From Aleppo to the U.N.: An Update on Hala and the “Children of Syria”

August 22, 2016
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri introduces Hala Kamil, subject of the the FRONTLINE documentary "Children of Syria," at the One Humanity event in celebration of World Humanitarian Day at the United Nations in New York on Aug. 19, 2016. (Stuart Ramson/AP Images for United Nations)

When viewers of the FRONTLINE documentary Children of Syria last saw Hala Kamil, she and her four children were settling in to a new life in Goslar, Germany after fleeing the intense and ongoing violence in Aleppo.

Now, the family has made another major journey — to the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York City, where their story was shared on Friday as part of an annual event marking World Humanitarian Day.

“We may have lost our homes, but we haven’t lost our ability to change this world,” Hala said in a speech translated by Lebanon-born American actress Yasmine Al Massri that called on world leaders to end the brutal conflict that has devastated her homeland.

“Aleppo used to be a bustling mecca. Now, it’s a vision of hell — a vibrant city, bombed into the stone ages,” Hala said. “Families who remain live in apartment buildings without walls, their bakeries, schools and health clinics blasted into dust. I ask the world to hold on to that which unites us, now, more than ever: Love. Respect. Freedom.”

When Hala took the stage to deliver what was billed as “a message to humanity,” she was met with a standing ovation — surely a surreal moment for the matriarch of a self-described “ordinary family” that filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen first began chronicling in 2013.

Back then, Hala, her husband Abu Ali, and their four children — Sara, Farah, Helen and Mohammed — were living in a suburb of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, that had been transformed into a war zone. Filmed with remarkable intimacy and access over the next three years, Children of Syria went on to trace Hala’s journey to Germany with her kids, in search of a better future. (Watch the film here.) 

As the United States and the world grappled with the largest migration crisis since World War II, the film’s exploration of this refugee family’s story resonated with audiences at home and abroad. Newsweek called the film “deeply moving,” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said it gave “a dramatically different dimension to what we think we know about this war,” and, ultimately, the U.N. decided to build its annual World Humanitarian Day event around Mettelsiefen’s film and the family’s story.

In the course of the evening — which included four excerpts from Children of Syria, and speeches and performances from dignitaries, artists and celebrities — Alisan Porter, winner of season 10 of NBC’s The Voice, dedicated her performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Hala’s children. Tony Award-winning star of Hamilton Leslie Odom, Jr. thanked Hala and her family “for opening up your homes and your lives at this unimaginable time, and giving us a window into your pain and your sorrow, and into your perseverance.”

It was a remarkable opportunity, Hala told FRONTLINE, but the kids, she said, “know that we come here not to enjoy, not to go shopping.”

“We’ve come here to give a message,” she said. “We have something to do for our country, and they understand this.”

For Hala, speaking about Syria at the U.N. was an especially bittersweet moment because of who wasn’t there to share the stage. As viewers of Children of Syria will remember, Hala’s husband, Abu Ali — one of the earliest members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army rebel group — was kidnapped by ISIS fighters, according to the family, and they still have not heard from him. 

“I don’t know if he is alive or not,” Hala told FRONTLINE. She added that every morning, she continues to carry out the two-cups-of-coffee ritual that moved viewers of Children of Syria so deeply: “I make it for me and for him, and I dream [that] he stands near me and we speak about Syria and about the children, as in the past.”

The children remain Hala’s raison d’etre. All four of them now speak German, she said, and are doing wonderfully in school.

“This is the most important thing for me,” she said. “I [left] my country to have a good future for my children … to make some beautiful thing for them. If I can make a good future for my children, [maybe] I can make something for my country after the war.”

But for now, the fighting rages, and Hala’s extended family (including her mother-in-law, whose wrenching goodbye was documented in the film) remains in Syria.

“I speak [to them on Skype] all the time to know that they are staying alive — because, this second, maybe somebody has lost their life,” she said.

That perilous reality is what Hala is trying to change by sharing her story.

“A lot of families in Syria have [been through] the same thing, and their children have a difficult and dangerous life,” she told FRONTLINE. “We must do something for them … They must live as other children in the world. They must have schools, they must have a garden to go and to play in, and they must not be afraid of snipers or bombs from planes.”

Hala’s Aug. 19, 2016 Speech at the United Nations: Watch & Read

Mr. President, Mr. Deputy Secretary General, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen: As I stand here before you today, my beloved Aleppo is burning.

Two hundred seventy-five thousand men, women and children are under siege, and two million are living in fear of besiegement. They cry out, but they are met with silence. The world does not hear them. Instead, the world hears the echoes of gunshots and explosions, tormented by images of knife-wielding terrorists killing in the name of Islam. Well, not in our name. Not in my name.

Aleppo used to be a bustling mecca. Now, it’s a vision of hell—a vibrant city, bombed into the stone ages. Families who remain live in apartment buildings without walls, their bakeries, schools and health clinics blasted into dust. I ask the world to hold on to that which unites us, now, more than ever: Love. Respect. Freedom.

My homeland is bleeding profusely, and the world is yet to tend to its wounds.

The scars of war threaten to leave generations without hope. Please do not continue to let that be the case.

When walking up the stairs to address this solemn assembly, I tried to imagine for a moment all these most powerful people in the history of mankind who have stood here before. Can these most powerful heads of state be bothered with the fate of individuals? With stories of families fleeing from places like Aleppo? After all, the city that my family and I escaped from to seek shelter in Germany stands just as a symbol for the misery that countless families around the world fear.

Ladies and gentleman, I have no access to the daily challenges of global politics and diplomacy, but Aleppo has become a symbol of our collective failure to deliver, to live up to, our humanity, and deliver a solution. In a world of conflicting views and interests, the adverse fate of ordinary people gets buried. I imagine that the quarreling world powers throw tons of opposing images and stories of suffering people at one another, suffering that they claim to defend.

The story of my ordinary family is just a small glimpse into what this suffering feels like. Thank you for watching it. I do not agree with those out there who say that there are two worlds—one for the political decision-makers, and one for those who bear the consequences of their decisions. We who suffer those consequences must have some bearings on the actions, or lack of action, of the powerful.

Tonight, I want to reach out to all of you — to the most powerful, and also to my fellow Syrians. To grieving mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives and lovers. Make your voices heard. I call upon you not to give up and not to regard us as helpless victims being ushered by the powers of destiny alone forever deprived of self-determination. We may have lost our homes, but we have not lost our ability to change this world, for it is the only world we have.

Thank you for your attention.

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