My Damascus Summer


by Daniel G. Khalil, Jr.

From mid-July through mid-August 2009, I was a resident at St. Elias Monastery in the Dweila neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. I was accompanied by a group of nearly twenty young adults from the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, participating in a program called Damascus Summer Encounter (www.syriasummer.org) – a one-month or two-month program designed to foster friendship and understanding between young people from western nations and the people of Syria. About half of the group had signed up for the two-month session and had joined the Damascus Summer Encounter in mid-June; the other half had opted to participate only in the one-month program and arrived in Damascus in mid-July. In short, the Damascus Summer Encounter is a comprehensive program offering participants an intense yet personal inter-cultural experience combining cultural seminars, language training, visits to historic sites, and, most importantly, community service.

The primary goal of the Damascus Summer Encounter is to encourage meaningful interaction between the participants and the Christian and Islamic communities of Syria through personal, daily involvement in indispensable projects targeting both disadvantaged Syrian nationals and Iraqi refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict in their homeland (as I write these lines, there are approximately 800,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria). For the participants, however, the Damascus Summer Encounter is so much more: The program provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with, learn about, and truly appreciate the people of Syria and the richness and beauty of their culture, their language, their history, and their way of life. Likewise, the Damascus Summer Encounter offers an opportunity for the participants to meet, collaborate with, and befriend like-minded individuals from other western countries. Finally, the Damascus Summer Encounter encourages its participants to grow and develop both personally and spiritually.

As visitors to Syria, we were sponsored by and were guests of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (www.antiochpat.org) – the Mother Church of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The offices of the Patriarchate host, organize, and support the Damascus Summer Encounter on a daily basis. Specifically, His Grace Bishop GHATTAS (Hazim), the Patriarchal Vicar, was instrumental in organizing the interaction between our group and officials from the Syrian government as well as the many non-governmental organizations the program helps, including International Orthodox Christian Charities (www.iocc.org), the local mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (www.unhcr.org), the Middle East Council of Churches (www.mec-churches.org), and Mercy Corps (www.mercycorps.org).

Daily life for the Damascus Summer Encounter participant consists of several components: each morning begins with a traditional family-style Syrian breakfast at the monastery. (Although the facility is called a “monastery” and is owned and operated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, it is more accurately described as a dormitory or hostel, as each room is outfitted with a telephone, air-conditioning, ceiling-fan, mini-refrigerator, satellite television, a private bathroom with hot-water shower and seated toilets, as well as high-speed Internet access.) Breakfast normally included yogurt, a few different cheeses, olives, bread, hard-boiled eggs, and hot tea. Breakfast was a great time to finalize plans for the day and also an opportunity to interact with the other guests at the monastery (a perfect chance for the participant to practice speaking Arabic or to help a fellow traveler practice speaking English).

After breakfast, we traveled to our designated volunteer projects either by micro-bus, by taxi, or on foot. Each participant was attached to a specific volunteer project according to his or her individual talents, skills, and interests. The volunteer projects included working at a day camp with Syrian and Iraqi children; tutoring the clergy in conversational English at the Patriarchate offices on the “Street Called Straight” (see Acts 9:11); teaching English at the Damascus Berlitz Institute or at the Arab International University located just south of Damascus; visiting with elderly Syrians at the St. Gregory Orthodox Institute located just outside the Damascus Old City walls adjacent to the very beautiful Holy Cross Church; producing a video documentary about the Damascus Summer Encounter program itself; and more. I served as an English tutor for members of the clergy at the Patriarchate offices – an amazingly rewarding experience that I will never forget. The opportunity to discuss religion, theology, life, and many other issues with the members of the clergy was a true blessing. For the Damascus Summer Encounter, these volunteer opportunities constitute the heart and soul of the program; for the participants, the opportunity to lend their support to these projects was both personally meaningful and spiritually rewarding.

After completing our daily volunteer session, we met back at the monastery for another communal meal – the meals varied from day to day, but included traditional Syrian foods such as hummus, salad, kibbee, bread, and fruit as well as the occasional pasta dish or stir-fry. Lunchtime was a great opportunity to share experiences from the morning volunteer session and to relax before attending Arabic lessons. We attended from two to four hours of Arabic lessons Monday through Thursday. The lessons are provided by the Damascus Berlitz Institute and focus on conversational colloquial Arabic (Syrian, of course) – no English is spoken during the lessons, which encourages the participant to think in Arabic. Near the conclusion of the Damascus Summer Encounter, each participant may take an exam in order to earn a certificate of completion from the Damascus Berlitz Institute.

After Arabic lessons, we had time to rest and have dinner away from the monastery before attending an evening lecture or discussion group at the Holy Cross Church in the Christian Quarter of Damascus. The evening lectures and discussion groups were divided between current events and societal topics on one hand and public policy and government affairs topics on the other. Each evening featured a different topic which permitted our group to interact with Syrians from all levels of society, including the local youth, women, intellectuals, and government officials. From a societal standpoint, representative topics included an intimate and lively conversation with Syrian Orthodox Youth where we had the opportunity to discuss life-issues and current events with young Syrian Christians, a fascinating lecture highlighting the many important archaeological Christian sites located in Syria (including some of the most ancient churches in the world), and a very informative panel discussion focusing on women’s issues in Syrian society with both Muslim and Christian speakers. These conversations were among the most significant and enlightening aspects of the entire program.

As to public policy and government affairs, the evening events included a lecture introducing Mercy Corps (an international humanitarian non-governmental organization working to improve the lives of Iraqi refugees living in Syria); a meeting with Mr. Samer Laham to discuss the work of the Middle East Council of Churches in Syria and its neighboring countries; a conference with representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to discuss the Iraqi refugee crisis in Syria and Jordan; a conversation with Dr. George Jabbour (a member of the Syrian parliament and former adviser of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad) concerning political reform and human rights in Syria; a discussion with Dr. Muhsin Bilal, Syria’s Minister of Information, concerning the portrayal of Syria in the local and international media; and a meeting with Mr. Yusuf Suwayd, the Syrian Minister of Expatriates, concerning the status of Syrians living outside of Syria.

After each evening’s lecture or discussion panel, and on certain afternoons, we had plenty of free time to explore Damascus – from the charming shops and restaurants lining the labyrinthine streets within the Old City walls to the busy shopping district surrounding the Bab Touma neighborhood. In addition, we had the option of visiting the European-style coffee shops and ultra-modern cinema near the National Museum in the New City, among other attractions. Although the primary focus of the Damascus Summer Encounter is on service and learning, we were encouraged to shop in the souks, visit restaurants and shops, attend concerts, and stroll through the streets of the Old City to soak in as much of Syria’s culture as possible.

Our weekends differed greatly from the weekday schedule described above. Although Damascus is a very beautiful city and could occupy a traveler for weeks at a time with no risk of boredom, the other regions of Syria are just as fascinating and deserving of exploration. Each weekend we traveled to a different destination away from the city of Damascus. Some of the trips were overnight and some were day trips. They included an overnight visit to Palmyra, where we watched the sun set from the ramparts of the sixteenth-century Qala’at ibn Maan castle on a Friday evening and then attended a traditional dinner-party at a Bedouin Tent; on the following morning we explored the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, including the ruins of a former Temple to Ba’al, before returning to Damascus.

We also made a trip to Krak des Chevaliers – the eleventh-century Crusader Castle, called Qal’at al-Ḥiṣn in Arabic, which dominates Syria’s Christian Valley (Wadi Nassara) – followed by a visit to the St. George Monastery of Homeyra (originally built during the sixth century) and an overnight stay at the St. Takla (St. Thekla) Monastery for women (dating back to the fourth century) in the picturesque mountain village of Maaloula. Other excursions included an evening dinner party to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration at the St. Christopher Monastery (an ancient facility currently being restored under the guidance of His Beatitude Patriarch IGNATIUS IV [Hazim]) located near the town of Saidnaya; a visit to the resort town of Bloudan to see the Moses Cave; visits to the predominantly Druze town of As Suwayda and the nearly perfectly preserved second-century Roman theater at Bosra; and visits to the University of Kalamoon (the first private university in Syria) and the Cultural Palace in Der Attiyeh village.

Overall, my summer travels in Syria were unforgettable. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream of visiting my grandfather’s homeland, meeting new friends, worshiping with fellow Christians from across the world, and discovering new strengths and talents previously hidden within my soul. The Damascus Summer Encounter was an excellent vehicle for fulfilling my goals: the combination of travel, pilgrimage, volunteer work, and cultural immersion was fantastic and can hardly be described. It was a life-changing experience, to say the least. There is only one thing left to say – When can I go back?

Daniel G. Khalil Jr.
St. George Cathedral
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania