Joe Canning travels to Aleppo: 'It's a bit surreal... I feel I need to do this'
“IT’S a bit surreal,” says Joe Canning, with admirable understatement, as the ‘rat-tat-tat’ of nearby gunfire again causes him to pause the interview.
The current hurler of the year is sitting on the roof of what remains of a school in Maysaloun in east Aleppo, close to the old city. A few kilometres down the road, war continues on the front line of a conflict that has lasted more than six-and-a-half years, killing more than 500,000 Syrians and injuring or displacing a staggering 12m people.
But in the space immediately behind the Galway star, schoolkids run from their new prefabricated classrooms to play during their morning break.
Welcome to the reality of life in east Aleppo, less than one year after the infamous siege was lifted.
“Even though there are gunshots going off in the distance, I don’t feel in any way unsafe,” Canning tells Independent.ie
"Maybe it’s because the kids are behind us here playing or whatever but I don’t feel under threat. I’m here to do a job, to tell a story here and to tell it when I get home.
“But it’s hard to get your head around - that kids are going to school here this morning and three kilometres away maybe people are dying in a war.”
This time last year, in his role as a Unicef Ireland goodwill ambassador, Canning visited Gazantiep in Turkey and heard stories from families who had been able to flee the fighting in Syria.
Around the same time, government forces restored full control over Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, bringing to an end a lengthy siege that had seen the population of the east part of the city plummet from 1m to just 40,000.
No one knows how many people died.
Canning was deeply affected by the often harrowing stories he heard of those who managed to escape. And now he wants to hear from those who were unable to.
“I kinda agreed to travel straight away when asked because I had that experience last year and I wanted to carry on and complete the circle if you like, to learn about those who stayed in Aleppo,” the 29-year-old explains.
In December of last year, the Syrian army announced that Aleppo had been fully recaptured from rebel fighters, the government’s biggest victory in the civil war. But the war is not won, and fighting continues in Aleppo and many other regions in Syria – ensuring Canning’s family wasn’t as enthusiastic about his plans.
“For sure – they’re all still talking about it and wondering if I’m okay. Obviously going with Unicef you have that reassurance about safety and so on, but still, I understand (the concerns).
“But I feel like I need to do this.
“For Unicef to build a school with 10 prefabs behind me – that’s 380 kids getting an education, and having dreams in the middle of all this destruction. It’s hard to comprehend, but you have to understand the kids have a future in mind for themselves, which is not always something you’d realise at home.”
The opening of the school has brought a sense of normality to young children who may have been out of education for up to five years.
Canning, who was instrumental in Galway’s first All Ireland success in 29 years last September, brought a few of his own hurleys and sliothars with him, and some of kids got a game on Sunday.
“Pucking around with them was great, just seeing their smiles,” he says.
“Of course they hadn’t a clue what they were playing, but the point is they are kids and it’s sport and they should be playing. But these are the kids that were left behind for so long, and playing just wasn’t a consideration.”
Because simply staying alive was for so long the priority. And, despite some semblance of normality beginning to return to East Aleppo, it continues to be the priority.
“It’ll get to minus -4c, -5c in December here and wet too,” Canning says.
“Kids will be most affected, and if we can help, in any small way, to get them through it with extra clothes or whatever it is, it’ll be worth doing. Irish people are very generous and although the crisis in Syria has been going for a while, I’m sure they’ll be generous again.”