Saturday 17 August 2019

They've all been through hell but the women of Aleppo are now building a future

Ghouson Mukaddam, principal at Ammar Bin Yasser primary school in Aleppo Photo: Mark Condren
Ghouson Mukaddam, principal at Ammar Bin Yasser primary school in Aleppo Photo: Mark Condren

Jason O'Brien in Syria

There is a tree painted on the wall of a care centre for separated children in Aleppo, and each branch carries a picture of every child brought in.

"We take pictures as soon as possible in case a parent comes back a long time later and doesn't recognise the child," Mohammed Makki, the general manager, explains. If a child is reunited with family, their picture comes down.

A younger Nour remains on one of the branches. We don't know her surname. She is three and a half now, at a guess. Last December she was picked up by a soldier in east Aleppo. Amid the chaos, the bombings and the destruction as the drawn-out siege drew to an end, Nour was found alone, covered in debris, with a broken leg, on the side of a street.

"She was old enough to cry 'Mama' and 'Dada' but wouldn't say more than that - not even her name. Nobody came for her and she ended up with us," Mr Makki recalls, as another 15 or so children under the age of five play nearby in the rented facility in the Chahba neighbourhood.

"She was in terrible condition, physically and mentally. She isolated herself in the centre, wouldn't speak or play or go outdoors or talk. We tried and failed to get her out of psychological trauma."

Still no one came for her. What happened to her parents? Did they, like many others, die in the final push by government forces to retake the rebel-held section of the city? Did they somehow get separated from her as thousands were evacuated to Idlib province when President Bashar al Assad secured a crucial victory in the (then) six-year conflict?

Fatima Rejab at a ‘Return to Learning’ centre in Aleppo Photo: Mark Condren
Fatima Rejab at a ‘Return to Learning’ centre in Aleppo Photo: Mark Condren

Fortunately for Nour, there was someone else.

"We had a caregiver who was responsible for her," Mr Makki explains. "Over time, Bayan Lejeen was able to bring Nour out of her shell."

Although adoption is against the law in Syria, Ms Lejeen was determined and committed enough to pass strict criteria allowing her access to Nour at the weekends. The change in the little girl with the sad brown eyes has been remarkable.

"She has a family now, grandparents and aunts and cousins. It has turned her life around completely. She has started to mingle with the other kids here, and is going to kindergarten. She is even speaking. Bayan's name is shortened to 'Bet' and Nour calls herself 'Nour Bet' now. She's thriving."

Read More: Special dispatch: Abused, lost, bereaved – How the young women of east Aleppo reclaimed their futures

The resilience of young children is often remarked upon. But the stories about young girls from east Aleppo are nonetheless remarkable. Unicef was doing a polio vaccination here when a 13-year-old girl holding a baby walked up. The health team asked her for a parent's card so they could administer the medicine.

"I'm the mother," the young girl replied.

Aya got married at 12, when her family was among those besieged in east Aleppo. Her father told her: "In war, I need someone to take care of the girls," and gave her no choice.

Three-year-old Nour, who was found alone and injured on the streets of Aleppo, stands in front of a tree decorated with the photos of other children who have been brought to a care facility for separated children. Photo: Mark Condren
Three-year-old Nour, who was found alone and injured on the streets of Aleppo, stands in front of a tree decorated with the photos of other children who have been brought to a care facility for separated children. Photo: Mark Condren

Today, her husband is missing, and her father is dead. The healthcare team asked her a few questions. Aya didn't recommend marriage as a child.

"Not at all, I would never let my daughter get married - she would lose her childhood," she said.

Marrying at a very young age was an option - rather than a demand - put to Fatima Rajab, but she rejected it. She's a proud 16-year-old, and a little stubborn. But that appears to be a family trait.

When rebel fighters started to take control of parts of east Aleppo in the summer of 2012, the population of that area, which includes the ancient old city, was estimated at one million.

By the time the government regained control last December, just 40,000 remained. Fatima remained in the once-thriving Sukkari neighbourhood, now a dusty hive of shelled-out buildings, with rubble and debris littering the streets, intermittent electricity and almost total poverty.

Her mother and father remained. Her six older sisters married and left. One of her older brothers, Mohammed, was killed in a bomb attack. The other, Abdo, has been missing for many months.

"There was no food, but we just had to survive. I was terrified all the time. I thought at any time that I might die," she says, speaking quietly at first but growing in confidence as she tells her remarkable story.

"My father spent all the money he had saved to build this house and he would not go even when we wanted to. He said, 'You go and leave me alone' but we stayed with him."

Night after night, week after week, month after month, the Rajab family lived in fear - fear of bombs, of mortars, of snipers, of hunger, of dehydration, of illness. Their nightmare began when Fatima was nine. The siege was lifted when she was 15. She missed the intervening six years of school.

But now she is back in education, and wants to be an IT engineer.

"I've an exam in May and it will be difficult. I cried when I came back because it was so difficult to catch up but gradually it got better," she says. "I'll hopefully pass, but I need high marks to get into the IT school so I need to work." That she will is guaranteed.

"One of the most inspiring aspects of our mission here in Aleppo is the sheer resilience of the women we have encountered," Peter Power, executive director of Unicef Ireland, says.

"They must be commended not only for surviving the awful conflict during the past six years and more, but also for resolutely planning to secure their own futures and those of their families. It's remarkable."

And the importance of education to anchor those plans repeatedly stands out.

Elham Shekhou (25) was going to work when she and her husband Firass were struck by a mortar. She was six months pregnant.

"I was very afraid for my baby," she says. "I had to undergo many surgeries and X-rays, and had a lot of warnings that things wouldn't turn out well and I was expecting they wouldn't."

Fortunately, Miriam is now a thriving one-year-old. "It's a miracle," her mother says.

While her husband was soon able to return to work, Elham has extensive injuries, including severe damage to her left leg, meaning standing is very difficult.

We meet her as she stands in front of a classroom in Deir Hafer in rural Aleppo, where she is now working as a teacher.

"I hope [Miriam] has a very good life, goes to university, and that is why I'm standing here with some difficulty doing my work," she says.

"Our house was destroyed in the crisis so I'm also working to help support my husband.

"But my little girl needs someone to take care of her when I'm at work, and my husband's family is here so I moved and he works in the city.

"I am surprised by my own strength," she admits with a shy smile.

Ghouson Mukaddam (42) has also shown remarkable patience. She was made principal of Ammar bin Yasser school in Maysaloun in 2010. It is a densely populated area near the old city, and was controlled by the rebels until last December.

Ghouson lived directly across the road from her school. Both her home and school were destroyed within a short period in 2014. Fortunately, she and her family had already left. Indeed, almost all the buildings around the school were hit.

"It became very dangerous and I simply couldn't stay there," she says. "I can't start to describe what it felt like to leave, it was very difficult. But I was determined to start again for the children, but I had to wait."

Plans for the new school finally began in February of this year, and she was a major contributor from the start. It was a huge undertaking. It included clearing part of the former site, installing 10 new prefabricated classrooms, amalgamating with other schools in the area which had also been destroyed, and sourcing new teachers because so many men are still fighting, injured or dead.

"We were waiting for the opening by the second. This land means a lot to us because of what we had before and what we have gone through," she says.

"The minute you see the children in the classroom, there is a huge happiness. I, too, am happy here, and looking forward."

Old men start wars, the saying goes, and young men fight them. But it is the women of east Aleppo who are picking up the pieces and shaping a future for them, their families, and maybe even their beleaguered country.

Irish Independent

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