Syria is never far from the news headlines these days. However, we often forget that between 1958 to 1971it was united with Egypt, and although the union was dissolved, there has always been a strong connection between the two countries. Nowadays there is a large Syrian community in Egypt, mostly, but not exclusively, made up of refugees. I find myself knowing and working with a number of Syrians in Cairo..
Salim Farah is now in his final year of the M.Div program at ETSC and is about to graduate. An elder in the Presbyterian Church, Salim comes from Baludan, a town in the hills outside Damascus (a winter sports resort in the days before the Civil War ravaged the country). The civil war made it difficult for his congregation to maintain a pastor, so Salim, who is an attorney and judge at the religious court by profession, effectively became the pastor. However he was conscious of his lack of training and so decided to have theological training. His brother is a pastor in the North-east of Syria and had studied at ETSC, so Salim elected to come to Cairo too. It has not always been easy as the culture, food and even the Arabic spoken in Egypt is very different from Syria, and Salim has had to adjust. However, his worst moment came with the death of his father in Syria during his first year here. Because of his visa, he was unable to travel for the funeral and he has also been unable to visit his mother and family since, as it has been uncertain whether he would be allowed back in to finish his studies. Salim found himself supported by the family of ETSC and has built up good relations here in Cairo. He is committed to return to Syria to be part of the rehabilitation and healing of Syria once the war is over –Syria was 20% Christian before the present troubles and, according to Salim, desperately needs the message of Jesus’ love. He would first like to study for a Masters degree in peace studies, before he returns for good.
Camilla Elia is also Syrian, coming from the North-East of the country from a town settled by Christians fleeing persecution in Ottoman Turkey during World War 1. Her father was Protestant, but her mother’s side of the family was all Orthodox, and she grew up singing Syriac hymns. Although deciding to be Protestant herself, she values her Orthodox heritage and is strongly ecumenical. She came at first to Egypt in 1997 to study for the B.Th. at ETSC, before continuing to study for a Th.M. in Biblical Studies, being one of the first women to graduate in the Th.M. programme.. She married an Egyptian pastor, and so has stayed on in Cairo and teaches Hebrew at the Catholic and the Baptist seminaries. She has also involved herself in the Sudanese community, supporting some of the refugee congregations. Recently Camilla returned to ETSC to study for a second Th.M., this time focusing on the work of St Ephrem, a Syrian church-leader of the 5th Century. She is active in her husband’s congregation in Rod El Farag and often invites expat pastors to preach there, though first of all filling them with the most marvellous Syrian food.
Both Camilla and Salim came to Egypt specifically to study, but Ghiath came as a refugee. He is from Damascus, where his family is well-established and live in a big 12 roomed house in the old part of Damascus. He studied engineering at the university, but realised that on graduation, he would be drafted into the army and, as a soldier, he would either have to kill someone or be killed himself, neither of which particularly appealed! So after his third year he ran away, travelling to Lebanon first of all, then to Turkey, before finally reaching Egypt, where he has lived now for five years, working in a takeaway restaurant serving Syrian food. He is continuing his engineering studies online, at the end of which his dream is to go to Australia or Canada. He knows his family are well and manages to communicate with his mother by phone every other day, but realises it would be difficult for him ever to return to Syria. His English is excellent already, but he says he learnt it from watching films on YouTube! I am supposed to help him with pronunciation, but mostly we explore the various Syrian and Lebanese restaurants around the city.