At ‘Gospel House’ for the care of the elderly, Sister Valentina Sakker, 85, looks after her patients. During the conflict, the house was on the front line. Sister Valentina stayed with her charges to defend and protect them.
Those were seven years of hell. Before the war, Homs had a population of 800,000. The city was founded around 2300 BC and was known to the Romans as Emesa. Today, due to the war, it is a broken and deserted city. It had become a symbol of the 2011 revolt against Bashar el Assad, the ‘capital of the revolution’.
Last May, the third largest city in Syria, after four years of unrelenting siege, was completely taken over by Damascus and “freed of all armed opposition”, in the words of the regime after the controlled evacuation of the last district of Al-Waer.
In accordance with the agreement between the two parties, the armed rebels and their families were taken to Idlib – they left the city with covered faces and were allowed to keep light arms for self-defence along with the political opposition – and forces loyal to the president took over the city. The anti-Assad rebels, having lost the ‘martyr city’ of Aleppo, Homs – greatly reduced after the heavy government offensive of 2014 – and almost the whole of Damascus, are now dug in in most of the province around Aleppo along the Turkish border as well as at Idlib and its surroundings.
From the roof of the Old People’s Home, it is possible to see the old part of the city of Homs, all that is left of it – bombed out buildings, destroyed minarets and steeples, rubble and ruins. “I didn’t want to leave these old people alone or abandon my post”, Sister Valentina tells us, “so when the bombing started I had the old people sit in the middle of the corridor to protect them from projectiles launched from both positions”.
Sister Valentina Sakker, a Lebanese, born in 1931, is the director of the Home for the care of the elderly, founded in the eighties by a Presbyterian priest and today run together by the Sisters of the Sacred heart and the Lutheran churches.
The building now houses about fifty elderly people. “Even during the conflict, the number remained the same”, Sr. Valentina recalls. The religious Sister is small and slim but tenacious and unstoppable. She climbs stairs without a pause for breath, takes a look to see if things are going well in the kitchen and lays the table, all the time chatting with the residents. At 85, not even the war could stop her. Since 2011 she has taken care of, defended and protected the elderly in the home situated on one of the fronts contested by the opposition and the Syrian army, in the city quarter of Bab As Sibaa.
In February 2012, when everywhere was closed and blocked off, the government army occupied the school next to the Old People’s Home, while the streets were ruled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A few months later, in May, the conflict between the Syrian regime and the FSA intensified more than ever, involving the Old People’s Home.
Sr. Valentina recalls, “Some militants entered the house and started firing a rocket launcher at the regime positions from a window. The soldiers of the regime began shooting at the house. There were many wounded and one of our Sisters, Sr. Christina, was killed. There was general panic. We succeeded in contacting the commander of the Syrian army and told him clearly that we supported neither side but were just doing our duty of taking care of the poor and the elderly”.
We walked down the stairs together and out into the garden. “When I get angry, I come here and my anger passes”, Sr. Valentina tells us as she carefully gathers the white jasmine buds. The garden of the Old People’s Home is an oasis of peace. The scent of roses and orange blossoms fills the air. Just for an instant, the greyness, the dust and the surrounding destruction seem to vanish. “It was formerly a forest but look how marvellous it is now. In the midst of such violence and despair, God continues to make the flowers bloom. You can smell the aroma of the oranges. It is hope that is in flower”.
The Reverend Mofid Karayili, of the Presbyterian church of Homs works alongside Sister Valentina in the Old People’s Home. Together, they kept the Home open and prepared a Chapel as a place of prayer for Protestants and Catholics. “We worked side by side, trusting in Providence”, the young pastor explained. His gaze again rests on the ever-smiling face of the elderly Sister as she said “I will stay here as long as they need me. For now I see no reason to leave. On the contrary, I have to make a new beginning”.