Rehabilitating Dreams: The Human Voices behind Aleppo's School Rehabilitation Project

In the heart of Aleppo, amidst the rubble left by earthquakes, a beacon of hope emerged through the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s project to rehabilitate and revive three schools in Aleppo.

Article | 24 November 2023
Mohammad Al-Ahmad and Ibrahim Afara, university students and lifelong friends currently working with the ILO project to rehabilitate schools in Aleppo that were affected by the 2023 earthquake
Childhood friendship: Mohammad and Ibrahim's Journey in School Rehabilitation

Mohammad Al-Ahmad and Ibrahim Afara, university students and lifelong friends, have recently gained employment with an ILO project aiming to rehabilitate three schools that were affected by the 2023 earthquake, involving 150 workers across 30 classrooms, totaling 4,000 worker days, and ultimately targeting to create a safe educational environment benefiting 3,500 pupils, in partnership with the implementing partner, the international NGO, ZOA.

They have poured their efforts into revitalizing their old school and refurbishing their cherished second-floor classroom, a space brimming with their shared childhood memories. Their commitment to the project showcases a profound bond that has persisted through time. Their collaboration isn't just about the physical renovation; it's a heartfelt tribute to their enduring friendship, bridging their past as classmates with their present as university students and dedicated workers contributing to their community.

For Mohammad Al-Ahmad, a young man yearning for a brighter future, this project means more than a paycheck. "Being the youngest in my family, working on my childhood school's rehabilitation with my childhood friend fills me with pride. It's an investment in my future," he reflects, carrying the hopes of a generation longing for stability.

At 20 years of age, I've embarked on a new journey, one that blends my academic pursuit with a meaningful opportunity. My closest companion Ibrahim and I share countless memories of our childhood."

Mohammad Al-Ahmad

“Currently enrolled in my first year of English Literature, I've stepped into the realm of earning an experience entirely new to me. This opportunity, seldom available for students due to conflicting university schedules, has been a rare gem,” he confides expressing gratitude for finding this job opportunity.

Mohammad prioritizes his education, seeking to excel at his studies. “What sets this project apart is its flexibility. Here, we're granted the liberty to take leave for exams and even attend lectures, aligning work hours with our academic commitments. It's a unique setup that pays per hour, accommodating the nuances of our university routines.”

“Beyond the immediate financial gains, this endeavor holds substantial value for my future. It's good for my resume. Yet, the significance lies beyond a mere line on a CV. Contributing to the rehabilitation of my childhood school feels deeply personal. Working on my very own classroom evokes a sense of nostalgia, a reminder of cherished memories interwoven with these walls,” he shares finding profound significance being involved with this project.

In the journey of Ibrahim Afara, an aspiring IT engineer, personal and family aspirations intertwine. "My father's unrealized dreams drive me. This opportunity supports my education and grants me invaluable experience," he confides. He has determination echoing through his pursuit of knowledge and growth.

Ibrahim, aged 21, reflects on a life shaped by the upheavals of war and a determined pursuit of education against all odds.

"When the war began, uncertainty loomed, yet we stayed, not knowing where else to seek refuge," Ibrahim shares, bearing witness to the dangers faced by his family. "I have two younger siblings, and I'm determined to guide my sister towards fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor."

Currently studying Information Engineering at university, Ibrahim navigates a dual life—a diligent student attending lectures and a dedicated worker at the ILO’s school rehabilitation project. "This job allowed me to purchase a laptop, an essential tool for my studies in IT engineering," he adds.

Ibrahim's pursuit of education carries a profound familial weight. "I am fulfilling my father's dream," he reveals. "He yearned for a university education but was unable to pursue it. Now, by attending university, I'm realizing his unfulfilled aspirations."

His father's struggles in providing for the family due to the loss of his job weigh heavily on Ibrahim's heart. "He used to work in clothes printing, and I assisted him. But circumstances forced him to sell the machines, leaving him unemployed."

The ILO project's flexibility, allowing hourly leave, is a rare blessing. "It permits me to balance work with university lectures, and covers my transport costs," Ibrahim explains, grateful for an opportunity seldom available to university students elsewhere.

"This school holds memories," Ibrahim muses as he installs tiles, revisiting his classroom on the second floor, where he and his friend Mohammad once studied. "It's nostalgic, imagining myself sitting in the front row as I usually did and learning with my classmates and teacher."
The organized work environment and emphasis on safety resonate deeply with Ibrahim.

Learning rehabilitation work here is invaluable. It's an opportunity to enhance my skills that I am definitely going to use when I get married and have a home of my own – it would definitely save expenses if we need to reinstall tiles in my future home!"

Ibrahim Afara

Beyond academics and work, Ibrahim cherishes his role within a team, relishing the teamwork experience that enriches his life. "Working together, understanding different age groups, I'm gaining life skills!"

Finally, Ibrahim passionately urges humanitarian and development organizations to follow the ILO's model, advocating for opportunities that combine education, experience, and empowerment for university students.

Um Abdulla's Story and the Ripple of Hope

Um Abdulla, currently working with the ILO project to rehabilitate schools in Aleppo that were affected by the 2023 earthquake
Amidst the toil and hope, Um Abdulla's story stands as a testament to resilience beyond financial gains. "I clean the site, aid the workers, and feel I'm contributing. It's a way to cope," she shares.

"I have nine children—six girls and three boys. We had a son, but he passed away," shares a resilient mother whose life has been shaped by both loss and determination.

"Three of my daughters attend this school," she continues.

Her family's journey, marred by displacement due to war, brought them back to their home, now shared with her married son's family, leading them to live within the premises of the school where her husband works, brewing tea and coffee for the staff.

"When the earthquake struck, many sought refuge in the schoolyard; my husband opened the gates," she recalls.

I provide refreshments to the workers and clean the site after hours. It's my first job, and it's not just about earning money; it's about overcoming the pain of losing my son."

Um Abdulla

She emphasizes her vital role in ensuring cleanliness and facilitating the team's efforts. "I might not do heavy work, but cleaning is my contribution to the teamwork," she adds with pride.

Her sense of satisfaction isn't solely derived from financial gains; it's in witnessing the school's transformation and the happiness it brings to the students. "Their excitement about the school's renewal is heartwarming; they believe it will enhance their learning," she says, echoing the community's enthusiasm for the project.

Encouraging women to break societal barriers, she advocates for their participation in the workforce to alleviate financial burdens. "I urge women to work, support their husbands, and overcome social barriers," she says, determined to continue participating in such rehabilitation efforts.

Brushes of Resilience: Abu Ahmad's Story of Adaptation and Achievement

Nidal Al-Turk, currently working with the ILO project to rehabilitate schools in Aleppo that were affected by the 2023 earthquake
Nidal Al-Turk, or Abu Ahmad, a devoted father to three boys aged 17, 16, and 13, shares a journey marked by displacement and perseverance amid adversity. "The war disrupted everything, especially my sons' education," he reflects. "We were displaced, returned home, only to face the earthquake that left our fifth-floor home dwelling with cracks in its walls and roof."

Before the conflict, Abu Ahmad worked diligently in a textile factory. However, an eye injury from work required surgery, leaving him with vision in just one eye. "I tried electrical work, but maintenance jobs were scarce. Then, I turned to my original trade, painting," he explains. "In our community, painting is often considered a luxury, not a necessity. But painting schools opened a door for workers like me."

The revelation about the ILO's school rehabilitation project came through a friend. "When I heard they needed painters, it felt like an opportunity," Abu Ahmad shares.

This work is comfortable, and although wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) was new to us, it's for our safety and results in better-quality work."

Nidal Al-Turk

For Abu Ahmad, painting has become more than a trade - it's a means of providing despite his injury. "Due to my eye injury, painting feels like the right fit for me," he says.
Their testimonies echo a symphony of resilience, determination, and unwavering hope. They signify more than just recovery; they symbolize a community rehabilitating not just schools, but the very fabric of their lives.

In Aleppo, the ILO's project isn't just about renovating structures; it's about breathing life into forgotten aspirations. Each stroke of paint, every laid tile, every cup of tea served stands as a testament to the human spirit's unwavering ability to rise above adversity.