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World Humanitarian Day celebrates #WomenHumanitarians: Personal profile, Esraa in Aleppo

16 Aug 2019


Esraa, a UNICEF Health and Nutrition officer, talks in a school-turned shelter for internally displaced families in Tal Refat town, northern Aleppo Governorate. © UNICEF/ Khudr Al-Issa

Esraa, a paediatrician and humanitarian, says she has survived the devastation of war in her native Syria only by saving others

By Basma Ourfali

Esraa Alkhalaf, 36, is a Health and Nutrition officer with UNICEF in Aleppo, Syria. Before the conflict broke out, she worked as a paediatrician in her private clinic in Aleppo and earned a PhD in paediatric medicine in 2015. 

Despite the conflict and the hardship, Esraa chooses to stay. She has endured the toll of fighting, siege, family separation, water scarcity, power cuts and fear. “If we all leave the country, who will stay?” she asked.

All her life, Esraa has devoted herself to serving children. In 2013, she left Aleppo to stay with her elderly parents in her hometown, Deir-ez-Zor. “The city was besieged and there were no paediatricians,” she said.

As the situation deteriorated, Esraa began providing free consultations and treatment for children and mothers at a local clinic. “It was crazy; we received 120 patients daily.” Nine months later, Esraa returned to Aleppo to complete her doctoral studies. “Since I was a child, my dream was to become a university professor,” she said. 

But her struggle was far from over.

The conflict grinded on and Aleppo was particularly hard-hit. In time, Esraa lost both her house and her private clinic to the fighting. She was also cut off from her family members, who were trapped in besieged Deir-ez-Zor. “At that time, I found the best way to drown my sorrows was to help others,” she said. After two years of working with a local NGO, in 2014 Esraa joined UNICEF.“Being a humanitarian has made me a different person,” she said. As part of her work, Esraa visits shelters and camps in the most affected and remote areas of Aleppo Governorate. She meets with vulnerable families, community leaders and decision makers. She heads and runs projects that provide health and nutrition services, at times for more than 700,000 children. “I never imagined that my life would go in this direction.”

Esraa has met many people who have left a mark on her life. One is Fullah. The two met when Fullah was seven months pregnant with her first baby. She was displaced, living in a mosque in Nubbul town, north of Aleppo city, and was forced to work in farming to provide for her family. After Esraa examined her, she was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition. “It was obvious because of her thin figure and prominent facial features. To me, Fullah represents thousands of Syrian women who have suffered persisting hardships during the crisis and continue to provide for their families.”

Esraa has witnessed six major displacements. But there is one displacement she will never forget, which occurred in December 2016. After five months of besiegement of east Aleppo city, thousands of people arrived at a displacement shelter site called Mahalej in Aleppo. Esraa and her colleagues were there helping the most vulnerable arrivals. Families were arriving crammed in trucks, their faces hollow and stricken with suffering. “It was one of the most heart-breaking experiences of my life,” Esraa recalled.

She saw families that had been separated in the mass exodus and met freezing, frightened and hungry children. “I accompanied many mothers and children to clinics. Traumatized, distracted; they couldn’t find the force or the initiative to go alone,” Esraa said.

When fighting wound down in 2017, Esraa was able to visit her house. She was deeply saddened to find it completely destroyed. “I wasn’t sad because of the material loss – the ceiling or the walls – but for the memories I had lost.”

To Esraa, working in Aleppo is an act of love. “I lived in Aleppo during the best and worst of times.” One month after the fighting stopped in eastern Aleppo, people began returning to their destroyed homes and businesses. Aleppo is gradually returning to normalcy, its people bringing life back to the city. Esraa is hopeful. “They love their city and they love life. They are my inspiration.”