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Hot meals, kids’ theatre: volunteers help Syria quake survivors

Aleppo, once a major commercial hub, had already been battered by over a decade of war when the quake struck
Aleppo, once a major commercial hub, had already been battered by over a decade of war when the quake struck - Copyright US Department of Defense/AFP -
Aleppo, once a major commercial hub, had already been battered by over a decade of war when the quake struck - Copyright US Department of Defense/AFP -
Maher Al Mounes

Since war-torn Syria was hit by a deadly earthquake, volunteers have kicked into action, cooking food for the homeless, giving free haircuts and bringing cheer to traumatised children.

Amid the rubble of Aleppo, a charity group has set up a free kitchen in a building in a park, where steam rises into the chilly air from huge pots of fragrant rice for the thousands who now live outside.

Around 100 volunteers have worked around the clock since the 7.8-magnitude tremor hit before dawn on February 6 and killed more than 45,000 people across neighbouring Turkey and Syria’s northwest.

“It’s an emergency we were not prepared for,” said Issam Habbal of the Damascus-based Saaed charity, which says it has handed out some 70,000 meals to people living in shelters or out in the open.

Around him, volunteers wearing aprons, hairnets and plastic gloves were cooking rice, preparing chicken meat, chopping vegetables and handing out portions to those queueing up and in desperate need.

Aleppo — Syria’s second city and commercial hub, which became a bloody battleground during years of war — recorded at least 432 quake deaths out of the country’s total disaster toll of more than 3,600 killed.

More than 50 buildings were flattened in Aleppo, most of them in the city’s east — a former rebel stronghold that was devastated during the conflict.

Despite all the suffering, the cooks proudly insist they’re doing more than just filling stomachs in the city, which boasts a rich culinary tradition that blends Arab, Turkish and Armenian influences.

“We are in Aleppo, which is famous for its cuisine, its delicacies and its gourmet population,” said Habbal. “Our meals must be as good as any served at an Aleppo dinner table.”

– ‘Fear in their eyes’ –

Others are doing their own part in the face of calamity, giving all they have left to those in need, their skills.

Hairdresser Sarkis Hagopian, 21, who is terrified by aftershocks including a 6.4-magnitude quake Monday and who now sleeps in a shelter run by a church, has spent his days giving a trim to anyone who asks.

“It’s the only thing I know how to do, so I started providing this service,” he told AFP, leaning over a client, his scissors snipping away.

“In times like these, we have to look out for each other… Everyone has to pitch in so we can get through this disaster.”

Elsewhere in the city, the actor Sona Slokjian has spent much of her time putting on children’s theatre with song and dance, to the delight of shrieking youngsters allowed to at least briefly forget the tragedy.

“A child not only needs food and water, they also want to play and forget,” said Slokjian, 38, wearing bright red lipstick, a red-and-white dress and two big bows in her blonde hair.

“I saw the fear in their eyes,” said the actor who has two daughters of her own. “So, I decided to volunteer doing what I love: singing and dancing for children.”

At a recent show at a church shelter, children with glee in their eyes hummed along to familiar tunes, clapped their hands and laughed at the antics and silly faces of Slokjian’s clown sidekick, Lila.

The actor playing Lila, resplendent in a rainbow wig, said afterwards that, while on stage, she is able to briefly block out the carnage around her: “I feel like I am not in the present time… I feel safe.

“This is the least we can do. It doesn’t just make the children happy.”

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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