Hope in Hard Times

Editor's Note:In light of recent events, we have been reflecting on the depth and breadth of President Carter’s impact. This is one in a series of stories from our archives that show how his principles, expressed through Carter Center initiatives, have affected the lives of real people.

Hope in Hard Times

First published Aug. 2, 2017

Abeer Pamuk had just started her sophomore year at the University of Aleppo when the Syrian civil war erupted.

She was dreaming of a career as a humanitarian worker in South Sudan. But when a terrorist group occupied the street behind her house, her plans were derailed.

“There were rumors that they were raping girls,” she said. “My mom was very worried. She just walked into my room and said, ‘That’s it, you need to pack and go to Lebanon to live with your aunt until this is over.’”

Both imagined it would be a short stay.

Then, on the first day of midterm exams in January 2013, someone bombed the University of Aleppo, killing at least 82 people. Pamuk got the news over the phone.

  • Abeer Pamuk stands in front of ruins in Aleppo.

    Civil war destroyed Abeer Pamuk’s hometown of Aleppo, Syria. (Photo courtesy Abeer Pamuk)

“I heard it like someone was telling me, “Everyone you know is dead, including your mom,” because my mom worked in a nearby hospital,” she recalled. “I couldn’t call people; they cut the communications. It took me the whole day checking death lists to search for the names of my mom and my brother.”

Her family survived, but some of her friends did not. 

“That was the tipping point for me… I was like, ‘I wanted to be a humanitarian. This is not going to be over soon. I’m going to go back to Syria.’”

That brave decision started her on a path that eventually led to the Carter Center’s 2017 Human Rights Defenders Forum, where she shared her experiences with more than 70 other activists who had come together to discuss “Freedom from Fear: Securing Rights in Challenging Times.”

Within days of the bombing, Pamuk flew back to Syria. She reunited with her mother, and the pair traveled by bus from Damascus to Aleppo on one of the most dangerous roads in the world.

“I looked out at the road through two bullet holes in the bus window,” she said.

She re-enrolled at the university and completed her degree. Upon graduation, she landed a job with SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization in Syria devoted to helping children separated from their families by death or other circumstances. 

Pamuk spent most of the next four years at SOS, documenting the stories of Syrian children to help raise awareness of their plight.

She later left SOS to work with an organization in New York. For the moment, she’s glad to be in the United States and glad to have been part of the Carter Center forum.

“What inspires me is somebody like former President Jimmy Carter,” she said. “He finished his job as a president, but he never stopped having this job of being a human — being a person who's trying to bring peace to the world.  Having such people in our world and watching people coming together in such hard times gives me hope.”

2023 Update

After a three-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, The Carter Center will host a Human Rights Defenders Forum in November 2023. The Center also continues to seek modification of sanctions against Syria to ease the flow of humanitarian aid to war-stricken areas and has conducted conflict data analysis to help demining organizations determine where their help is most needed. Abeer Pamuk is working for a human rights organization for refugees in California.

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