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Meanwhile in the sunlight, a few of the quarter’s children played on the ubiquitous pile of sand normally found on a construction site. One little fellow had taken off his shoes to get the full effect of the sand. Another stared at us, wondering if we were going to chase him from his mountain; he was the king of that there hill. And two boys were quietly playing a game of marbles. Friendships were forming. Noticing my camera, a group approached me: “sowreeni,” take my picture! Copies of these photographs will be sent back so that childhood memories in this new quarter will go on record.

Nicholas & Co. know that houses alone do not make even half a quarter – families need spiritual sustenance too. Father Nicholas has enlisted the help of the Salesian Sisters and members of his growing parish of Hey al Sabil. Catechism classes are held for children while adult education classes are offered to the parents. The church is filled to the brim for the two divine liturgies celebrated on Sundays. Weddings are a bit more common and common rooms serve as public areas for church-related activities and social gatherings.

There are other signs that the quarter is developing: The nuns gather the women and teach sewing. This skill generates extra income, making life a little easier. Boy and girl scout troops with a strong Christian bent ensure that the younger generation will have a healthy sense of community and “quarter awareness.” To alleviate the rising cost of health care, a dispensary offers health counseling and medicines. Even dental care is available.

Father Nicholas’s face aged as he spoke about the project costs, the need for loans, and his commitment to build 13 apartment blocks – the magic number of completed buildings. A man who wants to think positively, the priest remained silent when asked for the source of funding.

If any role model is needed for a Middle Eastern Christian community, one is available in Aleppo. The city’s ancient Christian quarter, with its grand churches and monasteries, is much more of a mixed community than in the past, but it still has “the feel.” We walked down one little lane and turned left into an even narrower passage. One more turn and we were at the door of a church-sponsored orphanage. Twelve girls live in a 250-year-old palatial residence, reminiscent of those estate-like homes of which Damascus and Aleppo boasted in the past. The fountain gurgled in the courtyard and ivy grasped at everything that did not move, except for the lethargic tortoise, which was soon scooped up for a photograph with some of the girls.

The hullabaloo we caused did not faze John, a young mechanical engineer who volunteers his time to tutor the girls in mathematics. He managed to keep his young student’s attention fixed on her studies, even during the photo session.

Whoever travels to Aleppo next should make a point to visit the city’s Christian quarters, old and new. By then, there will he more marble matches, more church bells announcing weddings and a louder, rhythmic hum of a pulley, as it lifts the belongings of a newly married couple into their first home.

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Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Beirut, now writes from Wisconsin.

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Tags: Syria Emigration Melkite Greek Catholic Church Homes/housing Socioreligious programs