Last November, Aleppo’s only orphanage was bombed. The 50 or so children inside the building at the time experienced the terror and devastation of the blast first hand, as their entire food supply was destroyed and the orphanage’s car was wrecked beyond repair. Two children were injured badly enough that they were sent to a nearby hospital.
The last time the orphanage had been bombed, its director Asmar Alhalaby moved all of the children into a clubhouse in the basement. But in November, they had been upstairs when the blast occurred. They saw everything.
Alhalaby told Syria: Direct that the children were so scared their entire bodies were shaking. One had wet himself. Another was huddled in a corner of the room. “These children have lost everything,” he said. “They lost affection, and they lost their relatives to both bombs and arrest.”
The Moumayazoun (Outstanding guys) orphanage in east Aleppo started taking in children almost two years ago, after growing concerns from activists that too many young people were struggling to survive alone. Before they were evacuated from the orphanage in the week leading up to Christmas 2016, there were 47 orphans in the care of Alhalaby and his volunteer staff, with room for 100 more.
The children are between ages 3 and 15, with many having lost parents to mental illness or the devastation of the Syrian war itself. As of last year, over 40% of the children left in Aleppo had been orphaned.
#ALittleforAleppo was set up in early October 2016 when Ollie Skehan first read about Alhalaby’s underground orphanage. He and Sinead Wells started the online fundraising campaign in the hope that Irish people would donate some money to the children who were facing death and destruction every day.
“(It) was set up in a bid to help these innocent children amid unspeakable carnage, destruction and wanton disrespect for human life,” Ollie said. “Particularly that of children, who were once the future of this ravaged country.”
It wasn’t long before #ALittleforAleppo’s original target of €5,000 was surpassed, with almost €7,500 being raised within the space of a couple of weeks. The money was transferred to the orphanage’s feeder charity, the Afkar foundation, where it was first used to buy bikes for the children.
“These children’s bikes represent laughter, fun, adventure and something the most innocent of children were in grave danger of missing out on at one point… a childhood,” said Ollie.
Following their evacuation, the children in the Moumayazoun orphanage spent some time in the Idlib countryside. They, Alhalaby, and 22 employees now occupy a large, safe building with access to running water and electricity in the border city of Jarabulus.
Every day, the children go to school, have an afternoon nap, do their homework, eat dinner, and are read a bedtime story by their nanny. Each child receives a doctor’s check up every month, and they are all reported to be in good health.
The rest of the #ALittleforAleppo fund will be spent on a refrigerator, a washing machine, a microwave, and food. The orphanage will also buy a satellite and LCD screen to allow the children to watch educational films and cartoons.
“All the children will be educated with a view to them being part of the movement to rebuild their beautiful country one day and return to their beloved city of Aleppo and live a peaceful life,” said Ollie.
Some of the campaign money will also be given to Alhalaby’s 22 volunteers who have risked their lives to keep the children safe for almost two years.
Last Sunday, a party was thrown for the children in their new Jarabulus home. Balloons, cake, and an abundance of food delighted the 39 orphans who have now finally been given the chance to live their lives as children.
Ollie also took the chance to thank those who donated to the #ALittleforAleppo fund. “Your truly incredible generosity made this possible,” he said.
“Your truly incredible generosity put smiles on these children’s faces.”