On Hope and War
By Dr. Rola Hallam
What is hope?
War and hope are not natural bedfellows and yet the prelude to Syria’s war was rooted in just that – hope. As thousands of people rose up across the country against their oppressive regime, it was hope that coursed through their veins. They were finally released from the shackles of fear that had held them captive for years and were inspired to take to the streets, demanding their freedom and dignity. They were driven by hope – hope for a better Syria, hope for a better tomorrow.
Eight years, a massive blood bath and an increasingly complicated war later, most of the population is destitute, injured, dead or disappeared. It would be easy to conclude that hope too had been murdered.
I have long shared the view of activist and former Czech president Václav Havel, that hope is an orientation of the heart: it exists regardless of the prognosis for a particular situation. Sure, if you look at the current situation in Syria there seems little to be hopeful about. And yet, despite everything, Syrian humanitarians have not stopped supporting their communities and saving lives. We can now boast an active civil society; many organisations are working with non-violent principles for freedom and dignity for all – striving for women’s rights, civic engagement, and youth empowerment – where none existed before. What’s more, despite the indescribable calamity of this war, it hasn’t cowed our brothers and sisters in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, who have also taken to the streets to protest against their regimes’ corruption and to call for their own rights to be recognised. These protests may seem insignificant to the outsider, but they’re exactly what the early shoots of hope look like. The early signs of spring after a long winter of war.
When fighting for social change, we must take the long view and be prepared for the long haul. Along the way it is hope that keeps us fired up to carry on AND eventually enables us to achieve our ends. That’s not to say that we don’t need many other ingredients. Working to make the world a better place takes stamina, resilience, courage, fortitude, patience, the ability to collaborate and a massive sense of humour. You need to rejoice at small wins, laugh at yourself, see – really see – the beauty in our world and be present in it with all the optimism you can muster.
But to me, it’s our deep-seated ability to hope that we must ultimately rely upon when everything else runs out. As Howard Zinn says, 'We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of systems of power that seemed invincible.'
Hope, like energy, can take many forms.
Sometimes it can feel ethereal – a mere notion in your heart and mind.
Sometimes it’s a more palpable feeling, like wings fluttering in your chest, metaphorically and mentally uplifting us.
Sometimes, it’s like a bruise. A remnant of an occasion or feelings past that has left a mark.
Every now and then, we are endowed with its most magical manifestation, when hope has walls you can touch, an unmistakable scent and smiles that your eyes and heart can see.
It is tangible, it is physical.
From the rubble of death and devastation, hope is born.
In November 2016, Aleppo, Syria’s once eminent and historical city was being besieged and heavily bombarded by an arsenal of horrific, deadly weaponry; most devastating and inhumane among them, the Syrian regime’s infamous barrel bombs. As the name suggests, these are barrels stuffed with explosives which are discharged, usually from helicopters, on civilian areas outside the regime’s control. In just one weekend, five hospitals were bombed, including a children’s hospital run by my Syrian colleagues at the Independent Doctors Association (IDA).
In horror, I watched the footage of the head nurse Malakeh grabbing premature babies out of incubators, desperate to get them to safety, as the hospital shook around her before she broke down in heart-breaking sobs.
I too spent a couple of days sobbing with anger, grief and bitter frustration.
I, like many Syrian medics and aid workers, had shed blood, sweat and tears rebuilding hospitals across our war-ravaged country so that our patients might live, not die. In my determination to enable the heroic efforts of local medics to provide life-saving health services to their war-devastated communities, I founded CanDo.
I wanted to do something that transformed our collective anger into something beautiful. So, as tears transformed into action and grief to love, the People's Convoy was born; a global crowdfunding campaign to help the IDA build a whole new children's hospital, and to drive the medical equipment needed all the way from London to the Syrian border.
And we did it.
Thousands of people and thirty-eight human rights and humanitarian partner organisations from across the world came together to support CanDo’s campaign. We achieved a global first: we built the first-ever crowdfunded hospital. A carload of us, people, and a truck full of hospital equipment spent seven days and drove 3000 miles on a journey from Chelsea and Westminster children’s hospital in London to the Turkish-Syrian border, arriving in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve.
The location of the hospital was carefully chosen by the IDA, in an area of relative safety and where it could serve the greatest number of displaced children. IDA was so moved by people’s responses that they named it the Hope Hospital.
Since then, I have reflected many times on The People’s Convoy and what it has achieved. The lives it has impacted are a very tangible testament to what we can accomplish when we unite and work together for good. Hope Hospital opened its doors on 5 April 2017 and to date has treated 98,873 children. Children are our hope for the future and so in providing high-quality medical care for them in the midst of a brutal war, we have undoubtedly given them and their families not just a chance of survival but hope for the future.
But this is only a small part of the story. Hope Hospital is so-called because it has achieved so much more than can be captured in numbers of lives saved. Every day, I feel inspired and honoured to support the incredible medical team of Hope Hospital who have worked tirelessly from the moment they were forced to leave Aleppo and move north, leaving everything they had achieved in their lives behind, after years of war and trauma, not knowing what their future held. They are everyday ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of unimaginable adversity. These local medics dare to work where others can’t or won’t. They have been risking their lives to save others for nine years now. Malakeh has been injured over six times in the line of duty. Her last injury caused her severe burns and I was afraid she wouldn’t make it. Yet six months and many operations later, she was back with her usual determination and cheeky smile, caring for precious little lives. This resilience and determination is the very fuel of hope.
Perhaps the greatest hope comes from the word, ‘people’. Thousands of us took action and told Syrians loud and clear: ‘We hear you, we see you and we are here to support you’; thousands of us used our power in the face of our governments’ inaction and said, ‘We will not be silent or paralysed, it is not acceptable to bomb hospitals, it is not acceptable to bomb children, we will help these heroic medics to continue their life-saving work.’ We demonstrate the best humanity has to offer when we act on our deep interconnection, recognise our shared humanity and responsibility towards each other and together stand against injustice.
United in hope, we can save lives, we can move mountains.