"I was a first responder one day, a survivor the next,"

Hala Alsibai, a humanitarian worker from Syria, shares her story

woman with laptop
UNICEF/Syria2019/Abdulaziz Aldroubi

19 August 2019

Hala Alsibai, 39, started her humanitarian journey shortly after the start of the conflict in Syria as a relief worker with a Syrian NGO in Damascus.

Originally from Homs, she was delivering aid to people in need in Damascus while her own family was caught in the fighting 200 kilometres further north. “The conflict didn’t only shape my career,” says Hala, “it shaped my entire life.”

One day as she was going about her daily work in Damascus, she got news that a blast hit her family home in Homs.

“Luckily my parents survived but nothing can describe what that moment was like. I was hysterical.”

After this incident, Hala decided to go back to her family in Homs. “Like all families in Homs, we went through tough times and loss; we left our home under fire, my father lost his clinic and my brother lost his home. Yet, we count ourselves lucky, as unlike many others, we didn’t lose family members.”

Between fear, displacement and despair Hala carried on delivering aid to conflict-affected families in her hometown; a first responder one day and a survivor the next. Until one day, she found out that she had her own personal battle to fight: she was diagnosed with Lymphoma.

“The panic I experienced the year before when I thought I lost my family must have manifested itself in this illness. But I survived the conflict around me and I was determined to be a survivor in this personal battle as well.”

While on a break for treatment, Hala started looking for a job that speaks to her academic background and passion: education. That’s how she found her way to UNICEF.

“When I started my UNICEF job as an education officer in 2014, education in Homs was in tatters; the conflict had damaged hundreds of schools; tens of thousands of students and staff were forced to drop out. The quality of education in my hometown was in free fall.”

As a strong believer in the future-shaping role of education, Hala was determined to do her best to get children back to school while still wrestling with cancer,

women talking to school children in a classroom
UNICEF/Syria2019/Abdulaziz Aldroubi
Hala in a visit to UNICEF-supported remedial classes in Homs

“I had that feeling of accountability towards all those out-of-school children which got me restless; I would finish my chemotherapy sessions and get back to my desk to continue work,”

For four years, Hala and the UNICEF team in Homs got various projects rolling; school rehabilitations, teacher trainings, and remedial classes for out of school children. When she saw students organize their own travel across conflict lines to sit their exams in Homs, she pushed for the now yearly support UNICEF provides to these students and was one of the first to welcome them.

Work in emergency contexts can be extremely taxing on personal life and health, says Hala. “Sometimes I work up to 13 hours a day. Setbacks with my own personal battle with cancer were expected.” The last setback was a wake-up call, it took Hala eight months to recover after intense pain and surgeries. “Surviving that was like a new birth, I had to pause and rethink my life. I looked at my exhausted family and felt sorry for them. I decided to prioritize my health going forward.”

To achieve this work-life balance, Hala is now leading a calmer life. But she still draws strength from the impact of her work. “One smile from a child going back to school can breathe life back into me and keep me going”

Her message to all humanitarians on their day, August 19, comes from her difficult but inspiring experience;

“Our job in the humanitarian field is immensely rewarding but it also can be exhausting. To help those in need, you need to take good care of yourself and your family.”