Growing up in Aleppo

When I think childhood, I think family picnics and pets. I think of early morning grocery runs and lazy afternoon walks. I remember playing with friends and learning my lessons in school. I remember Christmas morning magic and gorging myself with fruits in the summer. I remember weekly catechism classes before mass. My childhood was idyllic, it was normal. There is a sense of nostalgia when one thinks of their childhood and if you’re lucky, you can go back to your hometown every now and then and reminisce about everything. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I grew up in Aleppo, Syria and right now, it is being obliterated to pieces.

My family moved there because of my dad’s work when I was a month old. He worked in finance for the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) for 9 years.

Aleppo was a place filled with cultural wonder. It was a city with a historical heritage I couldn’t comprehend I had the privilege of experiencing until decades later. Family picnics involved driving out of the city and setting up a barbecue grill at any of the ancient ruins that peppered the country side. There were no tourist fees or ropes barring you from certain areas, only the occasional shepherd with his herd of sheep passing through. My siblings and I would climb all over the rocks and play imaginary games until our parents shouted that the food was ready. Grocery runs involved going to the market where my mum would haggle with the sellers in Arabic and an elderly lady selling produce would give me candy with a wink whenever we’d pass by. Lazy afternoon walks would involve traipsing down cobbled roads of street markets and exploring alleyways filled with carpets and trinkets of gold, silver and brass. Shop owners would convene outside for their afternoon chitchat while smoking hookahs and sipping tea.

In school, aside from English, PE, Science and Math, we also learned Arabic. While I can not speak albeit a few select words, I still remember how to pronounce the alphabet and write my name. Highschool graduation was a big event and the whole school community was invited to the ceremony, which took place in the amphitheatre of the great Citadel of Aleppo, a large medieval fortified castle right at the centre of the city. My parents are devout Roman Catholics and while I took catechism classes, it was the early morning Islam prayers or adhan that I fondly remember waking up to as it echoed resoundingly throughout the city at the break of dawn. 

Aleppo was the place where I learned how to swim, ride a bike, and play tennis. It was the place where I got my first lipstick after I begged my mother for days much to the amusement of my father. It was where I gained the fondness of eating burgers with fries in them from the burger joint down the block. It was there where I discovered the world of books and would have my mother take me to the library during the summer as I devoured the different worlds of Harry Potter, The Baby Sitters Club and Nancy Drew.

What many don’t know is Aleppo took me in and afforded me a kindness that permeated the span of my lifetime -- from the gardener who swooped me in his arms and carried me to the nurse’s office when I had broken an arm to the dedicated college student who arrived at my violin lesson one day bandaged, bruised and banged up from a car accident because he didn’t want me to miss a lesson to the teachers who encouraged my inquisitive mind and developed my passion to read and grow. 

Watching the news lately, I felt helpless for the longest time until I could no longer take it. I had to do something. Writing about my childhood may not seem like a lot but if humanizing the place makes even one person want to help and donate, then at least I can say I’ve done something. What’s happening in Aleppo now is an ongoing humanitarian disaster and if the international audience is loud enough, something can be done about it. Lives can be saved. Let us not standby and allow these atrocities to continue. Donate, share, make noise. #SaveAleppo

Ms. Estoque is a communications manager for the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation and lived in Aleppo, Syria for nearly a decade of her life. You can find her in the social stratosphere at @mestoque.
Photos: Top, one of the family's regular picnics, and; below, a family picture at Palmyra, Syria