Aleppo, My Beloved

Aleppo, My Beloved

Aleppo, a city of wonders, has seen thousands of years of history. These days, however, most would associate the city with urban warfare, snipers, and bombs. In addition to the terrors and deprivation of war, the city also suffered a devastating earthquake in February 2023. The people of Aleppo have witnessed something akin to hell – but still hold their hometown dearest in their hearts. 

In Aleppo, northern Syria, the last glimmer of daylight shimmers amid the rubble. The call to prayer echoes in the air. The clock strikes ten to eight – the sun is setting. Although Syria has lived through a decade of horrifying humanitarian crises, magical moments like this still happen.  

This was once a thriving city. History books tell us that Aleppo is one of the world’s longest continuously-inhabited cities. Those walking the streets experience whispers of the past, like the Al-Madina souk – an ancient marketplace of the 14th century. In the souk’s alleys, merchants traversing the Silk Road once sold fabrics, porcelain, spices, and perfumes of the Orient.  

Now it is June 2023, and the bazaar is ruined. Fires have ravaged its alleyways during the last decade. Bombings destroyed stalls and shattered its historic features. February’s earthquake increased this devastation exponentially. 

A narrow path weaving through the rubble takes one on a trip down memory lane in a city that has gone through extreme changes.  

The housing in Aleppo has been severely damaged in the war and in the earthquake. Many families are dealing with a foundational problem: there is insufficient housing, and few have the funds to renovate damaged apartments.

AMINA al-Sindyan, 63, shakes her head gently while watching her grandson showing off his somersaults. The grandmother proudly identifies as a native Aleppo girl. She has lived in this city all her life, apart from 2013-19, when her family fled the war to Latakia in western Syria.  

Amina has lost her home in Aleppo twice: first to fighting, then to the earthquake. Currently living with her family in a makeshift shelter set up in a school, she longs for her hometown as she remembers it before the crises.  

“I still remember what it was like, going out to buy things. All the shops were open – I could find everything I needed.”  

Families in Aleppo are now in dire financial straits. The value of their money has crashed, and Amina al-Sindyan gives us an example – the bride-prices customarily paid in Syria when daughters marry. 

“One of my daughters got married before the war. We got a bride-price of 50 000 Syrian pounds. It was a good sum and it supplied everything the new family needed. Recently, my other daughter also got married. We received a bride-dowry of one million, not that that would buy much these days,” Amina says, shaking her head in exasperation.  

MONEY is not the only thing in her mind. Born in the sixties, she comes from an open-minded family. Even back then, the father of the family considered his daughters equal to him and wanted them to enjoy a wide range of rights. Amina and many others in Aleppo have felt the atmosphere of their hometown becoming more tense over these issues during the past decade. 

Sondos Ali al-Mhana, 11, is the granddaughter of Amina al-Sindyan. They live in a shelter for families that lost their homes. Grandmother al-Sindyan wishes that her granddaughters would have a bright future, despite the current challenges.

The reasons for this change? War, terrorism, and all their consequences. As we talked to the citizens of Aleppo, they repeatedly brought up how fighting has led to changes in the city’s population. 

Aleppo is a university town. Many of the city’s prewar inhabitants were educated, and these were the ones who had the money and opportunities to escape the violence. At the same time, less educated people from the countryside fled to the cities. 

“Our educational backgrounds and the way we raise our children are vastly different,” Amina al-Sindyan says. She offers a recent example; discord at an emergency shelter for families who lost their homes in the earthquake.  

Living through years of war in Latakia, western Syria, the women of the al-Sindyan family got used to wearing jeans and t-shirts. After returning Aleppo in 2019, they realised this is no longer possible. After the earthquake, their neighbours in the emergency shelter told al-Sindyan’s 11-year-old granddaughter to put on a headscarf and did so very directly.  

Thus far, the family has not obeyed the neighbours’ orders. 

“I want my grandchildren, especially the girls, to go to school. This is currently impossible due the poor financial situation of our family,” Amina says. She tells us that, despite her open-minded father, she once married a man who severely restricted her life during their life together. 

“The girls either go to school or have to get married. I don’t want any woman to have to live how I’ve lived.” 

THE GRANDCHILDREN of Al-Sindyan, among two thousand other children, take part in activities in a school in Aleppo organised by Finn Church Aid after the earthquake.

Here, children can exercise, play and make music while also receiving support, including lessons on how to protect themselves from the earthquake and how to process their fears and traumas. 

During lessons, little hands go up in the air and questions are asked at a rapid pace. We request Yusef Mouhammad Bdeoi, 7, to show us how he would protect himself from an earthquake. He complies, burrowing under his desk and covering his head with his hands.  

“Many children have misconceptions about earthquakes. They tell me how they ran out of their houses. But people often died in collapsed stairwells while fleeing their homes,” says Jalila Mouhamad Wilfe, 45, who teaches the lesson and explains the importance of these skills.  

Jalila is a psychology teacher. In the past, she talked to her students about child marriages, child labour and being in a family, but since the earthquake, lessons have been dominated by just one subject. More than 72,000 families in Aleppo lost their homes when the quake hit the city, already traumatised by the horrors of war. 

Yusef Mouhammad Bdeoi is in first grade in his school in Aleppo. With support from Finn Church Aid he has attended classes on how to react in the case of an earthquake.

ON THE OTHER side of the city, curtains undulate in the breeze of the evening on the balcony of School Principal Ramia al-Naser‘s home. The calm and domestic image strikes an absurd contrast to the rest of the neighbourhood, where apartment buildings collapsed one after another on the morning of February 6. Mrs. al-Naser’s home has also half collapsed, and for safety reasons she is living with her three children and husband in an emergency shelter set up at her school. Memories of the earthquake are still fresh. 

“I woke up to a loud noise that seemed to be coming from inside the earth. We ran outside and realised that everything was destroyed. Our neighbours’ cries of distress echoed through the streets. 50 residents in our apartment building died that night,” al-Naser says.  

As a mother, she says, the experience was particularly hard on the family’s 11-year-old son Salim, who was shaking for three days after the disaster, unable to speak a word. Four months later, the boy still asks his mother every morning if there will be another earthquake today.  

Ramia Al-Naser hopes that her family can soon find a home to replace the destroyed one. However, money is a problem for many families who have lost their means of subsistence. 

“A rent for a family of our size in Aleppo used to be USD 10 per month. Now, a similar apartment goes for USD 50,” she reflects. 

The average income of an Aleppo resident is around USD 30 per month. Beyond income, housing is another fundamental challenge: it’s easy to see how Aleppo’s housing stock has been destroyed in many places by the war and the earthquake. The homes simply no longer exist, and few people have the means to repair them.  

ALIA Dwabili, 52, who lives in the historic quarters of the old city and has received a cash grant from Finn Church Aid to renovate her home, also knows this. A narrow, steep staircase leads up from an alley protected by a high wall. Here, above the roofs of the old city, is Alia’s home, and when the first earthquake struck, she fled these same stairs, still drowsy after sleep. In a way, she was lucky; the next quake collapsed the roof over her bed.  

Alia Dwabili lives over the roofs in the old city in Aleppo. Her house was severely damaged in the earthquake in February 2023. Dwabili used the cash assistance she received from FCA to repair her apartment.

Alia Dwabili was born in Aleppo and has lived in the city throughout the crises. At one time, her neighbourhood was the worst battleground of the conflict. Indeed, Aleppo was a scene for urban warfare in 2012-16. Alia, just like everyone who experienced this period, could tell countless stories about how the lines between the different sides cut through neighbourhoods and where the snipers’ nests were. 

Aleppo’s recent history of warfare repeats a pattern seen in the region’s history over hundreds and thousands of years. The city, known as the centre of what is now northern Syria, has seen power struggles since well before the dawn of time, such as during the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, and the time of Syrian independence. 

During all these times, the plight of the civilians has also been clear. After every battle, bombing and now the earthquake in the 21st century, Alia Dwabili has faced a harrowing task. She, along with other members of the neighbourhood, has had to collect the bodies of the neighbours that have died.  

“No words can fully describe how that feels,” she says, moved to tears. Nevertheless, she thinks it feels good to find words for the things that have happened to her over the past few years. 

Locals describe Alia Dwabili as the soul of the neighbourhood – a woman who lacks everything yet offers help to everyone around her. They tell us how she runs a clinic in her home, bringing together health professionals and women in need of aid under her roof. On a June evening, Alia offers coffee, pats us on the shoulder and wipes tears from the corners of her eyes. Then she slaps her hands together, laughing happily, her charm exuding to all around her.  

lintuja sinistä taivasta vasten
lintuja sinistä taivasta vasten

THE SKY over Aleppo is cloudless and the city’s signature breeze sweeps the rooftops and street corners. Flocks of birds engage in a flurried dance in a blue sky. Darkness descends, revealing the stars.  

For families in Aleppo, late evenings and early nights have always been when the city’s two million people can come alive. Thus, it will also be on this June evening of 2023.  

Locals sit in the Aleppo fortress, in the heart of the old city. Before the war, the city’s people used to gather in the evenings to drink in cafes. Few afford to do so anymore.  

The inhabitants of Aleppo meet up at the square of the old fortress in the evenings. Few can afford to spend time in the cafés anymore.

Now, hookah pipes are lit and picnic boxes opened on park benches. Children run around the squares and people catch up with acquaintances. Romantic Arabic songs echo from loudspeakers, and, in the cafés, some people are tempted to dance on their seats. Their wrists move gracefully.  

There is something magical about the nights in Aleppo, and every person we met who grew up in Aleppo mentions the same. It’s put into words most beautifully by Alia Dwabili. 

“Aleppo is my passion. I love this city so, so much – I could never imagine leaving it.” 

FCA’s earthquake response in Syria is supported by Syrian Humanitarian Fund (SHF). 

Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen 
Photos: Antti Yrjönen
Translation: Tatu Ahponen & Ruth Owen

Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives 

Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives 

Karam woke up when the earth started to shake. Marianna fled a war. Susan skips workdays to fetch water. These FCA workers now tell us what it’s like to live in the middle of a catastrophe. 

DID YOU KNOW that Finn Church Aid employs over 3 000 people? Or that 95 % of them are locally hired experts? Our local workers are the most crucial part of our relief work. For many people, catastrophes are a remote affair – for them, they’re a part of everyday life. 

In this article we meet some FCA experts who have lived through the war in Ukraine, the drought in East Africa and a devastating earthquake in Syria. They don’t see their work as just a job. What is at stake for them is the future – for their families and for their countries.

A man poses for a photograph.
Syrian Karam Sharouf has lived his entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, pandemic and in February 2023, a devastating earthquake tore down thousands of homes and schools in North Syria. PHOTO: KARAM SHAROUF / FCA

Karam Sharouf from Syria has lived through a variety of catastrophes for his entire adult life. Still, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.  

“It started with a bomb-like sound, just like what we have been hearing throughout the war. I thought we were under attack again. Eventually, I realized that the earth was shaking. 

It was the morning of February 6, 2023. I was asleep in our home, on the fourth floor of a building, in the Syrian capital Damascus. In a state of shock, I grabbed my wife and child. Things were falling and breaking apart around us, but fortunately there were no injuries.  

I am Syrian. I am 33 years old. I have lived my entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, then the pandemic, now a devastating earthquake. Our country is going from a crisis to crisis, and many Syrians are just waiting for a chance to get out.  

I have been working with FCA since 2019, when I became FCA’s first local worker in Syria. Even before that, however, I had ten years of experience in the organization. The earthquake has kept us extremely busy. In Syria, we have not had the opportunity to prepare for catastrophes like the earthquake and the pandemic, since we have dealing with bombs and attacks for the last decade. How to deal with something like an earthquake? We have had no idea.  

Just before the quake, Finn Church Aid had expanded its reach to Aleppo, as well as Raqqa, often remembered as the capital of ISIS. People in these cities have been living under enormous pressure and, after all the bad things that have happened, all they have wanted is a moment of calm. What they did not need was another catastrophe, like this earthquake – causing many to lose their homes or families. 

So, all things considered, it’s all very difficult, but I still see light at the end of the tunnel for us Syrians. That’s what keeps me going. After all, our mission is making people feel empowered. 

The future of Syria depends first on us, the locals, even if the international community’s help is also necessary. When people work hard for their country, this creates a sense of togetherness and unity. What annoys me is how white people treat us Middle-Easterners. I’ve seen none of that while at FCA, even though we are in constant contact with Finland and our other countries of operation. Almost all of the staff at FCA’s Syria office are Syrian. That is quite exceptional and gets us a lot of positive feedback. 

Marianna Zhurbenko, who has fled the war in Ukraine, would not hesitate to open her home to other refugees. 

A Ukrainian woman sits by a desk. There is a laptop on the desk.
Marianna Zhurbenko fled the war herself before becoming a humanitarian worker. She now works as planning coordinator in FCA. PHOTO: Antti Yrjönen / FCA

“I remember staring incredulously at the sky from the window of my home in Gostomel, west of Kiev. It was 24 February 2022, helicopters were flying overhead, and my phone kept ringing incessantly as my friends called in distress, telling me and my family to flee. All the sudden the war had started, and the front line was only 500 metres from our home. It felt like they were playing a movie just outside our window. 

The artillery fire started in the evening. That’s when my husband and I decided to flee. We packed our 9-year-old son, our six-month-old baby, and our dog into the car. We fled first to Kyiv and then to western Ukraine.  

I and my sons lived there for the next few months. I stayed awake, listened to my 9-year-old crying. Fortunately, the baby didn’t understand anything about the situation.  

Unknown families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for water and electricity, and they refused to accept it. The war has united us Ukrainians like never before. I, too, would open the door to other families if they were facing such a situation.  

My own values have also been changed by the war. Material goods no longer matter to me, while life, health, family, and love are vastly more important than before. 

We were able to return home in May 2022. Kyiv was empty and our yard was full of mines and ammo fragments. The mines were cleared, and now our children can play there safely again. 

Before the war, I was a supervisor in a sewing company. After we returned home, it soon became clear that this couldn’t continue. Although my workplace had not been destroyed in the fighting, all the workers had fled elsewhere and had no intention of returning.  

I started in June as a planning coordinator at the Finn Church Aid. I’m in charge of obtaining aid and making sure that all aid going to FCA’s schools, for example, finds its way there.  

I was an internally displaced person and I know how that makes people feel. It’s great to be able to help children, and I like what I’m doing here.” 

A Kenyan woman poses for a photograph.
Susan Abuba Jackson fled to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017. She now works in a refugee camp as a teacher. PHOTO: BJÖRN UDD / FCA

Susan Abuba Jackson, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, is a teacher. Sometimes, however, she must spend a whole working day just fetching water. 

“I am a teacher. The ongoing drought makes life hard for my students, but also for me. I have five children at home. Some days, instead of going to work, I must fetch water to keep my children from suffering. If I can’t feed myself, I don’t have the energy to teach. There are four of us teachers in the school. The class sizes are so huge that teaching while hungry and thirsty becomes impossible. 

I came to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017, fleeing the war. I remember seeing one person shot I fled with my children here to Kenya while my husband stayed in South Sudan as a soldier. 

I worked as a teacher in South Sudan for 12 years. Upon arrival here, I started as a primary school teacher. For the last two years, I have been working as a kindergarten teacher in a school run by Finn Church Aid in the Kalobeyei refugee camp. 

I like working with children. They are flexible, they learn quickly and are very outspoken. Early education is also especially important for children. It is foundational to all sorts of learning.  

The drought is currently our biggest problem. Normally we have 500 pupils, but many are dropping out of school because there is no water in the school, either. We can’t even offer them food if there is no water. 

The children here have a lot of special needs. Many have seen war, have been traumatized. Their parents may have died, and they may be living alone with older siblings. It is up to us to look after these children and make sure they get a good education, but in a situation like this, that is very difficult.” 

Text: Björn Udd
Translation: Tatu Ahponen

FCA grants another 200,000 euros to help earthquake-struck Syria 

“It is vital to aid the disaster area quickly” – FCA grants another 200,000 euros to help earthquake-struck Syria 

“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to make humanitarian aid accessible to the people affected by the earthquake, by all means necessary,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria. 

IN THE EARLY morning of February 6th, the most destructive earthquake in the region’s history struck Turkey and Syria. In Syria, one of Finn Church Aids programme countries, it is estimated that six million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid following the earthquake. 

This week, Finn Church Aid (FCA) has allocated another instalment of 200,000 euros from its disaster fund, to help the people affected by the earthquake in Syria. A total of 400,000 euros will be used for the emergency aid work initiated by the FCA’s Syrian Country Office. 

Northern Syria is currently experiencing a cold winter. According to the latest figures, the magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes drove tens of thousands of families away from their homes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that at least 18,500 families have been accommodated in schools and other temporary shelters. 12,600 of the families are located in Aleppo, which is one of the areas that was struck hardest by the earthquake. 

Two women holding a baby wrapped in a blanket.
Baby Karam was born only an hour before the massive earthquake shook his hometown Aleppo, Syria. Together with his mother Wafaa, Karam now lives in a shelter built in a school. PHOTO: FCA SYRIA

In a humanitarian crisis like this, it is vital that aid reaches those in need as quickly as possible. The winter cold makes the need for help even more urgent. Since the earthquake struck unexpectedly, early in the morning, the people who fled their homes did not have time to prepare or pack. Amongst the people whose houses are still seemingly intact, many are afraid to return home. They fear buildings collapsing because of structural damage and the danger of new earthquakes. 

“In this situation, it is absolutely vital to support the people affected by the earthquake with humanitarian aid by all possible means, and proving them with equipment needed to survive the winter,” says Mazen Khzouz, the Finn Church Aid Country Director in Syria. 

“Such equipment includes warm clothes for children and adults, blankets, flashlights, mattresses and shelters.” 

During the past week, Finn Church Aid has assessed the situation and visited temporary accommodation facilities in Aleppo and Hama. 

Millions of people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian aid before the earthquake in February, due to the war and the violence that has been raging for more than a decade. FCA has been working in Syria since 2017, providing humanitarian aid. The Country Office was established in Damascus in 2019, and before the earthquake FCA’s work revolved around on supporting children’s access to school and education

“The humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake highlights the already existing vast need for aid in Syria, and increases the suffering of the most vulnerable population,” says Khzouz. 

Kaksi miestä seisoo Syyriassa katsomassa sortuneita rakennuksia.
Millions of people in Syria were already in need of humanitarian aid before the earthquake in February, due to the war and the violence that has been raging for more than a decade. FCA was able to make a swift decision of its humanitarian aid work in Syria because it was already present in the country. PHOTO: FCA SYRIA

Finn Church Aid is one of the few international aid organizations operating in Syria. That is why the decision to start the aid operation was made swiftly. The emergency created by the earthquake has also prompted the Finnish people to help. 

“With the donations given to us, we will be able to support the most vulnerable people in the Syrian crisis. A quick response in disasters like these is very important. It is potentially life-saving,” says Finn Church Aid Executive Director Tomi Järvinen

The dire needs of the Syrian people have touched the hearts of private Finnish citizens and churches alike. The Helsinki and Espoo congregations have, amongst others, donated to the FCA emergency aid fund in order to help the Syrians. 

“We kindly want to thank every donor. Every euro counts. The destruction in Syria is enormous. When you take the pre-existing humanitarian crisis into account, the area will be in need of aid for a long time,” says Järvinen. 

More information: 

Pictures from the regions Hama and Aleppo in Syria. 

FCA Country Director for Syria, Mazen Khzouz (English and Arabic),
FCA Executive Director, Tomi Järvinen (English and Finnish),, tel. +358(0)40 641 8209
FCA Manager of International Communications (English), Ruth Owen,, tel. +358(0)504097848