Rana Touma and her three children were living in Damascus when they received a coffee mug with a picturesque image of Maaloula. Their eyes filled with tears because they feared they would never again see their hometown.
In December 2013, armed rebel groups, including al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked Maaloula, an ancient Christian enclave. The town prided itself on being the last place on earth where people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
For months to follow, clashes between rebel groups and government forces destroyed most of the town’s historic homes, churches and monasteries. Rebels kidnapped 13 nuns and killed those who resisted. Residents were forced to flee their homes. In a country where Christians are perceived to be disappearing or under threat of attack, it raised questions about the community’s very survival.
“We feared that Maaloula would no longer exist,” Touma told Syria Deeply in an interview over Skype. “We feared that we had lost our homes, our history and the place where our grandparents were born and buried.”
Touma’s family was among the first wave of people who returned to Maaloula after government forces overtook rebel fighters in April.
The town is not as secure as Damascus; they routinely hear fighting in the distance and sometimes find the road to the capital blocked by unrest. But Touma, her husband and their three children preferred the risk of living in Maaloula to the pain of leaving home.
“Missing Maaloula and fearing that we lost it was literally killing us,” said Touma. “My father-in-law cried for months after we fled to Damascus. He ended up dying of a heart attack.”
But the journey back wasn’t easy. Touma, a housewife, and her husband, a building contractor, decided that he would go back to Maaloula first to decide if it was safe for everyone else.
The town had been empty of residents for months, and many of its religious artifacts had been looted and smuggled out. Most of its people had fled to Damascus and Lebanon, their precious language at risk of disappearing as they were absorbed into new communities.
“It was very sad,” her husband Mazen told Syria Deeply. “My heart was broken to see the amount of destruction in the streets, the charred walls and ransacked homes of the old part my beautiful town.”
In June, Touma took her children for a visit.
“It looked like a town where time had stopped. It was destroyed, deserted, with no water, no electricity, no phone service and no people,” she said.
“But, despite all that, my children refused to return to Damascus. They cried and begged to stay, so we decided to stay.”
The family resettled in the newer part of Maaloula, which had seen less destruction. The historic part of town remains empty.
“We had almost nothing at first, but we were very happy,” she said.
Soon the couple opened the first grocery store in the area. Then another one opened, along with an elementary school and a high school. Mazen went to work helping people rebuild their homes.
“It is not easy to rebuild, and most people cannot afford it. This is the main reason why not everyone has returned to the town,” he said. He’s repaired roughly 30 homes so far, fixing their broken walls, doors and windows.
“Some people are rebuilding with limited means. We try to help each other. Recently, it rained heavily and the roof and wall of one of the houses collapsed … we all ran to help,” said Mazen.
Today the people of Maaloula are better off than many in Syria: they have electricity, water and a stream of aid from abroad. But it isn’t enough to cope with the bitterly cold winters, when snowfall can cut off all roads into the town.
“The people of the town try very hard to support themselves with what they have,” said Touma. “For example, we have schools open for our children, but most of the teachers are not professional teachers. They are mainly educated members of the community who decided to take this job to help out.”
In all, Touma says that roughly 1,000 people have returned to live in Maaloula, one-third of its normal wintertime population. On Christmas Eve they plan to hold mass at St. George Church at 7pm, not at the usual midnight hour, since it’s not considered a safe time to be out. Santa Claus will make an appearance, bringing gifts to children at St. Thekla Monastery.
But it’s far from the community life that Touma used to know.
“We miss everything … we miss the people, the sound of bells tolling in the morning and in the evening,” she said. “But we are trying very hard.”