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Syria conflict: The teacher who helped give Aleppo a voice

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Wissam Zarqa

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Wissam Zarqa taught English to help people share stories of daily life in Aleppo

“I’ve spent most of my life in Aleppo,” Wissam says. “Imagine, that against all the odds you have lived through almost six years of war and clung onto your home but then you are ripped out of it, boarded onto a bus.”

Wissam Zarqa, 34, is an English teacher. At least a third of his adult life has been dominated by a war which has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced many millions more. His teaching has helped many of those people affected to share their experiences of the conflict.

In late December 2016, Wissam and his wife, Aisha, were among the last civilians to leave Aleppo as Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air strikes, retook the city. They had stayed until the latest possible moment. Now living near the city of Idlib, Wissam is considering a return to teaching in the hope it will give citizens there a voice.

Softly spoken, he sometimes finishes his sentences with an upward inflection that belies the gravity of his words.

“We left when we were forced to leave,” he says. “Even then, things weren’t OK. Many accidents happened during the evacuation. Some people were killed. Some people were arrested.

“This was not liberation,” he says.

“This was forced displacement. We are now refugees in our own country.”

Media captionLeaving Aleppo: “They started firing in the air”

Wissam has left Aleppo before. He was studying for his masters degree in 2011 when government forces killed pro-democracy demonstrators, triggering the nationwide protests that would develop into civil war.

“Here, when you finish studying, you have to join the army,” he says.

“Some of my friends had to join the army. Some of them are still soldiers.

“When the uprising started I had to run away because I was supposed to join [President Bashar al-Assad’s] army to kill my own people.”

He left the city in late 2011 and for three years he taught at universities in Saudi Arabia. But with the situation worsening at home, he felt increasingly uneasy.

“I decided to come back – it was a duty in fact.

“I did not feel happy at all while I was in Saudi Arabia, I was living a good life there when my people were suffering.

“I wanted to help somehow.”

The Aleppo he returned to was markedly different from the one he had left. As a child, his family had moved around a lot, so he had friends across the city. Now, many of his friends and family had fled, while much of the city had been destroyed.


Aleppo: Before and after the battle

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2016

View from the citadel across the devastated city

2008

View from the Citadel of people eating at restaurants



Undeterred, he set about trying to help. As an English teacher, he felt the best way to do this was to enable ordinary Aleppo citizens to talk to the media about what was happening, to share their stories of everyday life in a city that had become a war zone and from which little information was emerging.

The Institute of Language Studies was established in 2015.

“We wanted to give the people of Aleppo a voice,” he says.

“We wanted people like nurses, workers, mothers, to have the ability to speak English to talk to the world about what was happening.”

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Adem Altan/AFP/Getty

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Fatemah al-Abed pictured with her daughter Bana al-Abed, in Turkey, after being evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016

Among the Institute’s alumni is Fatemah al-Abed, the mother of seven-year-old Bana, who has amassed more than 350,000 followers on Twitter since September 2016 with updates of daily life in Aleppo.

Fatemah credits the Institute with helping her to spread word about life in Aleppo.

“It helped me, of course,” she says.

“The idea was to reach people around the world, tell them our message, tell them about our life.”

And life in Aleppo was becoming ever more difficult. As government forces reinstated a siege in the east, food was becoming scarce.

Wissam, though, continued to teach. And, newly married, found support among his wife’s family.

“When I got married I had a lot of relatives,” he says. “I established many new friends, many new relationships. That helped a lot during the siege. There was no food in the market so they were very supportive.

“We went on teaching. Sometimes it was funny. When we had a lesson on food, we would just skip it. I would tell them: ‘OK, we’ll come back to it later when the siege is broken’. That ‘later’ never came.

“I guess we only stopped teaching in November. By then it was too dangerous.

“We started losing some parts of besieged Aleppo. The army was advancing. The shelling was really crazy.”

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He taught his last lesson at the end of November.

“It was quite clear we couldn’t keep teaching,” he remembers.

“Even before we started, bombs began falling.

“The ceiling started collapsing. It was really scary. I asked the students to go underneath their desks.

“I was just talking to them, telling them that they shouldn’t be scared. That it’s OK, even if we die. Death shouldn’t be that horrible. Hopefully we will go to Heaven.

“I know it’s not something normal to talk about but this is all I could do.

“When things got a bit calmer, we took the students home.”

Like many of the people who left Aleppo, Wissam and his wife are now living near Idlib, to the south west of his former home city. Just last week air strikes killed at least 23 people in Idlib which remains under rebel control.

“I’m just concerned about my wife,” Wissam says. “She still has nightmares because of what she suffered in Aleppo. She can’t stand this kind of life.

“We are afraid to rebuild our lives, and then have them destroyed again.

“But because Idlib might go through what happened in Aleppo, I feel that I have to be there.

“If people are killed and nobody is able to talk about it, more people will be killed.

“This was our message in Aleppo, my friends and I, when we established the Institute.

“Maybe we can have something similar in Idlib.”

By Chris Bell, BBC UGC and Social News team



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