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Children from ages two to 14 sleep, eat and study in subterranean refuge while the bombing continues overhead
Two floors underground, Aleppo’s luckier orphans sleep as safely as anyone can in a city at war, though they are jolted awake regularly by bombs ripping apart the streets above them.
Watching over them are Asmar Halabi and his wife, who knows in intimate, painful detail the damage explosives can do, because she still carries injuries picked up in an airstrike on a school two years ago.
The suffering of the Syrian city’s children, who have lived through years of bombing, was thrust back into the headlines this week by a photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, bereft and bloodied in the back of an ambulance.
His parents were also pulled alive from the rubble of their home, and the family have since been reunited. But as Russian airstrikes and government barrel bombs tear apart rebel-held east Aleppo street by street, many children endure even greater shock and loss.
Halabi’s 50 charges at the Moumayazoun (Outstanding Guys) orphanage are some of the most vulnerable individuals left in the city. The orphanage moved below ground when relentless bombardment became too much for normal life to continue, and it now provides a subterranean haven.
The children range in age from two to 14. Their parents have been killed or become mentally ill, or have been snatched away in some other cruel fashion by a conflict now moving towards its sixth year.
“They have adjusted in an extraordinary way to this terrible life,” Halabi said. “For instance, they used to feel scared when they heard the sound of planes, but nowadays they want to go out the building and stare at the sky to see the jets or helicopter when they hear them overhead.”
Many had been made homeless, like siblings Omar, 12, and Mufedah, 13, found sleeping in rags on the stairs of their uncle’s apartment building. He had forced them into the ruined city to beg for food and small change after their father died and their mother had a nervous breakdown and then disappeared, Halabi said. Although their relative had barred them from his apartment, his doorway still seemed safer to the children than the streets.
The orphanage opened last year after activists raised concerns about the growing number of destitute young people scraping a living alone. It has space for another 100 children, and new residents arrive with tragic regularity.
“We did a survey about the number of children who had lost one or both parents, and sadly we found a large number,” said Halabi, who was a trader before the war and has no children of his own.
His team of 25 ranges from cooks and security guards to teachers for everything from maths and Arabic to knitting and Qur’an recitation. Among the most important figures at the orphanage are the full-time psychologists, who have a dedicated counselling area where they work with children such as eight-year-old Yasmeen.
Having lost her mother and father, Yasmeen arrived with a fear of the dark after volunteers found her begging on the streets, Halabi said. Today she is thriving and top of her class.
“Honestly, when children arrive, we suffer a lot with them because they have been through so many situations, but after a few months here they mostly improve,” he said. “Our target is to protect them and educate them to succeed in the future. Most of children lost both their parents in the ongoing war; perhaps 5% have only lost one but the other parent is suffering mental problems so severe they cannot care for their own children.”
Funded by a charity and by donations from individual supporters abroad, Halabi and his team spent six months last year renovating a building into several storeys of cheerful dormitories and classrooms.
It was a statement of hope in a city where buildings were regularly being smashed to pieces. But that was before Russian jets joined the air war against Aleppo’s rebels. They added targeted airstrikes to the indiscriminate slaughter of the Syrian regime’s barrel bombs.
The ferocity and intensity of bombing raids increased, and with many airstrikeshitting civilian targets, including homes, markets, hospitals and schools, the orphanage decided it was no longer safe to trust the children’s lives to an ordinary routine.
It was then that they moved mattresses underground, along with much of their activities, from classes to exercise, so the children could sleep, eat and study with the safety of a few feet of earth over their heads.
“When the jets come, we go down to the basements with the children,” Halabi said, adding that they had all but stopped going outside. “We used to take the children to the gardens to have fun. Unfortunately, because of the incessant shelling and air raids, we couldn’t feel free, then we completely stopped. We are pretty keen to ensure the safety of the children, so I don’t let them go out.”
Their new home is full of colour, with swings, a handicraft area, computer sections and other games. It has a stage, where the psychologists and teachers try to help the children tackle some of their trauma through performance.
Unlike support teams in refugee centres, they have to not only tackle past horrors the children have endured but prepare them for suffering that might lie ahead. Opposition-held areas were besieged by government forces for nearly a month this summer, and although the military cordon has been partially broken, civilians in east Aleppo are still largely cut off.
“Recently we put together a play to talk about the siege, with rap and revolution songs, even though they don’t really know what know what a ‘siege’ really means,” Halabi said.
As the possibility of a siege drew closer, they considered leaving for Turkey with the charges, but decided they could not leave. Aleppo is their home, and besides, every day more parents die in the war, leaving behind children in desperate need, who for now have only one hope.
“We are like a big family here,” Halabi said. “There is no other orphanage in Aleppo.”
Hussein Akoush contributed to this report