Stories and photos by Patrick Nicholson

Reuniting a divided city

The battle for Aleppo began in mid-2012. Fighting ended with the government taking control of the whole of the once divided Syrian city in December, 2016. One year after the end of hostilities, families are rebuilding their lives. Caritas works in the east and west of Aleppo, reaching 35,000 people with aid distributions, counselling and education, medical and rent support.


Maher, Amira and the Converse sneakers

“War taught me to live in the moment,” said Maher Samaan, a thirty-something resident of Syria’s largest city.

Maher stayed in Aleppo throughout the years of conflict. “Aleppo was full of violence. We saw a lot of blood. My niece was on a bus when fighters opened fire. Everyone was killed. We lost friends and family. We lost our future and our hopes,” he said.

“My friends flew away. I tried to leave but am an only child. My mother couldn’t let me go.”

One of those friends was Amira Macharekji. “I was working in a dangerous area. I lost my job when rebels seized the building,” she said. Amira went to Lebanon in 2012. The two kept in touch by text message. “We were best friends. I knew his secrets and he knew mine,” said Amira.

Amira Macharekji (centre) is an M&E officer for Caritas in Jabal Badro in Aleppo.

Amira Macharekji (centre) is an M&E officer for Caritas in Jabal Badro in Aleppo.

“We spoke everyday, of our memories, our feelings,” said Maher. “So one day I said why don’t we get married. After one second she said why not.”

The fighting in Aleppo ended 12 months ago. “When the conflict stopped, your thoughts turn to the future. It’s hard to see life again. You’re a survivor and you don’t have anything,” said Maher.

Amira returned from Lebanon this year to plan the engagement, the wedding and a future together. “The wedding in September was awesome,” said Maher. “We made something special to represent our identity and personality.” Their wedding song was Metallica’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Bride and groom both wore Converse sneakers.

Many of their friends and family weren’t there however. Maher’s best friend is in Brazil, Amira’s brother is in Sweden. “That’s life. That’s the situation,” said Amira. “We have dreams of travelling abroad, seeing the world, living a free life,” said Maher. “Step by step,” said Amira.

She currently works for Caritas in East Aleppo. Much of that part of the city has been destroyed. “Caritas helps with water and food, and aid like soap and nappies,” she said. “If somebody has a problem, then we work to resolve it.”

“So one day I said why don’t we get married. After one second she said why not.”

Amal the gymnast

“I registered with many charities but nobody helped,” said Sama, a 37-year-old mother of five. “I heard that Caritas can help with prosthetic limbs. They referred Amal to a hospital. It took less than a week.”

Sama lives in East Aleppo after fleeing Hama, another Syrian city caught in war. “Amal was just a baby. She was sleeping when a mortar shell fell. I ran to her. The ceiling had come down. There was blood all around her,” she said

At the hospital, doctors said that Amal’s leg was badly damaged. “I promised to sell everything to pay for surgery to save it,” she said, but the leg had to be amputated.

Amal (front) with her mother and siblings.

Amal (front) with her mother and siblings.

Sama’s husband is a soldier, often away from home. She has brought up the children mostly alone. “Every time Amal moved, blood came out. Life was very difficult,” she said.

The family moved to East Aleppo a few months ago to be near her husband. It was there that they met Magida Tabbakh, a local Caritas worker. “They called us from the hospital. Magi had talked to them,” said Sama. “They referred me to the Red Cross. We started the physiotherapy. After that they gave us the prosthetic leg.”

Having spent all her life unable to walk, Amal, now 5, isn’t losing any time. She plays with the other children in the street, walks to school, is constantly climbing, swinging and having a lark. “In the physiotherapy centre, there were bars she could grab to walk. She somersaulted over them. She is a gymnast,” said Sama. “When I say tell her to obey me she says not now I have two legs.”

Caritas provides Sama’s family with food, clothes, water and hygiene items. “Life is difficult, especially the expenses,” said Sama.

“Now my daughter has the new leg, I don’t care for anything else. This was a big burden and God helped us.”


We will not forget

As many as 13,000 bombs fell on the 250,000 people of East Aleppo in 2016. On the ground, rebel militants in control of the area carried out murder and torture, withheld food and medicine and enforced a reign of terror.

“We were living under bombardment from the skies and threats on the ground,” said Manara Aded Al Hamid, a mother of five who stayed in East Aleppo throughout the siege.

“There is no film showing what we lived through, but we will not forget. It was the face of death itself.”

Finding food, medicine and fuel became impossible. “The worse period was when we started to collect the leaves of trees to eat,” she said. “We burned plastic for cooking, but it was very toxic.”

Manara Aded Al Hamid with her children.

Saturday 19 August at 9.20, Manara’s husband and daughter were fetching vegetables when a mortar shell fell nearby. “Only his face was identifiable,” she said. “My eldest daughter was wounded, but the injuries were superficial.”

Another daughter Hamida has a brain inflammation disease. “My daughter fell into a coma. With no medical supplies, we had to give her expired medicine.” The end of the siege came just in time to get her to a hospital and receive the emergency care she needed.

A year after the siege life remains hard. “My income from sewing isn’t sufficient. Sometimes I collect plastic and aluminium cans to have more money. I’m not ashamed.”

Streets in East Aleppo are being cleaned of debris, people are returning to their homes and shops are opening. Caritas has installed water tanks in the neighbourhood. “What has improved is the electricity supply. Plus, we have a pharmacy and most importantly, we have water,” said Manara.

There is still a long way to go. “What is missing is vital facilities, health and education facilities,” said Manara. “Caritas works to provide the necessities, but can’t do a lot because of the large number of people. Even if they can only cover 30-40 percent of the needs, it’s ok. Lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness.”

During the siege in East Aleppo, no school was open. Manara and her friends provided lessons for about 20 children. They followed the national curriculum as best they could over four years.

After the fighting finished, Manara sent her children to a school, about a 6km walk away. “When the schools examined the children, they found that they were at the right level for their age and put them into the appropriate class,” she said.

Back to school

“I couldn’t believe when they told me I had triplets,” said Ibtisan. “When I saw them in front of me I was so happy. I was also sad, knowing it would be hard to raise them.”

Jenna, Jhina and Hiba are now seven, with two older sisters, Sidra and Isra. The family was forced from their home by the fighting in Aleppo. They live in a small, expensive two room place with their mother, father and grandmother.

Despite the mortars, Ibtisan always sent her children to school. “I’d bring them and take them back,” she said. “Now I feel more secure. The mortar shells have stopped. My children go and come back alone to the school.”

Triplets, Jenna, Jhina, Hiba are 7 years old, and they go to a Caritas centre in Aleppo where they receive education support.

All five children take advantage of a local Caritas centre that provides extra educational support to children in English, Maths and Arabic. “They all improved. They want to go to Caritas more than school,” said Ibtisan. “The most important thing I want them to do is keep learning.”

For most of the children of Aleppo who have lost years of study, the extra classes help bring them up to speed. Caritas also provides assistance to public and private schools and to university students. In schools, Caritas has provided school bags and stationary. For university students, Caritas gives cash to cover transportation and books.

“We opened the school 10 days ago,” said Jamil Moushalah, the principal. “There has been no school in the area since 2012. There was bombardment against the rebels living around here. They used the school as a military base.”

His is one of the schools Caritas helps. “The students received school bags full of notebooks and stationary from Caritas,” said Jamil. Before they carried their pens in plastic bags.

A school on former frontline of conflict in Aleppo.

A school on former frontline of conflict in Aleppo. Caritas distribute school bags containing stationary and books.

The majority of students had dropped out of school in this part of Aleppo and had started to work so their families could survive. “The help Caritas gives encourages the parents to send their children to school. They can become reluctant because of the expenses,” said Jamil.

The biggest gap is a lack of teachers. “Before the crisis, the school had 50 teachers for 500 students. When we reopened there were seven teachers,” said the principal.

Foreseeing the future

“My home was like heaven. I loved to clean it and then sit outside to drink a coffee,” said Yvette Baladi, an 80-year-old widow. Her house was destroyed in the fighting six years ago. “They took everything, now it’s just stones and rubbish,” she said.

Yvette is dependent on neighbours for everything. A doctor helps pay for the rent. Caritas provides food, blankets, medical support and its social workers visit regularly.

She has kicked around rented rooms since then, paying her way for a while by begging on the streets. “They would throw me out if I didn’t pay. If I saw somebody who knew me, I’d hide.”

Yvette broke her hip four years ago. “There was no electricity. I went to fetch a candle and fell,” she said. She can’t walk well enough to leave the room. She is dependent on neighbours for everything. A doctor helps pay for the rent. Caritas provides food, blankets, medical support and its social workers visit regularly.

“I’m alone all day and all night. If I want to eat, there is nobody to bring food. I must wait sometimes until the evening,” she said. “Sometimes I play cards. I try to foresee the future. Is anyone coming to visit? Is God going to be compassionate with me?”

Caritas also hosts social gatherings, with meals and gifts for the elderly, as well as regular visits and medical help.

“Begging is the worst thing that I have had to endure.”

Charity of good people

“Aleppo was very small when I was a boy. You could count the people on one hand,” said Abd Al Hakkim Kadour, who was born in 1921. “We lived simply, off farming. We had enough bread. We’d wear the same shoes for 10 years.”

Abd Al Hakkim fled East Aleppo when the fighting became too fierce. “People died and there was nobody to bury them. If you died on the streets, you were left to the dogs.” The battle for Aleppo was the worst thing he has ever seen.

“I lived a long life and I have never seen anything like this. It wiped away my past. I’m living only in present.”

Now he has returned to be close to his surviving family. He survives off the support he gets from Caritas and other aid agencies. “We are living on humanitarian aid. We can’t work. If we have aid we will be able to live, if not we will be dependent on God.”

Abd Al Hakkim’s wife Hamida is 80 years old. He says the secret of a long marriage is to work together. “I used to work hand in hand with my wife. Now we depend on God and on the charity of good people. When you are merciful, God is merciful to you. Without God’s mercy, there would be no Syria.”