I thank the Middle East Council of Churches and the Churches of Netherlands for the empowering ecumenical cooperation with our church to face war’s repercussions and rebuild our ecclesiastical, educational, social and cultural centers to become a beacon, a center of power and a symbol of leadership for people encouraging them to return home and stay in Homs. I can only say thank you for this ecumenical love.”
Hope Rising Above the Destruction of War
60-year-old Waskin owns an automobile spare parts selling business. He lives in Al Hamidieh neighborhood in the Old City and is also the head of the ecclesiastical committee in Homs. He says: “After armed groups entered the neighborhood, we were forced to leave Al Hamidieh to find shelter. The residents of our neighborhood and of the Old City of Homs were displaced. Some of them moved to Christian Valley Villages in Rural Homs, while others moved to other governorates.”
He added: “We lost our businesses and had to leave our homes, leaving our belongings behind. My siblings and I moved to Fairouzeh village, southeast Homs, because we found a job opportunity there and I sent my wife and children to Aleppo.”
“After the war ended, people started gradually returning to Al Hamidieh. Most of its citizens owned homes and couldn’t afford paying rents. Some rehabilitated their homes completely and some made basic repairs, while those who were unable to rehabilitate their homes stayed displaced.”
He also talked about the school and church rehabilitation saying: “Ishakian Private School was a model in terms of teaching and numbers of students in each class. The parents who returned to Al Hamidieh are constantly asking us to rehabilitate and reopen the school. During war and displacement, students were enrolled in other schools that did not have the same academic level, especially with the large number of enrolled students in those schools due to the large number of displaced students and limited number of open schools during the war. Not to mention that Ishakian School teaches the Armenian language, while when displaced, Armenian children were learning their language from what they heard their parents say at home without learning how to write.”
MECC engineer Mr. Ibrahim Dib and supervisor of the Ishakian School and St. Mesrob Church rehabilitation said: “Al Hamidieh neighborhood in the Old City of Homs, the third largest city in Syria, has ancient churches belonging to different Christian communities going back to the first centuries of the Christian era.”
He continued: “By the end of 2011, the first year of the Syrian war, armed groups entered Homs governorate forcing citizens to flee for shelter, especially citizens of Al Hamidieh neighborhood where the majority were Christians. They left their homes and everything they own, fearing for their children’s lives and their own. The Christian Valley sheltered most of these families, while some of them left the country.”
About the rehabilitation process, he added: “by the end of war in some regions of Syria, including Homs, MECC exerted efforts to rehabilitate St. Mesrob church and Ishakian School in Al Hamidieh neighborhood since the buildings were partially destroyed due to bombing and are in need of restoration.”
He stressed that rehabilitation activities will have a positive impact on citizens. It would encourage them to return, reassured that their children will receive a decent education in Ishakian School, providing them with job opportunities within the school, like teaching jobs and other positions.
Citizens of the Old City of Homs are looking forward to the day the church and school rehabilitation process is over. It would give them hope a normal life, just the way it was before the war. This old building holds the memories of all citizens of the neighborhood, both Syrians and Armenians.