A History of Mass Exodus: the Uncertain Fate of Syria’s Christians

Accounting for more than 25 percent of Greater Syria's population at the beginning of last century, Christians are now believed to number no more than 5 percent of Syria's current population

Um Rami sits alone, looking over the distant Mount Qasioun from the balcony of her home in the Adawi neighborhood of Damascus. She sips from a cup of coffee, leaving it to cool on the table beside her which is covered in Oriental needlework.

"How could anybody think of leaving this paradise for a strange country by their own free will?" she asks.

A Christian originally from Homs, Um Rami lived her whole life between her family’s home in Bab Touma, and her house in Adawi, where she lived with her late husband before he died 10 years ago.

Now in her 50s, Um Rami began exploiting her skills in Oriental embroidery while teaching at an art school, in an attempt to fill the void the loss of her husband left in her life. To secure enough money to pay for the education of her only son, Rami, she established a workshop to manufacture handicrafts widely sought after by tourists.

"I used to visit our village in Wadi an-Nasara (the Valley of the Christians) in Homs, where I would receive the embroideries from the ladies, pay them, give them cloth and yarns to work on new pieces, then go back to Damascus and deliver them to the shops frequented by tourists," explained Um Rami.

On the Path of the First Rebel

Um Rami’s life continued in such a pattern for many years, until the revolution broke out in 2011. Rami, then in his second academic year, was studying electrical engineering at a local university. Little did she know, their lives were about to completely change.

"My son began to stay out for long hours and return late. In the beginning he didn’t tell me the truth, but when he started bringing bandages and first aid kits to hide in our house, he told me that he has to take part in the demonstrations, providing first aid to the wounded on the streets. I almost went crazy."

Despite her faith in the nobility and humanity of what he is doing, Um Rami soon realized the imminent and inevitable threat her son was facing.

"How can I blame him when I raised him to help people under any circumstance? How can I convince him not to confront the regime while Christ was the first to rebel in the face of injustice? I cannot blame him for the ideas that matured in his mind from within his father's library. I worried for him hundreds of times, but … you know, I was proud of him thousands of times," she says.

Rami Arrested

Um Rami's fears were realized in late 2012 when her son was arrested by security forces in the neighborhood of Al Midan.

"I tried to call him over and over again, but his cell phone was turned off, and after a few hours, I found out he had been detained."

Um Rami and her relatives made numerous attempts to free her son, eventually paying huge sums of money to secure his release after six months. "The traces of torture were visible on his body", she says. "Many people claim the regime treats [Christians) well because we are a minority, but the regime also terrorizes us for calling for any alternative. My son is evidence – being from a minority didn’t save him from torture."

There are conflicting figures regarding the size of Syria’s Christian population; between 10 percent according to official government statistics, while the Christian church places the number closer to 7 percent. But many independent studies suggest their numbers are even less due to the spread of migration among the community.

The percentage of Christians in Syria was estimated more than 25 percent in the early 20th century, but fell massively as a result of mass migration following World War II, which saw the largest exodus of Christians in Greater Syria to the Americas. Their size is believed to have dropped from 15 percent in 1970 to no more than 5 percent in 2015.

Researcher Samir Abdo reveals in his book, "Christian Communities in Syria," that official statistics regarding the number of Christians is higher than their actual figures, which must have decreased to their constant migration. Abdo notes: "the spread of education among Christians coincided with a significant level of low fertility and reproduction rates, which caused significant disorder in their demographic growth."

Goodbye Syria

Despite knowing the price of participating in the revolutionary movement against the Assad regime, Rami continued to help the wounded, refusing to heed his mother's concerns and warnings. However, Rami did limit the extent of his participation, confining his efforts to securing emergency treatment for the wounded.

"My house became a store for medical cotton and sterile gauze. I did not know it was a crime to save lives, but I would beg him to stop. Finally my brother secured him a trip to France, where he can save lives without being arrested," says Um Rami.

In 2014, Rami traveled to France, but his mother preferred to remain in her home in Adawi. She tells us that since the outbreak of the revolution, she has not visited her workshop in Wadi an-Nasara or received crafts from the women who work there, "due to the rugged road. But I got to know many of the skilled women who came to Damascus after the events [of 2011]. One of them is a woman from Eastern Ghouta, she works with her daughters, and their work is excellent.”

Amid an escalation of fighting in most regions and cities throughout Syria, Republicans in the US House of Representatives put forward a law in mid-September allowing Congress to control, approve or prevent White House plans to allow approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, giving priority to religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq, particularly Christians.

Second Class Citizens

Christian families in Syria used to have at least one members living abroad, Um Rami says. She attributes this to the fact that their being a minority motivates them to obtain financial and social privileges other minorities already enjoy, like the Alwaites, for example.

"Christians usually travel abroad after graduation, then stay 10 years until obtaining advanced degrees to compensate for a feeling of second class citizenship, which we feel as Christians in general. But today the migration is indefinite, Christians have been in decline and a lot of families that I know have migrated completely," says Um Rami.

Today, the neighborhood of Bab Touma, where Um Rami spent her childhood, has become a strange place for her, as Hezbollah militants and flags line the streets under the pretext of protecting Christians from the terrorism of Sunni Muslims.

"Of course I don’t want Syria to be transformed into an Islamic state,” Um Rami says. “We will have no place in it then. But this does not justify the heavy presence of Hezbollah in Damascus neighborhoods. The Assad regime puts pressure on Christians to consider them our protector from Muslims – a lot of Christians, of course, believe what they say."

House for Sale!

Um Rami still believes the situation of Christians in Damascus is better compared to all other areas, "in spite of the mortar shells that fall every now and then, the situation of Damascus is ideal in comparison with other regions such as Hassakeh, Aleppo and Homs. Many Christians in those areas moved to Damascus or the coast, or migrated outside Syria completely. Thanks God we still have our homes."

Last August, Islamic State militants kidnapped 230 Christians from al-Qariyatin village in the countryside of Homs. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that most of the kidnapped victims were women and children, with some kidnapped from inside the church.

Um Rami says she considered selling her home to join her son in France, in the hope of restarting their lives. "It is difficult for me to sell my home, where I spent 30 of the most beautiful years of my life. But I have lived my worst days here too. I have nothing left here; no son, no family and no safety," she adds.

"Sometimes I feel that our presence as Christians in Syria has become rare, actually, threatened with extinction … just like these Oriental embroideries."

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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