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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

In the ruins of a Syrian city, a woman’s courage endures

By Malene Kamp Jensen

Despite the dangers she faces, a Syrian woman dedicates herself to helping her country – working by day to deliver humanitarian aid, and by night to further her studies. And all the while, she tries to keep smiling.

DAMASCUS, Syria, 17 August 2015 – Esraa Alkhalaf has experienced sniper bullets, ferocious fighting, water and electricity cuts, an abusive man, and has seen chunks of her city reduced to rubble. 

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2015
Esraa Alkhalaf with a group of children in rural Samaan district during a UNICEF measles vaccination campaign.

In spite of it all, this woman with a soft demeanour and a strong will stays in her adopted home of Aleppo for two reasons: a commitment to the city’s women and children, and her lifelong dream of getting her doctoral degree.

Last month, those two things merged: She was awarded a PhD with honours, and she completed a journey that in many ways symbolizes the strength and perseverance of so many in this battered city.

Separated from her family by the nearly five-year-long Syrian conflict, which has sliced deep divisions in the country’s largest city, Dr. Alkhalaf has worked full days as part of UNICEF’s humanitarian response team, and long nights on her studies, working by candlelight during power cuts.

“Since I was a kid, my dream was to be a university professor,” says Dr. Alkhalaf, 33, by phone from one of the oldest cities in the world. “But with the crisis, I found I could help my people through UNICEF.”

Life-saving support

She moved to Aleppo in 1998 to attend university and medical school and left for a few months in 2013 for family reasons.

When she came back to Aleppo in October that year, “I didn’t recognize the city,” she says.

Dr. Alkhalaf had lost her house and clinic but refused to leave the city again. She is one of nearly a dozen UNICEF workers still in Aleppo who coordinate with partners to help provide life-saving support to the thousands who remain in the city.

“Life now is very different,” she says. “Buildings are destroyed. You hardly find anyone in the streets after sunset. Before, Aleppo wouldn’t sleep before sunrise. But the most heartbreaking is to see how tired and worn out people are, especially the children.”

As Dr. Alkhalaf can attest, Aleppo is one of the most dangerous places in the world, but its residents are some of the most resilient people.

“Children stand in very long lines trying to fetch water in extremely hot weather,” she says, noting that water cuts can last weeks. “But they try to keep smiling.”

The situation throughout the country is grim. More than 12 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, almost half of them children. Only 43 per cent of hospitals are fully functioning. The availability of safe drinking water has been cut in half. School attendance has dropped by half. And malnutrition has drastically increased.

Despite the many constraints, UNICEF and its partners this year alone have provided water treatment supplies to serve more than 16 million people, helped ensure that millions of children continue their education and are vaccinated, and provided thousands with nutritional supplements.

Everyday risk

Baby Hala is one of the children who stands out for Dr. Alkhalaf. She was among more than 1,350 malnourished children she and partners helped nurse back to life in Aleppo. The case highlights the social ills that the crisis feeds, and the abuse that the women endure, in particular. 

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2015
Esraa working with outreach volunteers screening and distributing supplementary nutrition supplies for mothers and children, in Tal Shgheeb village, Syrian Arab Republic.

Hala was discovered when health workers went door-to-door to check on the children in overcrowded centres for the displaced. Just 6 months old, the little girl was clinging to life. Her twin brother had already died after suffering from diarrhea. The baby and mother were rushed to hospital, only to be followed by a husband enraged because he had not given his approval.

“He barged in and grabbed his wife and started hitting her right in front of us,” Dr. Alkhalaf says. “We called security and tried to intervene, but he dragged her outside. It was very violent.”

The baby was left in the care of the hospital, and for 10 long days, volunteers didn’t leave her side. The mother came back for the little girl, and Dr. Alkhalaf and her team continue to visit to ensure they are safe.

Dr. Alkhalaf knows the risk she is taking every day, but is staying put. She uses her tenacity and her trademark humor as a way to survive.

One winter day, she had to join the long line of people dodging sniper fire while crossing a narrow passage that connects the divided city. One has to hunch over and look down, and then run for dear life. It was rainy and the road was full of mud.

“I saw people carrying their luggage, their children and their sorrows,” Dr. Alkhalaf says. Wearing a hijab to cover her hair and a long pink and grey coat as she was crossing into a more conservative part of the city, she was stopped in her tracks by what she saw.

“Suddenly, I heard a man from behind the line, clearly upset, shout: ‘Hey, pinky … yeah, you, Marie Antoinette: Put your head down and move!’ And you know, with my coat lifted to avoid the mud, I really did look like her,” she laughs.

But laughter soon switches to somberness and a very clear message from the heart.

“I want to tell anyone who can in any way help bring peace to Syria and help the children here: Please, please do!” 



UNICEF Photography: Emergencies


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