In Syria’s northern countryside, orphans of east Aleppo have ‘another chance at life’

Syria Direct last spoke with Asmar al-Halabi last November, one day after a regime shell struck the orphanage he was running in east Aleppo.

The scene that al-Halabi relayed was one of confusion and fear. Two of the 50 children who lived in east Aleppo’s last remaining orphanage were struck and injured by shards from the blast, one that also destroyed the center’s food supplies. The orphanage was just one casualty amidst a punishing air and ground offensive launched by pro-Assad forces to recapture the eastern half of Syria’s second city, which they did in December.

Since this conversation, al-Halabi and the orphanage’s 50 children left the encircled eastern enclave for opposition-controlled Idlib province.

But even in Idlib, al-Halabi couldn’t find peace. With Russian, regime and coalition warplanes pounding the Idlib countryside on a near-daily basis, “we couldn’t guarantee the safety of the orphanage,” says al-Halabi. “The children [were still] afraid of the bombs.”

 Asmar al-Halabi (front) and his center’s children leave for Azaz on February 6. Photo courtesy of the AFKAR Foundation.

On Monday, al-Halabi spoke with Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from the rebel-held, but relatively quiet, city of Azaz, near the Turkish border. Al-Halabi is setting up his orphanage there, supported by the AFKAR Foundation, a Turkish NGO.

So how are the children doing now? Can they finally have a real childhood?

“The thing that gives these children the most joy is the ability to live a life without feeling constant fear,” says al-Halabi. “That and also potato chips, chocolate and cookies.”

Q: What was your reaction when you learned that you and the children would be leaving Aleppo?

During the campaign on Aleppo city, the orphanage was bombed on more than occasion. When word came that there would be an evacuation, it meant that the children and I would be saved. We got our luggage together, and then we waited. For 22 hours we sat on the bus, and we waited.

Q: What was it like once you finally arrived in Idlib?

When we got to Idlib, we were put up in a shelter that was divided into a number of rooms. The place was so crowded there was absolutely no privacy. But what really got to the kids was when they saw all the other children with their fathers and mothers, and they were the only ones that didn’t have their parents. They ran over to me and asked if I was their father, and I told them ‘yes.’ I am their father.

Q: Right now you’re with the children in Azaz in the north Aleppo countryside. Why is it that you chose not to stay in Idlib?

After leaving Aleppo, we stayed in the Idlib countryside for a month and a half. During this time, we were looking for a safe place that we could go to that would be far away from the bombs, outside of Idlib and the surrounding countryside. Last Sunday, we made it to Azaz in the north Aleppo countryside.

Had we stayed in Idlib, nothing would have changed for the children. Staying meant that we couldn’t guarantee the safety of the orphanage. It would have meant that the children would still have to be afraid of the bombs.

  Children from al-Halabi’s orphanage play in Idlib in January. Photo courtesy of the AFKAR Foundation.

Q: Why Azaz in particular?

We chose Azaz because it’s a border city and far removed from the bombs. All we want is to keep the children safe, to keep them away from the bombs, and, as such, the north Aleppo countryside was the safest option. Both Idlib and Kafr Nubl are constantly under bombardment, which meant that this simply was not the place for the children for them to begin recovering psychologically.

When we were in Aleppo city, there were 50 children in the orphanage. Since leaving, 16 children have gone on to live with their relatives, meaning that we’re now taking care of 34 children from Aleppo.

Q: How are the children adjusting to their new lives after all that they went through in east Aleppo?

There is so much that these kids have gone through in Aleppo city, things they’ll never forget. When we work with them, we look to ease the pain and trauma that they went through in Aleppo, under siege and under bombardment. But first and foremost, we hope to give them a place that they can live together in peace and the assurance of safety. These kids never did anything wrong, and they deserve to be able to live in peace.

A number of them draw pictures and write letters to Aleppo. They always ask about the orphanage in Aleppo and what’s become of it.

Q: Have there been any particular stories of success since leaving east Aleppo? Anything that gives you hope that these children are going to be all right?

Success means giving these children another chance at life. It means getting them far away from the bombs and back into school. Success means providing these kids with an education, with emotional support, with fun and with the strength and confidence that they need to overcome all that they have already gone through in life. 

I’ll give you one example. There’s a girl, Mufida, who’s 13 years old. Since leaving Aleppo, she’s gone back to 7th grade. She’s now able to use a computer and is already planning to be a computer engineer in the future. Preparing these children for their future is what it’s all about. We want them to be able to once again dream about the future of their country, one that is safe and prosperous.

Q: These children have been forced to live through the trauma of war, and they have already lost so much. But from your perspective, where have they been able to find happiness amidst such difficult circumstances?

I’d have to say that the thing that gives these children the most joy is the ability to live a life without feeling constant fear…that and also potato chips, chocolate and cookies. It’s the little things like these that are able to put a smile on a child’s face even in a time of war.

Q: Now that you’re finally settled in Azaz, are you looking to expand the orphanage at all?

There have been a number of requests to take in orphans from across the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides as well as other rebel-held areas. Thanks to the AFKAR Foundation’s generous support for the orphanage, we have the capacity to support 150 children. The AFKAR Foundation considers this to be a vital humanitarian mission, which is especially true in such a time of war. These children have lost their loved ones, and they need an organization that can care for them. Together, we’ve become more than just an orphanage for these children; we’re a family.

Q: Is adoption an option?

The Azaz orphanage doesn’t do adoption. This is a permanent home for the children. When they do get to be 18 years old, they’ll have the opportunity to be hired by the orphanage and work in the same place where they grew up.

Just like any other orphanage, we take in children who have don’t have anyone to look after them, either because they’ve lost their relatives or because their relatives don’t have the ability to look after them given the immensely difficult conditions that this war has created.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.