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'Hospitals are a source of life, but a bomb could be dropped at any time'

Hamza al-Kateab, co-star of the Oscar-nominated documentary 'For Sama', tells John Reynolds about his new-found fame and the unique challenges of running a hospital in Aleppo


A love story set amidst chaos: Hamza and Waad al-Kateab in Aleppo with their daughter Sama

A love story set amidst chaos: Hamza and Waad al-Kateab in Aleppo with their daughter Sama

Award: Waad al-Kateab with the Best Documentary Bafta last Sunday

Award: Waad al-Kateab with the Best Documentary Bafta last Sunday


A love story set amidst chaos: Hamza and Waad al-Kateab in Aleppo with their daughter Sama

Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kateab and her husband Hamza - Aleppo hospital manager and her co-star in the documentary For Sama - will be rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of Hollywood tomorrow night for the second time in a week, looking to add an Oscar to their Bafta.

Their film, co-directed by Englishman Edward Watts, is making a big impact across the world. Taking the form of a love letter from a young mother to her daughter, it evocatively combines the story of Waad and Hamza falling in love, marrying and having daughter Sama, now aged four, in the chaotic surroundings of a hospital in war-torn Aleppo amidst bombings by the regime forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Russian military.

Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett - a UN High Commission for Refugees ambassador - hosted a screening of the film, and Prince William and his wife Kate have also been moved by it. Kate told Waad last Sunday that the film left her "heartbroken," and she found it "so engaging".

US film-maker Michael Moore, who hosted screenings in New York, called it "one of the most powerful and important documentaries ever".


Award: Waad al-Kateab with the Best Documentary Bafta last Sunday

Award: Waad al-Kateab with the Best Documentary Bafta last Sunday

Award: Waad al-Kateab with the Best Documentary Bafta last Sunday

Last Sunday, it won Best Documentary at the Baftas, and hopes are high ahead of the Oscars in the early hours of Monday morning.

When he's not posing for photos on red carpets, 32-year-old Hamza is now the operations director of Amanacard, a financial technology social impact organisation based in London that works in refugee and conflict zones.

'A lack of everything'

Amanacard makes aid fully traceable from governments to the point money is spent by the recipient (from vulnerable families to paid workers in hospitals and schools to businesses providing goods and services).

It also reduces risks for people who would otherwise have to carry cash in dangerous areas or have their personal data shared across multiple levels of an NGO. It could help Irish NGOs become more transparent in showing donors where the aid they fund ends up.

Hamza's work takes him to London and Turkey, among other places. He deferred a scholarship to do a Masters degree in public health at a university in London until later this year, after deciding to commit to his job.

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The role gives him an ongoing insight into the experience of a hundred Syrian hospitals, he says.

"I know many of their managers," he says. "While there are the challenges ordinary hospitals in Britain or Ireland experience day-to-day, in Syria, it's just about a lack of everything: communication, staff, trained staff, and often fuel to provide stable electricity using generators.

"They take huge risks [to operate], and then they could be shut down for any reason. In Syria especially - and also in Yemen where Amanacard also works - hospitals have been one of the main targets of bombings by aircraft.

"One of the most difficult things is that you need to make the hospital a very obvious, known place for casualties to come to. But the more obvious you make it, the more danger it will be attacked.

"Hospitals are a source of life. But also a bomb could be dropped on them at any moment. A lot of people living near hospitals moved away. Some families refused to stay at the hospital, preferring to take patients home."

Waad continues to work for Channel 4 News, and is embarking on her next projects related to the same cause to "stop bombing Syria". She also has 2½-year-old Thaima to think about now, as well as Sama.

Hamza meets me at a busy east London coffee shop close to where he and the family live. Waad, 28, is at home looking after their daughters.

Sama has also enjoyed the glamour of the red carpet, and loves seeing herself in photos, even gently teasing her infant sister that it's not about her.

"It's also an excuse if we want a night out. If Sama starts crying, saying she doesn't want us to go out, if we say it's for the film, she doesn't mind, and says, okay then go," says Hamza.

Despite the chaos of war in which he and Waad were living, in the documentary he never appeared to be very stressed by everything that was going on around them.

"As well as being responsible for Waad and Sama, I was obviously also responsible for the hospital. I needed to keep calm, telling myself that I knew what I was doing, and it would all be fine," he laughs.

"I maybe had faith in what we were doing. Not religious faith, because I'm not strictly religious, though I do believe in God. It was more that I knew if I hesitated about something, it could shake the hospital's and the community's faith in me and my staff.

"People needed to come to us, see that we knew what we were doing, giving them some sense of confidence it would all be fine."

During one 20-day period, the hospital treated over 6,000 patients, carrying out over 890 operations, which must have taken an unimaginable toll on Hamza and his team.

"One of those days there had been a massacre, and our X-ray technician said we couldn't do any more X-rays that day or the X-ray machine would explode from overuse. It shocked me, because I hadn't realised we'd seen so many patients."

Is he hopeful about Syria's fate these days?

"I can't be optimistic. Assad now controls about 80pc of Syria, and a lot of governments state that we need to deal with that reality. But there should still be a fight for justice and accountability.

"The Caesar Act sanctioning anyone dealing with the regime is a beginning of that. It's a starting point before one day the country can be rebuilt and refugees can return."

One thing he does feel is that former US president Barack Obama not sticking to his 'red line' on Syria in relation to Assad's use of chemical weapons in 2013 was "a game changer".

"While I understand countries fearing a repeat of the Iraq war debacle, and not wanting to interfere, they also didn't attempt to stop Russia interfering. Russia then came to feel all-powerful [supporting Assad militarily]. I think the diplomatic word for that is that it was unfair."

'For Sama' can be viewed on free streaming service All4

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