This November, Australia will receive a visit from 35-year old Frenchman, Benjamin Blanchard, co-founder and directing manager of the charity SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (Christians of the East), which sends volunteers and aid to the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
In his two-week visit to Australia, Benjamin hopes to raise not just awareness, but $150,000, which SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (SOS) has pledged to help rebuild the city of Qaraqosh (Bakhdida). Sitting just 32km southeast of Mosul, Qaraqosh is the main Christian city in Iraq, and suffered severe damage during its two-year occupation by ISIS.
“September 2016 was a great joy for us, when the Iraqi security forces liberated Qaraqosh from the grip of ISIS,” said Benjamin.
SOS has been sending funds and volunteers to rebuild Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, which was released from ISIS control in December 2016, but now the money has now run out.
“Our new challenge is to raise money for the Nineveh Plains and Aleppo. There is so much work to be done to rebuild those places, but they are no longer in the limelight of international news outlets,” he said.
Benjamin will be hosted by Ora Duffley, Australia’s first and only SOS CO volunteer, and he hopes that his visit down under will inspire other Australians to volunteer – either time or money.
“I hope to carry the voice of Middle-Eastern Christians [to Australia], to give people here the desire to volunteer to go to these countries, sharing the life of these people and working with them to rebuild their villages, their countries and their lives,” he said.
SOS was started by Benjamin, and his friend Charles de Meyer, in September 2013 in reaction to the ‘battle’ of Maaloula, where the Syrian jihadist group, Al-Nusra Front, attacked Maaloula, a Christian city about one hour’s drive from Damascus. During this time, the city of over 3,000 people was evacuated. A church was burnt down, several Christians were executed and another five were kidnapped.
“I couldn’t stay at home, watching what was happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria, without doing anything,” said Benjamin.
“Those are countries which saw the birth of Christianity, places where the apostles St Thomas and St Paul went. They were Christian lands long before Europe.”
In response, Benjamin, along with a group of friends, assembled four tons of toys, clothes and blankets to send to the internally displaced Syrians.
This “marked the beginning” of what was to become SOS Chrétiens d’Orient.
Since then, SOS has grown to a fully operational charity. They have sent over 1,000 volunteers to five countries, and they run permanent missions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. For two years, they have run a summer mission in Egypt, and have sent aid to Christians living in Pakistan and Turkey.
In January 2016, Benjamin quit his job as a French conveyancing lawyer to work on the charity full-time.
“As the managing director of the organisation, it is my job to go to the field regularly and supervise what project managers are doing, encouraging them and listening to them,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin has visited all the countries where SOS has projects, sometimes in towns just kilometres away from where ISIS is active. One of these sites is Qaraqosh.
Benjamin has high hopes for his visit to Australia, which he will see for the first time this November.
“Everyone should feel personally affected by what is happening in the Middle East,” he said.
“The situation there is dramatic. The cause of Middle-Eastern Christians is humanitarian, religious and cultural all at the same time. Everyone can relate to one or the other aspect, and that is true of Australians as well.”
Benjamin Blanchard will be visiting Australian between 26 November to 10 December. He has been booked to speak in nine locations across the eastern states. He will conclude his visit at the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney, 7-9 December. For more details of his visit, click here.