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Hope in Hard Times

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

She was studying English literature and dreaming of a career as a humanitarian worker in South Sudan. But when the Al-Nusra Front 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.

  • Abeer Pamuk’s hometown of Aleppo, Syria, has been virtually destroyed over the course of the country’s six-year civil war. (Photo courtesy Abeer Pamuk)

“We were saying ‘OK, next month it’s going to be over, everything is going to be OK,’ but it was never that way.”

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.

“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.”

  • Pamuk said that being part of the 2017 Human Rights Defenders Forum made her feel less alone and filled her with hope. (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Schwarz)

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 what was then 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. “We had to lower our heads because there were snipers.”

Back home, she re-enrolled at the university and completed her degree. Upon graduation, she began looking for humanitarian work in her own country. There was just one problem:  At 19, organizations considered her too young to hire. So she lied about her age and landed a job with SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization devoted to helping children separated from their families by death or other circumstances. 

The dire conditions in Aleppo made it easy for her to avoid SOS’s requests for proof of age.

“I used to always tell SOS, ‘There’s no electricity; I’ll bring you the papers later,’” she said with a laugh.

Her boss eventually caught on but decided to take a chance on her.

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

  • During her work with SOS, Pamuk met Wael Hanifa, a 9-year-old boy who lost the lower half of his jaw to a sniper’s bullet, and persuaded her organization to pay for his reconstructive surgeries. (Photo courtesy Abeer Pamuk)

The first child she worked with was Wael Hanifa, a 9-year-old boy who lost the lower half of his jaw to a sniper’s bullet. She met him at the hospital where her mom worked as an anesthesiologist and persuaded her organization to help pay for reconstructive surgeries.

He couldn’t speak, so he wrote the answers to her questions. One day, she asked him about his hopes.

“He wrote to me, ‘I want to be able to smile. I want my face back, so I can smile again and kiss my mother,’” she said. “To still be able to wish to smile gives me hope in Syria and in the people who are fighting to live and smile every day despite all the surrounding awful things.”

Earlier this year, Pamuk left SOS to become an Atlas Corps Fellow, volunteering her time and building her skill set at Spark Action, a youth advocacy organization based in Brooklyn, New York. When that is completed, she’ll continue her nonprofit career, looking for a way to help build peace in Syria.

For the moment, she’s glad to be in the United States and glad to have been part of the Carter Center forum.

“When you are in Syria, you think that you are alone trying to change the world, but being here, with all these people who are suffering from the same problems with extremism and radicalism and peacebuilding, gives you a lot of context,” she said. “What inspires me is somebody like former President Jimmy Carter. 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.”

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