I was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria. Which believe it or not, used to be a great city when it existed.
Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, was known as the “jewel of Syria.” Its entire downtown area was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, before the revolution in 2011, the city had a thriving arts and cultural scene.
A single mother, an anesthesiologist, raised me in this Aleppo. She worked in two, sometimes three hospitals, to be able to raise me and my brother. Childhood in Syria used to be fun and it used to be safe.
I still remember the public park. A five minutes’ walk from my house where my mother used to take us to play. One of my favorite things to do in the park used to be collecting white jasmines to make flower crowns. I still remember laying in the sun with my brother, closing my eyes and listening to the water fountain. This memory today is one of my favorite; it is of my childhood being peaceful and carefree.
I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents. My grandmother would talk about a couple of other wars in Lebanon. She was a refugee from Lebanon to Syria. And my grandfather was a refugee from Turkey to Syria. In all these stories I heard growing up, Syria was a place for people to take refuge or to be safe.
As a child, I always thought my country is safe. My country is hospitable. It is a place where people can feel safe. Growing up in Syria as a child was very safe. It was shelter for many people.
A Child of the Syria of Today
Children who are living in Aleppo today are living in 20% of the city that I lived in as a child. They do not know what the city that I lived in is like. They do not know that an entire city used to exist around Aleppo’s citadel. I would spend hours with my grandmother here. She would show me where she lived before Aleppo expanded. I still remember her wrinkled hands working to help me try on silver necklaces in the old city. Necklaces that only people in the old city could craft.
And now it’s destroyed. 80% of the city of Aleppo is destroyed. Children today only know the city of Aleppo through maybe photos that their parents or family have or through the stories. It is the reverse of my childhood. I was living in this beautiful city, when war is only a story that my family told me. Now, the children are living in this destroyed place when people my age are telling them about a city that was once full of life.
The Childhood of Adulthood
When I was working with SOS Children’s Villages Syria trying to help these children and families, we would go to all these places where people were displaced. Or people had just ran out of an area that was bombed heavily or where the clashes had intensified. What I saw was devastating by all measures.
Sometimes you see people who have run out of their houses with nothing, literally nothing, but the clothes on their backs. They needed everything from shelter, to food, to water, to access to hygiene. Their children are no longer going to school. I saw a lot of children of these families that were working to help their family make a living. Jobs that are not even for children. It is such an adult environment.
I have met children who were playing outside and then a bomb fell. They woke up in a hospital. They did not know if their parents were still alive. Nobody had asked about them in the hospital. They get out of the hospital and they find themselves right in the street. From playing outside in your home, waking up the next day and you are in the street. Can you imagine?
In the street, the kind of life you have is an adult life. Now you are 10 years old but you are responsible to find money to be able to eat and a place to sleep. You are too busy trying to provide yourself, as a child, with these essential needs that normally a parent or family would give you by default. Normally children do not even have to think where to sleep or how to get food. When a child is waking up in the street like that, they are exposed to experiencing sexual abuse, exposed to drugs, exposed to all types of assaults.
The 40-Year-Old Child
When I would first speak with the children at the SOS Interim Care Center in Aleppo or Damascus, there was no child there. My SOS colleagues and I really had to work to snap the child out of it. Get that child from being 40 years old, worrying about where to sleep, how to eat, how much money they have earned today at the age of 10, to being a child. My colleagues and I would tell these children, “You don’t have to worry about this. Your focus should be on your studies, on having fun, on developing.” If I closed my eyes, it was like a 40-year-old person sitting in front of you; it is not a 10-year-old child.
Working with SOS, I saw that first we need to address and relieve children of their immediate, emergency needs – food, water, shelter and medical care. However, we cannot ignore the psychological trauma of these children – like losing your mom in the war, witnessing your parent being killed or finding a dead body. A child cannot navigate this information, cannot get over it by themselves. You have to counsel them, work with them, support them and show them that life can get better. At the SOS Child-Friendly Spaces, these children work with expert trauma counselors and begin to rediscover their childhood through play, through school and through friends. When children are safe, their basic needs provided for, they have a chance to heal. These children can go back to being children.
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