“I gave them a lot of cough syrup so they wouldn’t notice,” says Hala Kalim of her four sleepless children in the 2016 PBS documentary Children of Syria. She used to tell her kids that the explosions outside their home in Aleppo were fireworks—that is, until they were old enough to distinguish between various firearms, and ISIS kidnapped their father, Abu Ali.
ISIS leaders have threatened the United States with everything from nuclear detonations to the spread of the bubonic plague and Ebola across our country. They’ve claimed responsibility for the ruthless mass murders of Americans, shot dead, beheaded, thrown off buildings, raped and stoned. And yet, they’ve not declared us a primary target, instead asserting that these actions are retaliation for US airstrikes condemning their agenda against a pluralistic vision of Islam.
But what does ISIS want, if not solely our blood? To change the disposition of the Middle East and stop anyone who tries to encumber those efforts—an approach that regularly imperils the civilians who call this region home.
And so we Americans often live in fear of terrorism. But Syrians like Kalim live not in fear of terrorism, but amidst it.
Kalim’s husband’s whereabouts are still unknown. Friends and family regularly send her photos of battered bodies found in Syria, and she tries to make out if any of them are photos of Abu Ali’s corpse. It’s tough to tell.
Her home and her neighbors’ homes are defaced, their streets caked in debris and swathed in bed sheets to shield pedestrians from snipers.
Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons of mass destruction, despite its adherence to a deal worked out in 2013, under which it would surrender them.
“Sometimes I envy the dead. Because they’ve finally found somewhere to settle down. Even though it’s in a grave, at least they’re no longer thinking about where to live.”
More than 11 million Syrians—nearly half of the country’s 23 million people—are either internally displaced or have fled across borders to neighboring nations, some themselves beset by political instability, economic privation and vast adversity. A total of 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country.
The costs of prolonged conflict have wreaked the most havoc on Syria’s children, as more than five million young lives are at risk of becoming a lost generation. Since 2011 nearly three million children from Syria have been forced to give up their educations.
The worst affected areas inside Syria include A-Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Ezzour, Hama, Dara’a and Rural Damascus—in some of these places, attendance rates have dropped to as low as six percent. Why? One in every five schools is out of commission, either destroyed or being used to shelter internally displaced persons. Even among refugees in host countries, hundreds of thousands are out of school due to different languages, dialects, curriculum and a lack of learning spaces.
A total of 275,000 men, women and children are under siege and two million are living in fear of besiegement. Kalim and her children were forced to flee Aleppo to a new home in Germany after a long journey on the road and some time in a refugee camp.
“Sometimes I envy the dead,” she says in the documentary. “Because they’ve finally found somewhere to settle down. Even though it’s in a grave, at least they’re no longer thinking about where to live.”
We had the chance to speak with Kalim at the United Nations’ One Humanity event in New York on August 19th, a date the UN General Assembly designated as World Humanitarian Day back in 2008. The event aimed to create both a massive display of public support for humanitarian action following the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul in May, and drive increased commitment for the five “core responsibilities” as outlined by the UN Secretary-General’s Agenda for Humanity.
“Before I come to Germany, I see on YouTube about some people say that they don’t want refugees,” she told us. “They are all terrorists. Every Muslim person is a ‘iirhabi [“terrorist” in Arabic]. But after I come, I see very nice people. Maybe some people believe in this thing, but not all—few people. Where I live, there are very, very nice people.”
“All of us are as one family. When some person from this family has some suffering or something, we must feel for them and we must try to help. I hope to bring this message to everybody.”
Despite what Americans do know about ISIS—and think we understand about all of its inexplicable savagery—we can never truly comprehend the barbarism that those struggling to survive in the explosive epicenter face on a daily basis.
“As I stand here before you today, my beloved Aleppo is burning,” she said during her speech at the event. “[Those in Aleppo] cry out but they are met with silence. The world does not hear them. Instead, the world hears the echoes of gunshots and explosions, tormented by images of knife-wielding terrorists killing in the name of Islam. Well, not in our name. Not in my name.”
Aleppo, she said, used to be a bustling mecca. Now it’s a “vision of hell—a vibrant city, bombed into the stone ages.” And awareness of the adverse fate of ordinary people like her own family gets buried, she worries.
“All of us are as one family,” Kalim told us. “When some person from this family has some suffering or something, we must feel for them and we must try to help. I hope to bring this message to everybody.”
She didn’t move to Germany to take the jobs of locals or steal the money from their government. She wants nothing but a decent education for her children, who’ve adapted quickly and developed lasting friendships. And when or if it’s all said and done, she said proudly, “I will go back.”
Watch Kalim’s speech and more from the event here.