“You can’t go. We need you here.”
“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.”
“I don’t care about fair, I care about the truth. You work in the hospital. I know, I know, you are not a doctor. But there are no real doctors here. You nurses are all we have. And 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, but Kasim knew his younger brother would win this round. Too many people in this beleaguered city needed help, and he was one of the few 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 east. That door would likely not stay open long, so Kasim really wanted to get his family out while there was a chance.
Later that night, he went back to what remained of their home. The building was still intact except that 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.
“He talked you into staying, didn’t he?”
Kasim had barely walked through the front door when Rima questioned him.
“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.”
“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?”
Actually, it was not one hospital that was bombed today. Two hospitals and a clinic were all hit. But Kasim was not about to strengthen his wife’s case by correcting her. For weeks now, the Syrian and Russian forces had been targeting hospitals. From a heartless, pragmatic viewpoint, it made sense. This is where the greatest number of people were packed together. It was where you could do the most damage, both physical and psychological. One of those hospitals would be back up and running tomorrow. The other would likely be down for weeks. Kasim’s hospital had been hit twice over the past month, but neither time caused any vital damage to the chaotic mess one would call the hospital’s functioning.
“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, but 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. But some things are more important than life. Ali was right, Kasim could not leave… not yet.
Three days later, Rima was awakened by shelling that was too close. The government was unleashing another barrage, and this one seemed to be coming down right on top of her. She started to get out of bed to gather up her kids, but they 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, it would have held food and other supplies, but those days had long since passed.
While Rima lit the candle, one of their last, she saw Amira and Farid huddled together. Farid was four. 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. But there was an age, a depth to her eyes that belied her age. This poor girl 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 banging 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. And 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 women, none of them alive. Suddenly, one of the two men called out to his friend, “Hey, I’ve got kids here. I think they are alive.”
Together the two men worked to clear away the rubble. Although they wanted to work faster, they had learned from painful experience that it was better to keep a steady, cautious pace. You needed to be sure of every piece of rubble that was cleared. One-piece pulled quickly might end up bringing another piece 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, and tears streamed down his face. 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, Amira simply watched them. She never made a sound. More than an hour back, she had given the last of their water to her brother. He had long ago screamed himself hoarse and now was sleeping in her arms. Amira dares 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 face.
The two white helmets finally managed to get the kids cleared. They saw the burn on Amira’s face and passed them off to another boy, about fourteen, who wheeled them off to the nearest working hospital. It was there that Kasim found them. He held Amira’s hand while another nurse bandaged her up. There was no disinfectant left, so a very gentle sponge dipped in clear water was the best they could do in cleaning her up. Kasim did his best to be strong for his babies, but he was broken inside. The boy who brought them in had told him what had happened to his wife.
“I want out, and I am taking my kids now.”
Kasim and Ali leaned against the wall of a ruined building a block from the hospital. 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 her 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 in with them. After a few days, Kasim could not just sit around and went back to the hospital. Most days, Ali would also be gone from dawn to dusk doing who knows what. 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 nine 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 WHO declared that there were no working hospitals anywhere 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.
Their names have been changed, obviously, but I know Amira and Farid. I was telling the Christmas story to a group of refugee children at a school for them here in Gaziantep back in 2016. Amira was the one who made the connection that Jesus was also a refugee.
I don’t know the real story of what happened to her 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. I know that she wears the hajib in part to cover up the nasty scarring by her left ear. She is a beautiful and intelligent young girl but also incredibly quiet. Until the government here shut down that refugee school, I know she was in the third grade, and so was Farid. The two could not be separated. Anytime Farid even left the room, Amira would be in a state of near panic, watching 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.