ROME — As the conflict in Syria rages on, a Salesian nun honored by the White House as a “Woman of Courage” said that no matter who is in charge, as long as they work for peace they have her vote.
“I like anyone who can help me achieve peace, whether it’s Assad or President Trump, or whoever can support us in peace,” Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh told reporters April 11.
The nun said that, in her opinion, there is still hope for peace in Syria, but that whenever steps in that direction seem to be taken, something happens, and “we go backwards.”
Yet despite the ongoing violence, “there is always hope for the future,” she said. “There are steps of peace, we continue to look to the future with a lot of hope, because everything has an end. There will be an end.”
Sister Carolin, a member of the Salesian Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, was one of 13 women who received the “International Woman of Courage Award” from First Lady Melania Trump in Washington March 29.
She was nominated for the award by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See for her work running a nursery school in Damascus that her order established as a safe and friendly space where more than 200 children traumatized by the war, both Christian and Muslim, can play and just be children.
In addition to the school, Sister Carolin also manages a tailor workshop in collaboration with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, providing much-needed community and support for women who are vulnerable and displaced.
The nominations for the White House award were accepted by the Obama administration, but were held until Rex Tillerson, the current secretary of state, approved them, allowing them to be handed out. After receiving the award, she came to Rome and spoke to reporters about her work during a roundtable sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
In her comments to journalists, Sister Carolin said meeting the other 12 women who received the award alongside her is something that “enriched me.”
As part of her trip to the U.S. to receive the award, the nun was also taken to visit several projects that work with refugees and which also offer psychological services, which she said was “helpful for my work.”
Many of the children who come to the school suffer from the effects of war, she said, explaining that while some are less affected, others don’t speak.
She voiced fear for the future of the culture the children are growing up in, noting that “they are all damaged, they have this fear from the war, they have a bit of violence inside, and this is normal.”
Recalling a conversation she had with one of the children after a canon had gone off, the nun said she had heard a loud noise and asked what it was. Immediately one of the children near her said it was a canon.
When she asked the 4-year-old child how they knew, the child responded by saying “when it’s a missile it goes ‘sss-boom,’ and when it’s a canon it immediately goes ‘boom.’”
“I was bothered by this. This is the culture of our children,” she said, and recalled how in a video sent to her by family in Aleppo, one of her nephews showed her a box of “toys” he had collected, shells that landed on their balcony.
“What do we do for the future to take this violence out of our children?” Sister Carolin asked, noting that the video from her nephew “hurt me a lot.”
However, she cautioned against falling for what she said are false media reports that say that everything in Syria is only destruction.
“It’s not true that everything is terrible in Syria, that everything is this civil war,” she said, explaining that “there is still solidarity; there is still coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”
“We live together, there is coexistence,” she said, explaining that there are many Muslim women who participate in the tailoring workshop, and when she needs materials, it is they who go to purchase them.
“Since 2010 to now, more than 500 women have entered our houses, have gone to sewing classes, and the majority are Muslims,” she said, explaining that if she were to accept only Christians, “then I also become like them: I become a fanatic.”
Many times when bombs go off near the convent, shortly after there will be a knock on their door from Muslim men who come to check on them, asking: “Sisters, do you need something? Are you okay?”
Even in the school children don’t distinguish between Christians and Muslims, she said, noting that they are damaged above all by war, rather than religious differences. “I'm not saying there’s not fanaticism,” she added, but stressed that there is still coexistence between the groups.
Going against a growing distaste for President Assad in the global public eye, Sister Carolin voiced her support for Assad, saying, “I like our president.” She said that he and his wife are “very close to us” and have protected and offered material and financial support to the Christians in Syria, including for the school her order runs. She added that Assad’s wife called and asked for her personally and met with her and several other sisters to ask if anything was preventing them from carrying out their work and to ask what support they needed.
The international community, however, is beginning to unite in opposition against Assad. On Tuesday G7 leaders — from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and Canada — met with allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to discuss the possible need for new leadership in Syria and to agree on sanctions for his biggest ally, Russia.
Referring to Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian air base after the sarin gas attack, Sister Carolin said the move was “a step back from peace.”
When it comes to the peace process in Syria, the nun said that while there is always hope for the future, it frequently happens that whenever a step forward is taken, “then something happens and we go backward.”
She recalled receiving the news after walking out of a reception for the award winners in Washington, saying that when she heard about the bombing, “I was very hurt,” and in her opinion, “right now, for me, we are going backward.”
The war, in her opinion, erupted not because Assad was causing problems, but because “there are different interests” involved, including the country’s natural resources.
Pope Francis “is doing a lot” with all the appeals he is making, particularly to the international community, she said, calling him “a true prophet.”
His words “awaken the conscience. … He doesn’t stay quiet. He is awakening; his voice is strong. He is also entering into the conscience of everyone.”
Regarding the fear that if Islamic terrorism isn’t curbed, there will no longer be Christians living in the Middle East, the nun said the Church is working to ensure this won’t happen.
“The Church is working to keep the Christians,” she said, adding that “if the Church exists, then Christians will continue to be there.”