“You can’t go. We need you here.”
Kasim took a long slow drag from his cigarette. Food and clean water might have run out, but there seemed to be an endless supply of these. Good thing too. He couldn’t imagine trying to work in the chaos of his job while going through withdrawal. Finally, he turned and looked at his younger brother.
“Ali, I have a wife and two children to look after. If we do not leave now, we might not get another chance.”
“Kasim, think of all the ones who might die if you are not here.”
“That is not fair.”
His younger brother was a true believer. Even as their world was falling apart around them, Ali still held true to the cause. He still believed that, somehow, the corrupt government could be brought down and something better, something just, would be raised up in its place. Kasim just wanted an end to the fighting. He wanted a place of safety for his wife and kids.
“I don’t care about fair,” Ali said. “I care about the truth. You work in the hospital. I know, I know, you are not a doctor. There are no real doctors anymore. Nurses are all we have. You are all we have. If you go, people will die. Besides, this is Aleppo. When was the last time anything in this city was fair?”
Kasim and Ali continued to hash it out. The staccato sounds of gunfire in the distance, this time to the southeast, punctuated their conversation. Kasim took one last drag on his cigarette and then tossed it among the rubble that had once been part of the sidewalk. He knew his younger brother would win this round. Too many people in this beleaguered city needed help. He was one of the few remaining with any medical training still in the city to help them.
A short while back, the government forces managed a complete encirclement of the city. Nobody could get in or out. But just this morning, a counterattack reopened a way out of the area to the southeast. That door would likely not stay open long, so Kasim really wanted to get his family out while there was a chance.
Kasim finally said his goodbyes to Ali and his wife. The evening was blessedly cool for late summer as he walked back to what remained of his home. The building was still mostly intact. Some of the windows on the north side had been blown out. There was electricity for now. He had bought his cousin’s generator when he left the city two months back. For as long as the gas lasts, he would have electricity. God willing, they would not be around to experience the cold of winter.
“He talked you into staying, didn’t he?”
Kasim had barely walked through the front door and was still taking off his shoes. Rina stood at the entrance to their bedroom, arms folded beneath her breasts. She had a look on her face that was part annoyance, part resignation.
Kasim sighed. “Yes. Just for one more month.”
“One more month? Can we get out a month from now? Will we be alive a month from now?”
“God willing, we will be. If God does not will it, then we have no chance no matter when we leave.”
Rima would not let it drop. She had wanted to leave for months. There comes a time when a man needs to give up trying to save the world and focus on protecting his family instead. In her very vocal and often repeated opinion, that time had already come.
“You know they bombed another hospital today? You are safer at home than at work. We are all safer leaving. Why can’t you see that?”
Kasim bit his tongue. Actually, it was not one hospital that was bombed today. Two hospitals and a clinic were all hit. But Kasim was not about to correct his wife. Why strengthen her case? For weeks now, the Syrian and Russian forces had been targeting hospitals. From a heartless, pragmatic viewpoint, it made sense. This is where the highest number of people were packed together. It was where you could do the most damage, both physical and psychological. One of those hospitals will be back up and running tomorrow. The other would likely be down for weeks. Perhaps it would never open again. Kasim’s hospital had been hit twice over the past month, but never anything serious. Both attacks caused only minimal damage and injury. The hospital was already such a chaotic mess that a little more noise and damage barely mattered at all.
“Rima, I need you to go. Take the children and get out of the city. Go north into Turkey. I cannot leave, but I will have peace knowing you are safe.”
“Peace? What is peace? No, Kasim, we have talked about this. I will not leave unless you are coming with me. What kind of life do you think awaits a young widow in those camps?”
“A young, gorgeous widow.”
Rima tried to look stern as Kasim took her in his arms. Still, she could not hold back the edges of a smile. Her husband pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. Then he held her as she rested her head against his chest. Rima was his life. He could not imagine living without her. But some things are more important than life. Ali was right. Kasim could not leave… not yet. Too many people needed him. There were so many hurting.
Three days later, Rima awoke with a start. Her husband was already at the hospital. He never slept for more than a few hours. Plaster from the roof and walls turned the air to dust. The government was unleashing another barrage, and this one seemed to be coming down right on top of her. Rima started to get out of bed to gather up her kids. Amira and Farid were already at the entrance to the bedroom, waiting for her. Together the three of them rushed into the storage closet. It was a small room with no windows as close to the center of their building as they could get. Once upon a time, this room would have held food and other supplies. Those days had long since passed. All the food from everyone still living in this four-story building had been collected into one place and was tightly rationed.
Rima lit one of their last candles. She saw Amira and Farid huddled together. The four-year-old boy was terrified. He was rocking back and forth, right on the verge of tears. Amira was ten. She looked just like her mother did at that age. Amina no longer had the innocence Rima would have had. There was an age, a depth to the girl’s eyes that belied her age. This poor child had seen far too much of the cruelty of life. Rima squatted down and took the two of them in her arms. She tried to silence their fears as the thunder of bombs would be followed by the crumpling of whatever destruction they had caused.
“You need to help me with Amir, OK, honey?” Rima said, “Whatever happens, don’t let him out of your sight.”
Almost as soon as she had said these words, there was an ear-splitting explosion. Then the house fell down around them.
About three hours later, two men in white helmets were working through the rubble of what had once been a four-floor apartment building. They had pulled out a half dozen bodies so far. All of them were women. None of them were alive. Suddenly, one of the two men called out to his friend, “Hey, I’ve got kids here! I think one of them is still alive.”
Together the two men worked to clear away the rubble. They had to restrain themselves from working faster. These white helmets had learned the hard, sad way that it was better to keep a steady, cautious pace. You needed to be sure of every piece of rubble that was cleared. One brick pulled too quickly might end up bringing the rest tumbling right down on those poor kids.
“Oh… Oh, no… Oh, God, no.”
One of the two workers stepped back and folded his arms behind his head. He looked up into the sky. Tears streamed down his face making lines of clean down a face darkened with dust and grime. His friend looked down to see what had rattled the other guy. There, right next to those two children, was a woman who had been crushed and killed. The dead mother’s arm was still on the young girl’s leg.
As the two men pulled away the rest of the rubble, they realized that both children were still alive. Amira simply watched them without any sign of life except an occasional blink. She never made a sound. More than an hour back, she had given the last of their water to her younger brother. He had long ago screamed himself hoarse and now was sleeping in her arms. Amira dared not talk because she knew that she would start screaming herself. Nothing was more important to her right now than her brother’s sleep. Not even the burning pain on the side of her scarred face.
The two white helmets finally managed to get the kids cleared. They did what they could to wash the burn on Amira’s face. Then they passed the two children off to another boy, about fourteen. He wheeled them off to the nearest working hospital while the white helmets went back to looking for others. It was at that hospital that Kasim found them. He held Amira’s hand while another nurse bandaged her up. There was no disinfectant left. A very gentle sponge dipped in clear water was the best they could do. Kasim did his best to be strong for his babies, but he was broken inside. The boy who brought his children in had told him what had happened to his wife.
A couple hours later, Kasim and Ali leaned against the wall of a ruined building a block from the hospital. Amira was sleeping. Farid was awake when last checked, but he would not leave his sister’s side.
“I want out, and I am taking my kids now.”
Ali just shook his head.
“I’m sorry, brother, the way out has been sealed. Government forces have beaten us back.”
For a long moment, Kasim just looked out into the night.
“I should have never listened to you. I should have taken Rima away from here when we had the chance. She wouldn’t go without me. Now… now…”
Kasim was too choked up to continue. Ali watched as the silent tears slowly fell from his brother’s face. When Kasim pulled himself together and looked back Ali’s way, the younger brother made his offer.
“You can stay with Fatma and me. They are going to try another breakthrough in a few weeks. We can get you out then.”
So Kasim, Amira, and Farid moved into his brother’s building. The apartment next door had been abandoned, and they took it over. Kasim wanted to stay home with his kids, but he couldn’t. He needed to keep busy to chase away the despair building up within him. So he went back to working at the hospital as much as he could. Most days, Ali would also be gone from dawn as well. Anyone old enough to carry a gun, be they nine or ninety-nine, was needed in this desperate defense. For all their effort, the rebel held portion of the city continued to shrink. The breakthrough Ali promised was not attempted until October. It failed. By then, it was too late for Kasim. There was another bombing of his hospital on September 20th. He was one of the nine people killed. Ali felt he owed it to his brother to get the kids to safety. He pulled some strings and got them out in early November. On the 21st of that month, the World Health Organization announced that there were no longer any working hospitals in the city. On the 6th of December, Ali and Fatma were killed trying to defend one of the few remaining districts still in rebel hands.
– – – – – – – – – – –
This is a dramatization of a very true story. Names have been changed, obviously, but I have met Amira and Farid. A few years back, I told the Christmas story to a group of refugee children at an NGO school in Gaziantep, Turkey. Amira was the first student to make the connection that Jesus was also a refugee.
I don’t know the real story of what happened to her parents in Aleppo. To the best of my knowledge, she still refuses to talk about it. I do know that she and her brother are now living with cousins who had fled much earlier. I know that she wears the hajib at such a young age to cover up some nasty scarring by her left ear. She is a beautiful and intelligent young girl but also incredibly quiet. Until the government shut down that refugee school, she was in the third grade. So was her five-year-old brother. The two could not be separated. Anytime Farid left the room, even to use the restroom, Amira would be in a state of near panic. She would watch the door until she could see her little brother again. I know one other thing, it is out of love for little children like Amira and Farid that Jesus came.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”