Friends and family, forcibly forsaken, send her photos of bloodied, battered bodies found in the debris of their defaced homes, beneath the bed sheets draped between buildings meant to protect pedestrians from snipers. It’s tough to tell if any are of her husband’s corpse—ISIS had kidnapped him. Whether he’s dead or alive, she says she’s been dead since.
Hala Kalim used to tell her four sleepless children that the explosions outside their home in war-torn Aleppo were fireworks—until they started distinguishing between various firearms. She and her children, subjects of the 2016 PBS documentary Children of Syria, are ordinary. Before fleeing Syria, first to a refugee camp and now their home in Germany, they were no different than the 275,000 under siege and two million living in fear of besiegement.
“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.”
The cost of prolonged conflict in Syria—from Aleppo, A-Raqqa, Idlib, Deir Ezzour and Hama to Dara’a and Damascus—is beyond what anyone living outside the explosive epicenter could fathom. With no end in sight, nearly half of the 23 million population are either internally displaced or have fled to neighboring nations—some, too, beset by political privation and vast adversity.
School attendance rates have dropped to as low as six percent, and, since 2011, nearly three million children from Syria have had to give up their educations. The walls of their schools have caved into rubble. Others have been turned into shelters teeming with those left homeless. Kalim’s children are relatively fortunate, doing well in their new schools in Germany—enough so that I was able to catch up with them before Kalim’s speech at the United Nations’ One Humanity event on World Humanitarian Day.
Aleppo used to be a bustling mecca, she said. Now it’s a “vision of hell—a vibrant city, bombed into the stone ages.” And she worries that the adverse fate of regular people like her family will continually be silenced by the echoes of gunshots and explosions by knife-wielding terrorists killing in the name of Islam. Not in her name.
Re: Since you settled in Germany, and the film has ended, what has life been like for you?
Hala Kalim: It’s very nice. In the beginning, I was afraid of something but it’s a very easy life and the people are very nice… My children have a good school, and it’s okay.
At the end of the film, there’s mention of sort of a shift in attitude surrounding refugees in Germany. Have you seen that change over the course of your time there?
Before I come to Germany, I see on YouTube about some people say that we don’t want refugees. 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.
Your children had to grow up rather quickly given the situation. They set an example for everyone who watched this film—that you can go through so much hardship and violence and not resort to it. What about your children are you most proud of today?
I am very happy. In the beginning, I feel maybe my children will have a lot of problems and I thought maybe they will stress about what they have to do in the school, but they do very nice in school and they learned Dutch very quickly. I haven’t any problems with them. The most important thing for me is that they have good studies. I came to Germany for this reason.
Do you foresee yourself going back to Syria in the future?
I wish to go, to return to Syria. I hope. When the war finishes, if it finishes, I will go back. We must visit. After a long time in war, maybe I will be the first one to go back.
Some of your family is still in Syria?
Are they aware of your being here today and the work you’re now doing?
Yes. I speak with them—my brothers, they know I come here to maybe give some message.
What message do you think they would have to tell the world about Syria?
To tell them a message about the other side, not the war. There is a beautiful side, a comfortable side, where there isn’t any problems or any war. Some people on the other side need your feelings, need your help. We need another person from this big family who believes 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.
Watch the full World Humanitarian Day 2016 event here.