TACOMA, Washington — Dr. Nabil Antaki founded Les Maristes Bleus in 1986 with his wife Leyla Antaki Moussalli and Marist Friar Georges Sabé. Its goal is to support impoverished Christians in Aleppo, Syria. Instead of leaving when the Syrian civil war reached the city in 2012, Les Maristes Bleus persevered in aiding displaced peoples, with particular care for children.
The Syrian Conflict
The Syrian conflict started in 2011 after young boys in the city of Deraa were arrested and tortured for painting revolutionary-themed graffiti on the walls of a school. The protests that followed were concurrent with the Arab Spring: a series of anti-government protests that spread throughout much of the Arab world.
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s security forces made aggressive attempts to silence the protestors quickly. This inspired large demonstrations throughout the rest of the country. The Sunni majority population demanded the resignation of its president, a member of the Shia Alawite minority.
A Proxy War
As the conflict grew more violent, anti-government groups formed into rebel squadrons. The war was complicated as foreign powers such as Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and a U.S.-led coalition took sides. In addition, the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group tried to take advantage of the chaos.
Today, American and Turkish-backed rebel groups, Kurdish militant groups and the IS mostly control 30% of Syrian territory. All parties within the Syrian conflict have been charged with war crimes. Moreover, blocked access to adequate sources of food, water and medical aid led to a severe humanitarian and immigration crisis.
Result of the War
Since the beginning of the war, more than five million Syrian children have been born. War, displacement, diminishing educational opportunities and poverty have defined the lives of these children. This has led to severe cases of physical and emotional trauma among children along with a lack of basic needs.
Dr. Antaki spoke with The Borgen Project in an interview. He said that the greatest threat to the Syrian people now is the devastated economy that both the war and the strict sanctions the United States and the United Nations have imposed have caused. The conflict destroyed factories, the wealthy Syrians have fled and the U.S. and the U.N. have blocked foreign investments.
In 2018, 55% of Syrians were unemployed, and 80% of Syrians lived below the poverty line. Even those that can afford education often struggle to send their children to school due to the destruction of facilities during the war and the coronavirus pandemic. This has resulted in the disruption of existing academic curriculums. Dr. Antaki says that even if the Syrian regime is able to reestablish peace, an entire generation might grow up illiterate. This is due to the 1.7 million refugee children that were unable to attend school during the years of turmoil.
Les Maristes Bleus
Les Maristes Bleus has remained a symbol of hope for the Syrian people throughout the prolonged conflict. Started in 1986 under the name “L’oreille de Dieu” (“Ear of God”), the group organized volunteer efforts to help hundreds of Christian families in Aleppo. It helped them find housing, employment and education for their children. At the start of the war, the organization changed its name to “Les Maristes Bleus” to recall the Marist spirit of its work and the color of the sky and of the Virgin Mary.
After the start of the war in 2012, Les Maristes Bleus redoubled its efforts to aid not just Christians in Aleppo but all displaced and affected people, regardless of religion. Dr. Antaki, whose dual citizenship could have secured his escape to Canada, decided to stay in the war-torn country in order to help those who did not have the privilege to leave. One of Les Maristes Bleus’ greatest achievements is the distribution of food to displaced families, milk to 3,000 children and the establishment of Aleppo’s best private hospital.
In October 2019, Turkey invaded north-western Syria in order to establish a buffer zone between its border and the Syrian Kurdish population. This incursion, displaced 150,000 people. It was also the reason for forming camp Shahba 30 kilometers from Aleppo. Recognizing the desperate state of those sheltering at the camp, Les Maristes Bleus started the Project Colibri (“colibri” is French for “hummingbird”), named after the legend of a hummingbird that, after spotting a forest fire, flew back and forth from a lake to carry water in its beak to try to extinguish the flames.
Among a variety of different services, Les Maristes Bleus provides entertainment for the youngest children as a form of stress relief and holds basic education classes for older students. Project Colibri also includes a medical clinic with a rotation of doctors of different specializations and a once-a-month distribution of nutritional and sanitary supplies.
The violent conflict in Syria has brought about a humanitarian crisis that displaced almost 10 million people. Like the hummingbird, Les Maristes Bleus might not be able to put out a forest fire, but it is doing what it can to restore hope to those that the Syrian conflict has affected, particularly children. Dr. Nabil is proud to attest to the people’s joyous reactions when they recognize Les Maristes Bleu’s blue-clad volunteers. It is proof that a little can go a long way.
– Margherita Bassi
Photo: With Permission by Dr. Nabil Antaki