A long time ago, back when the sun still shone peacefully on the northern countryside of Aleppo, lived a then-young man who owned a little roadside watermelon shop – watermelons that he planted, watered and took care of with his own hands, delivering them clean and fresh to the people passing by.
Walking in the green fields on his way back home one day, the man noticed some construction work. After passing by the mysterious site every day for a week, he asked the security guards what was so important about the project being worked on every day from early morning until sunset. “They were all very excited about what they were doing,” he recalls. “And I really wanted to join in, even though I knew nothing about construction.”
He adds: “They asked me, ‘What did you study?’ And I simply answered that I was illiterate. I consider Tuesday 19 September 1996 the luckiest day of my life. It was the day I was employed by SOS Children’s Village Aleppo as a construction worker.”
Now 60, Mouhammad Khalife used to be a farmer who had a little concrete house with a little farm beside it where he used to plant different kinds of fruit and vegetables, depending on the seasons.
“When I first started working on the project as a construction worker, I was told that it was just a real estate project, but they wouldn’t let anybody enter,” he says. “I knew from the very beginning that there was something special about that project, and I was dying to know the secret behind it.” As his house was located 20 km away from the village, Mouhammad slept on location throughout the whole one-and-a-half-year construction period.
“I keep asking people and checkpoint soldiers about our little village and it hurts me very much whenever they tell me that it’s damaged and empty,” he says. “I left a lifetime of memories there, not only of myself, but also of every single child who lived there back in our village. It’s been two years since I lost my job there after I left, looking back, and my heart praying that I would be back soon. I still carry memories about each and every child. I still remember things about all of them, things they might not even remember about themselves.” The SOS Aleppo village was evacuated because of heavy fighting in Syria’s civil war, and the children were moved to the village in the capital Damascus.
Khaled, the now-grown oldest of the first children brought to the village, says: “Uncle Mouhammad planted all the trees in the Aleppo village, which distinguished our village most. The first thing all of us, and all who visited, the SOS Aleppo village remember is the village’s trees. We had all kinds of fruit trees, like apple trees, mango, peach, fig, lemon, olive and peanut tress. I remember them all because I used to steal fruit , to get Uncle Mouhammad’s attention, so that he would play with me.
“Seventeen years in the village passed very quickly, and it had been two years since we last saw each other,” Khaled says after meeting Uncle Mouhammad again. Mouhammad asks Khaled about the village and what direction in life the other children have taken. Khaled says 10 of them are now soldiers. “Little Amjad is taller than me now,” Khaled says of one of them. “Can you believe that, Uncle?” Mouhammad answers: “Yes, I remember all of you, just like all the trees in the village. I remember how we turned that barren land into a peaceful green place that your voices filled with love and beauty.”
Khaled adds: “After I moved to the young people’s house in 2006, I kept asking to be allowed to sleep for one night in the village. I was fond of it and I still am.” Mouhammad says: “It was not only a job for me. SOS meant a second house and family. We were like an entire world and it did mean the world to me, and to everybody who worked there. “If I could live for another 60 years I would plant all those trees and take care of them all over again for the rest of my life. I worked in the village for 17 years and I always ask myself if I will ever be able to work there again, before I am too old.” He wipes a tear from his wrinkled, sun-burned face.
For Uncle Mahmoud, losing his job at the village is like losing his own home, family and memories. He feels worried, lost, and lonely, in this tragic ‘Time of War’.