Feature: Welwyn Garden City woman hails 'amazing' Syrians after volunteer stint
PUBLISHED: 11:00 23 September 2018
Syria is often thought of synonymously with death and destruction, with such footage regularly reaching our screens since the civil war began.
But after returning from three weeks’ volunteering, a Welwyn Garden City woman provided a different perspective – one of an optimistic society budding amongst the rubble.
Sylwia Machej, 44, supported school projects, taught English and visited cancer patients during her visits to Damascus, Homs and Saidnaya.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the devastation, she was touched by the locals’ indefatigable efforts to turn over a new page.
“Syrian people are amazing, they are full of hope,” Sylwia said. “They want to rebuild their country and start again and are grateful for everything.
“Even if life is basic, there is no complaint.”
She said that most of Syria is no longer dangerous, with conflict confined to near the Turkish border. It is a misconception to still think of people dying on the streets.
“I can tell you it is absolutely safe,” she said. “Nothing happens to you, people just stop you on the street to say thank you that you came.
“Many asked why did you come, and I would say the experience, because you feel you want to do something more to help.”
Signs of the revival, such as thriving markets and shops opening in previously derelict buildings, are now commonplace.
Epitomising the collective attitude, Sylwia referenced a Syrian man in his 60s who had gone blind because of cancer and could no longer walk.
“He said, ‘thank you for coming, I’m so grateful to God that I can be with my family, sat by the window, hearing the noise from the street and there is no more war’.
“And you think normally you would complain because you are in a lot of pain – but there was no complaint.”
Despite the Syrians’ fortitude, however, there is no escaping the devastation caused by the war.
Rattling through some harrowing figures, Sylwia said that at least 500,000 people had died, 20,000 children were orphaned, 70,000 people had been kidnapped, and 2 million had fled the country.
Syria still desperately needs help from Europe and elsewhere to rebuild. Embargoes on food and medicine need to be lifted, more financial support is required, and the Syrians need to be shown that they have not been forgotten.
Sylwia also said there is a major need for psychological help, adding: “There are beautiful children playing with sad eyes, because they can’t forget what they have seen.”
On her travels she met people who had suffered incomprehensible experiences.
“A lady said one of the rebels came into her house and they killed five members of her family,” Sylwia added.
“She said ‘I can’t forget this picture, but I would like to forgive them because very often the soldiers of ISIS were on drugs’.
“You can’t say anything because you would like to find an answer, but there is no answer, you can only listen to people and give them a hug and say I will pray for you.”
There was also another couple who recalled having to survive off two tomatoes between them for two weeks.
However, she said that paradoxically, the war has seemingly helped grow the community spirit, creating a collective sense of companionship in the face of widespread suffering.
The footage we see of bloodshed is accurate, but only part of the picture. The positivity and rebuilding process are being overshadowed, and Sylwia is keen for that image to also reach everyone’s consciousness.
Outlining what she has taken away from her experience, she added: “I have learnt not to complain and take things for granted. Knowing that you can always start again, never give up, and always have hope that it will be better.”
Sylwia, who is not married and has no children, moved to WGC from Poland five years ago and works part-time as a secretary at Lister Hospital.
She is also a technician at WGC’s Focolare Centre for Unity, and it is through that organisation that her Syria trip arose.
“It was an amazing experience that I will never forget,” she said.
“One of the bishops said to us, ‘your presence here is like the dove from Noah’s Ark – the sign of hope that life is coming back’.
“For me it was quite significant because you do not think your presence can change so much.”