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2017
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Aleppo: 860 children learned how to color their lives and those of others with Jesus

“Those were the best moments of my life!” When the summer camp for the St. Francis of Aleppo parish ended, the children’s feedback was unanimous, [and] the camp was a success. Parents were also just as satisfied: “The children waited impatiently in the morning to go to the Oratory and every day they returned having learned new things.” Thanks to the camp activities, the children were able to come out of the depression that we were experiencing during these six years of war. As for the volunteers who wanted to “sow beautiful seeds in the hearts of the children,” they said that they had received as much as they had given, and they probably even received more [than what they gave].

The numbers are hardly credible. The summer camp organized by the parish of St. Francis of Aleppo, which had gathered 350 children last year, brought together 860 children every day, for two months. 860! And the applications continued to come in, but they ran out of space and they had to stop accepting registrations. Not a corner of the parish premises went unused, and all of the courtyards, as well as all of the rooms vibrated with the rhythm of the activities. The children were from four to 15 years old and the full variety of Christian rites was present.

Supporting them were some 60 volunteers, catechists and professionals, who led a variety of workshops: theater, drawing, music, singing, basketball, swim, dance, hand crafts, cinema and religion. Because if there is one conviction for the parish of St. Francis and for its leader, Fr. Ibrahim Al Sabagh, it is that the Lord is the first to want to and to be able to comfort his people given the current situation in Syria.

The summer camp, referred to as the Oratory, in Aleppo, also had a theme: “With Jesus, I will color my life.” The colors that had been spread throughout the same city that the war had covered with a tenacious gray dust, were those of the children’s T-shirts, by age group, who went to the camp or who took part in different activities.

From Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the children gathered at the parish. On Saturday, in groups at different periods, they all went to the pool. And on Sundays, the 11 a.m. mass was “reserved” for them, [and they attended it] “in order to thank the Lord for all of his blessings and for the blessings received during the week that was coming to a close and to entrust the new week that was about to begin.”

Each week, the activities created around different themes allowed the children to deepen the general topic and to strengthen their relationship with Jesus. All of the expenses of the camp, including the daily snack for each participant, were covered by the parish.

Having begun in early June, the camp ended at the end of July with two days of ceremonies. On July 26, there was a large exhibit of works created by the children during the course of these two months. Families were invited to see them. They were impatient to do so: “Jesus not only colored the lives of our children, but our lives were also colored by seeing their joy and fulfillment,” said some happy and moved parents, while the children were all excited to show them their achievements.

On July 28, the final show was held at the Terra Santa School in front of 3,200 people, between parents and children. In the presence of Fr. Ibrahim of course, but also of Mons. Abou Khazen, the Apostolic Vicar of the Latin Catholics, and three priests from Italy with a delegation of their parishioners. This was a sign for the children of the universality of the Church, of the presence of prayer and of the generosity of many Christians around the world.

In the backdrop of the stage, an immense Jesus, smiling, his arms wide open, was drawn from the collage of drawings made by the children themselves over the last two months. The artist who composed it wanted to send a message that “it is the mission entrusted to every Christian to witness to Jesus Christ at every moment of his daily life: work, play as well as prayer.”

With such a portrait, Jesus was where Fr. Ibrahim intends to place him: in the hearts of the faithful, at the center of our lives. “The open arms of Jesus express His willingness and openness to embrace everyone, and to embrace the crowd of families…adults…children…whose wounds have not yet healed, whose tears have not dried … With his hands, the abundance of rays coming out with various colors indicates that it is He who gives color to our lives. In his speech, the parish priest did not fail to mention that all of the activities of the parish for this year were inspired by the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Franciscan presence in the Middle East.

A power failure during the final show did not take away the smiles from their faces: “It just reminds us that we are not in Hollywood but in Aleppo…” a visitor commented with a smile.

For the first year in six years, the camp was held without hearing or fearing any missiles. Particularly touching for the organizers, this witness given discreetly by this family, who was originally from Raqqa and who fled to Aleppo in 2015 when the Raqqa was under Daesh’s control: “Thanks to the organizers for being so understanding to the sometimes inadequate behavior of our children.” Witnesses in Raqqa of the horrors of the so-called Islamic State, today they must build themselves up again. And their father thanked them warmly, explaining how positively their attitude had changed after these two months. A change of attitude is something that has been experienced by many of the families [of the children who attended the camp].

For them, as it was for many other children, it was the first time in six years, and in some cases, the first time ever, that they experienced games, or a swimming pool and the innocence of their age.

“This year’s Oratory was conceived as a training model for parents, which touched upon all of the dimensions of the person,” explained the organizers. “Our hope is that each family understood the priorities of the training so as to improve the care of their children.”

The lights of the feast have gone out, but they still shine in the eyes and in the hearts [of the participants]. Everyone has the feeling that they have accomplished their mission when they hear: “I got closer to Jesus, and I got into the habit of praying in the morning and in the evening. He really he colored my life.”

This also tugged on the heartstrings of the locals who live in the parish neighborhood. They will no longer see these hundreds of multicolored T-shirts in the streets every morning. But the colors that they left by marking the sidewalks will be a witness to their joyful time there for many months to come.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord for all of the good, all of the wonders that He has done for these fragile, vulnerable, small creatures; for all of the healings…the joys and hopes sown in their hearts .. It is only He who restores life, color, meaning to life … we and the activities of Oratory have been instruments only in His Hand … Praised are you, oh Lord!”

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