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Scrounging for Scraps in Aleppo

Tzippy Yarom

An English Teacher Shares His Secret of Survival

Wednesday, December 07, 2016


FOR DEAR LIFE A child in Aleppo grasps a sandwich for dear life, not knowing where his next meal is coming from, but for Abdul Kafi Alhamado, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo, any place not ruled by Assad is a paradise, despite the hunger, killing, and torment (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

"I t’s the most dangerous place in the world, but also the best place.” Not words one would normally associate with Aleppo, the Syrian city that for centuries was home to a thriving Jewish community, and more recently, the target of a coordinated Russian and Syrian attack. Aleppo, a city of 300,000, is the place where opposition groups fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad are making their last stand.

But for Abdul Kafi Alhamado, a 31-year-old English teacher who lives in eastern Aleppo, any place not ruled by Assad is a kind of paradise, despite the hunger, killing, and torment. “Here I am free to do as I please, and to teach my students to be free people, without the dictates of the regime. Here I can tell the rebel leader, ‘You made a mistake,’ without being arrested just because I stated my opinion.”

Just last week, Russian and Syrian forces, aided by Iranian militias, captured large parts of eastern Aleppo, where Alhamado lives. The goal is to encircle the rebels and force them to capitulate in a war that is now five years old.

“It’s hard to call our situation life,” Alhamado tells Mishpacha in a Skype interview. “We live from products that we kept from before the siege, and use everything. We eat even products whose expiration date has passed. Most of our food consists of rice, bulgur, and lentils. There is no chicken, and there are very few cows to produce milk, so prices are sky high. And while my situation is good, people knock on doors, pleading for a bit of food. Sometimes they simply die of hunger.” Access to food is of keen interest to Alhamado, whose wife gave birth to a baby nine months ago. Because the Russians and Syrians have cut supply lines, many in the city are starving and sick, among them his wife, who could not nurse her child due to illness.

To feed the baby, they improvise, making food out of mashed rice with dates that was preserved before the siege. “It’s so hard; now she’s cutting teeth and she needs more. I think ahead and hope that there will be better food.”

During our interview, the Skype connection fades out several times. This conversation only takes place because in eastern Aleppo, despite not having telephone cables for years, residents can pick up cellular signals from the rural areas and use the Internet. In some cases, a Turkish SIM card can be used to access WhatsApp.

Alhamado found himself a persecuted refugee four years ago. He was then a resident of the suburbs, and like many young men, took part in demonstrations against the brutal Syrian regime that has been in power for decades. That act of defiance branded him a wanted man. He fled for his life to eastern Aleppo, where many oppositionists live, and got married.

Despite the hardships, Alhamado keeps up his teaching, instructing students ages 9 to 14, as well as students in high school and university. His students are dedicated to their studies, he says, and come whenever school is in session, even when the bombs are falling and parents are afraid for their children to leave the house. He takes advantage of the opportunity, he says, to teach them ethics and values.

Lately, Alhamado has been more than just a teacher. He has become a citizen journalist, reporting on the daily bombings and hardships of the residents via Twitter and Periscope (a live video app). Between one bombardment and the next, he goes out to the streets to broadcast the scenes of devastation. This week, he visited hospitals, interviewing the sick and injured and showing the world the terrible state of the facilities.

Abdul Kafi Alhamado: “This is our land, this is where we are asking for freedom. Either we will achieve it or we will die for it”

While we were talking, the temperature outside hovered around 42 degrees Fahrenheit. With his camera, he shows me the pile of blankets; that’s their heat. Electric heat is out of the question, and it is difficult to obtain wood for building a fire.

The United Nations, he says angrily, refuses to help if the opposition does not capitulate to Assad. “The UN has lost its neutrality,” he said. “They use Assad’s and Putin’s words to tell us to give in. As far as we are concerned, veto is a tool that is used to protect the criminals. No one condemns them when they bombard hospitals. We don’t live with any illusions about them anymore — and we want freedom”

Freedom, for him, means to live, speak, and think as he wants. “Not to feel that someone is looking at me the whole time, and not to disappear into the hands of the regime, and even 20 years later no one knows what happened to me. No one in the world accepts a dictatorship where the president rules for decades. So why are we being suppressed and forced to accept Assad as president forever? We want to be free to choose our future.”

As Russian and Syrian forces close in, thousands are fleeing the besieged city, but Alhamado said he plans to stay. “If we run away,” he says, “the land will never be free. If we die, the next generation will learn from our mistake and will succeed in achieving freedom, and will know that our generation died for them. This is our land, this is where we are asking for freedom. Either we will achieve it or we will die for it.”

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