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What's life inside Syria really like?

Abeer talks to a young girl in Aleppo, Syria
Abeer talks to a young girl in Aleppo, Syria

Until recently, Abeer Pamuk worked for SOS Children’s Villages in Syria, now she works as the emergency communications advisor for our Middle East and North Africa Regional Office in Casablanca. We sat down with her to talk about her experience of living and working in Syria.

So often the news stories and images coming from Syria focus on the colossal devastation wreaked by the bombs that fall on towns and cities every-day. It’s easy to forget that there are people still there, living amongst the bombs and snipers. Abeer’s account gives us a glimpse of what the day-to-day reality of living in a warzone is like. 

What’s it like living in a war zone?

Abeer with a group of Syrian children in Aleppo
Abeer with a group of children in Aleppo: I always wanted to be a communicator. I always wanted to use my English to help people. I used to ask, 'Why isn’t anybody talking about these people who are suffering? Why do we ignore them?'

You forget about the falling rockets because strangely enough there are worse things. There are shortages of water and electricity, a lack of medicine and so many other things that have a greater impact on the daily life of people than the bombs. The war has entered every single area of daily life – it’s there in everything you do.

Before, our houses used to be somewhere safe where we could run away from the sounds of war. But war is in the home now too. Real war is when you sit in the same room with your family but you can’t see the face of your mother or brother because of the darkness – you can only see a shadow of them. War is when you have to touch the walls of the house to move around so you know where you are going. It is when your house becomes a place that’s cold and dark. You start your day off with the need to find fresh water to wash your face and the day ends with being able to see your breath as you try to sleep with no heat.

How did you cope with living with constant threat in a place like Aleppo?

I tried to do as many normal things as possible during the day. Remembering life before the war also helps me forget about the war. Talking to an old friend about the old days, being able to have a drink or eat something I used to enjoy definitely helped me leave the chaos for a little while and forget that there is a war going on around me.

What made you want to work on the front-line with SOS Children’s Villages?

I always wanted to be a communicator. I always wanted to use my English to help people. I used to ask, “Why isn’t anybody talking about these people who are suffering? Why do we ignore them?”

Shortly after I started my degree in English literature at the University of Aleppo, the war in Syria began. One day the jihadist Al-Nusra Front occupied a street behind my house. I fled to Lebanon. Shortly afterwards, the university was bombed twice on the first day of exams. For me that marked the day I realised that Syria is the biggest crisis of our century. I lost a lot of friends that day. That’s when I decided to go back to Syria and find a job with a humanitarian agency.

A few months later, I was lucky to start working with SOS Children’s Villages in Syria.

Are there any moments from working with SOS Children’s Villages in Syria that stand out for you?

Wael was shot by a sniper in Syria
After being shot by a sniper, Wael is now well on the road to recovery thanks to SOS Children's Villages
For me, one of the most touching moments involved a little boy, Wael, who was shot in the face by a sniper in Aleppo, leaving his face badly disfigured. I saw Wael the moment he was brought to the hospital, as I was there visiting my mother. I brought him some toys after he woke up. He couldn’t talk in the beginning so he wrote me a sentence on a paper that said: “I’m happy but I can’t smile.”

After his second surgery, he went into a coma for 12 hours. I will never forget when he opened his eyes again when he heard my voice. SOS Children’s Villages has been supporting Wael ever since, even paying for the surgery to reconstruct his face and is helping the family rent a house outside Aleppo.

Another moment that stands out for me is when I visited a family in Damascus. They live on the front between the Al-Yarmouk Camp and the Al-Tadamon area. The grandparents were caring for 11 boys in a completely deserted and incredibly dangerous place. The children’s parents had all been killed during the fighting. The family prepared a dinner on the first day I visited them. Before we started eating, the grandfather said that 40 people used to gather around this table. “Now a lot of them are only photos that I hang on the walls of this room.”
I couldn’t swallow the food I was eating in that moment.

SOS Children’s Villages have helped the family rent a house in a safer area and recently helped move eight of the children to a temporary home at our SOS Children’s Village in Damascus.

Tell us more about the work SOS Children’s Villages is doing in Syria

SOS Children’s Villages has been working in Syria since the 1980s, caring for children and providing them with a loving home and family.

Since the civil war started in March 2011, the number of children in need of our help increased dramatically and there was a need to expand the work we were doing, so we launched an Emergency Relief Programme.

As part of this we are:

  • Children stand on a balcony in Aleppo
    The war in Syria has disrupted every aspect of daily life. Children have been worst affected - they can no longer go to school or even play outside with friends. We're working hard to give them their childhoods back.
    Running two temporary care centres which look after children who have become separated from their parents and families as well as providing immediate support to children who have lost their families. At these centres we make sure that the children’s rights are upheld and provide nutrition, medical care, clothing and education.
  • Offering social and emotional care to help reduce trauma and, where possible, work to reunite children with their parents or family members. Last year we successfully reunified 25 children with their families.
  • Running two education programmes, one in Aleppo and the other in Damascus. Over 500 children have so far benefited from our education centre in Aleppo.
  • Running Child-Friendly Spaces in Dwailaa, Kafrsooseh and Aleppo. These are safe places where children can escape the chaos that surrounds them and be children again. The staff at the Child-Friendly Spaces also work with parents to help them understand the reasons behind a child's violence and use specially designed games to help children channel any anger they may feel and discuss their fears and concerns. In 2015, over 6,200 children had benefited from these spaces. 
  • Distributing food and clothing to families in and around Damascus and Aleppo.
Alongside our work in Syria, we are supporting refugees fleeing the violence across Europe. Find out more.