The Strength of a Syrian Mother

34-year-old Najla is a widowed mother of four beautiful children. She lost her husband, home and belongings to the conflict and now lives in an unfinished room in eastern Aleppo

Mother carrying her child
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa

14 January 2019

Najla, 34, is a widowed mother of four beautiful children. Having lost her husband, home and belongings to the conflict, Najla and her children Mohammad, 13, Mehdia, 9, Zahra, 7, and Mountaha, 3, settled down in an unfinished room in Karm Al- Nezha neighbourhood of east Aleppo. Like thousands of Syrian women across the country, Najla struggles to protect her children and help them reach their full potential in life.

Aleppo, Syria, 7 January 2019-  5 a.m. marks the beginning of my day. While it’s still dark outside, I get up from the mattress I share with my four children to help Mohammad, my eldest, get ready for work and the others for school.

Children sitting around a fire
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa
Mohammad, 13, (right) and his sister Mehdia, 9, gather around a fire to warm up with their neighbor Sami.

Complaining of the cold, they get dressed while the sound of hollowing wind blows into the unfinished room we call home. I desperately try to get some warmth by turning on our small camping stove, the only means of heat we have.

But this has not always been my life. I had never imagined that my children and I would end up in such basic conditions. Before the war, when winter was a time of warm family gatherings, I lived with my husband and children in a fully-furnished home, with a heater, colorful carpets and a fancy serving set. We even had a living room and a guestroom; things that seem so far away now. Winter has become a time of suffering as I struggle to protect my children who are always falling ill against the cold. A stove and a few blankets are my only weapons.

Girl warms her hands over a fire
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa
Mountaha, 3, warms her hands over the fire in front of their one-room home in Karm Al- Nazha neighbourhood of east Aleppo.

Our life started changing in 2012, when fighting escalated near our home in Al- Maadi neighbourhood of east Aleppo. We fled more times than I can remember from one unfinished building to another, and one tented camp to another. But that was not the end of our suffering. Four years later, on a chilly day in November, my husband went to check on our house. I begged him not to go as it was still caught in conflict lines. My husband died that day under shelling, and our house was destroyed. I saw no future after that day.

Following the respite in violence in 2017, an acquaintance told us about a deserted farm he knew in a remote part of the city. With no one and nowhere to go to, we moved into the single room on the farm, no longer able to handle the pressure of living in a collective shelter. The area was very lightly-populated and it made me feel unsafe, I could not sleep the first nights in my “new home”. Every little noise made me jump in fear, until a relative gave me a dog that has become a valuable member of our family tasked with our protection against strangers.

A boy playing with a dog
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa
Mohammad, 13, plays with the family dog who is tasked with protecting them against strangers.

Our new residence was in less than basic conditions; we had no running water, electricity or windows. Thankfully, the few sympathetic neighbours helped us by extending water and electricity lines for the one light bulb we have, and donated some furniture.

Having been in and out of school, my children finally enrolled in a nearby school last year. A local charity for orphans started supporting us with a small monthly assistance, enough to buy medicine and food. My eldest, Mohammad, works every day before and after school in a nearby farm. He tends cows and makes around USD 6 per week. Life is smiling at us once again.

Girls walking to school
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa
Zahra, 7, walks to school with her friend in Karm Al- Nezha neighbourhood of east Aleppo. “I choose the long way to school because it’s less muddy,” she says.

Like every mother in the world, all I want is to see my children warm, well-fed, healthy and safe. There is nothing I would not do to help them. I am trying to collect enough money to buy a cow and start a small dairy business selling homemade milk and cheese. I have tried to apply to several grants and I really hope it works so that I can stand on my feet again.

Child running with geese
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al- Issa
Mohammad, 13, runs around with the geese on the farm he works on in Karm Al- Nazha neighbourhood of east Aleppo.

Najla is among 5,000 people who have benefitted from the case management programme supported by UNICEF. Under the programme, social workers identify the needs of families and refer them accordingly to service-providers, including other UN agencies, NGOs and local organizations. Through the programme, Najla and her children received winter clothes, nutritional supplements, food rations, carpets, school bags and stationery and are regularly referred to health centres for checkups and treatment. The teams regularly follow up with families like Najla’s, until they are able to support themselves.