In 2011, in Syria, widespread protests broke out over the leadership of Bashar al-Assad and widespread discontent with his government. Initially peaceful, the protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed, and over a period of years, protestors were pushed into a smaller and smaller section of Aleppo while major world powers backed different governments to either depose Assad or root out the protests. Iran and Russia sided with Assad; the United States and Turkey, with the Syrian opposition and against The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Meanwhile, the nearly 300,000 citizens of Aleppo who did not, or were not able to flee to uncertain shores at the outset of the Syrian civil war were being squeezed in on all sides. They were cluster bombed by Russian warplanes, they were getting killed while walking outside or sitting in civilian-run hospitals. Waad and Hamza al-Kateab, who met just before the protests broke out, were two of those people. Hamza, a doctor, ran a hospital until it was bombed out of existence, killing dozens of people, their friends and loved ones, inside. He eventually relocated to a different hospital, off of any known map of Syria. Waad, who began filming the protests, slowly turned into a journalist, telling the world about what was happening to them. In the midst of the years they were in Aleppo, they also fell in love, got married, and had their first baby, Sama.
Waad and Hamza stayed in Aleppo for quite some time after Sama was born. Hamza attempted to save those who were injured in the bombings; Waad, meanwhile, filmed everything: children carrying their siblings bodies into the hospital, the clouds of smoke when bombing took place nearby, hours spent huddled in the new hospital’s basement. She chronicled their life, too, filming the first home they moved into — and leaving it when it became far too unsafe to stay. She filmed a very pregnant mother, shelled by fighters, being carted into the hospital and the attempts to save her baby.
At the time, amassing some 500 hours of footage, Waad wasn’t sure what she was going to do. But when they were forced to leave Aleppo, as the city was overtaken by pro-Assad forces, a new idea took hold: a documentary.
For Sama, which was just nominated for the 2020 Oscars for Best Documentary and which was released in the UK in July of 2019, where Waad, Hamza, Sama and their new baby, Taima, who Waad became pregnant with in their final months in Aleppo, now live as refugees, is an excruciating look at the horrors of a siege — and what it means to raise a baby in it. Part love letter to Aleppo, to Sama, and to the families who chose to stay, For Sama weaves images of war and destruction with happy moments of families laughing, singing, and fighting to stay in the home that they loved. The film switches time periods frequently — from the outset of the siege and until the end of it — and the devastation is astounding.
The film is, perhaps, a living testament to the old proverb, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” As the families who stayed in Aleppo are squeezed on all sides — and the bombing is endless — viewers across the world will wonder how something like this could happen. In For Sama, Waad, the director, narrator and filmographer, minces no words. People were watching her videos, but no one stepped in to do anything.
Fatherly spoke to Waad and Hamza about raising Sama in Aleppo during the siege.
While watching the film, I kept thinking about how you parented Sama and how you managed to raise her in Aleppo during the siege. How did you, on a day-to-day level, create an environment for her that was “normal” or as “normal” as possible?
Waad: Unfortunately, we really weren’t able to do that. We were trying to as much as we can, to literally ignore everything that’s happening outside, and just focus on us, and her, and our relationship together. And the basic needs for her, which is, you know, so hard, and even heartbreaking for us, that we can’t provide her with everything she wants at some moments when the siege was in a very bad situation.
One important thing we really tried to do was to keep the environment close to other children in the same situation — like the other families in the film, and their kids.
We wanted that relationship to be together, so that she can be with children, and as feel natural as we can. When I was pregnant with her, for example, I was using my phone to play music, to take her [and me] out from the fear and the bad environment that we were in. I’d put the phone next to my tummy, and would just try to not think about what’s happening now. And sometimes, even when the sounds of the aircrafts were so loud outside, I was just trying to really hear the music and not think about that.
You will see, in many, many places, that situation — when something bigger than what you can control will happen. But at the same time, you just need to have that faith. The only thing, I think, that helped us a lot was that. We knew what we were doing there. It was for the future of our children. So, I think that’s why we really tried to adapt to the situation as much as we could.
Absolutely. Yeah. Speaking of the other families and the other children that you were living with and that were in the documentary, how did you feel like you were able to create moments of joy for them?
W: Yeah. Actually, you have no option. When you see this child in front of your eyes, and you are responsible for them, and you love them, and you want to enjoy that time with them. There were many moments we were just trying to ignore everything happening. For example, when we painted the bus [Editor’s Note: Waad is referring to a moment in the documentary when she and other parents painted a bombed out bus in Aleppo’s streets with the children] that was just an activity to make them feel that they were able to change their situation; to be happy and at least like they were chilling out. And they were enjoying that. Children, it’s surprising, they don’t know. They don’t see the situation the same as we do. But also, at the same time, they are the most victimized by this situation.
For Sama, in particular, she was so young while you were living in Aleppo. But around the end of the documentary, as you narrated, you said that you felt that she was starting to realize what was going on during sieges. At what point did you start to feel like she was really becoming aware of her environment? And did that change anything for you?
W: Yeah. [As our situation changed over time] we needed to ask many many things about what we should do. When the baby was born. And then, what should we do when the baby turned three months, six months, or one year old? I felt many times hopeless that we can’t do what needs to be done. But other times, I felt I had no other option. I was just trying to think about what was worth it. And how we can give more possibilities to her. And some fun and safe environments or safe moments, living through that.
And that, really, just kept me afloat — to just focus on the moments. Because, also, the situation was so bad. When you look at other children, who had been injured or were dead, you have to think that we are lucky. That we are lucky that we are able to be, like, at least have some fun while others lose their family members. So we were even trying to think about the moment. For every one minute of normal life, we were living in that [one minute] as much as we could.
Were there any moments where you felt like it was harder to choose to stay in Aleppo? Did you ever feel like, maybe we do have to leave, before you really had to go? Or was it even a choice?
W: There were many moments. I don’t know how to explain this — but for me and Hamza, there were some moments where we felt like if we weren’t sure if this was the right thing for Sama or not. But we never thought that we wanted to leave. Especially when you are part of that community. We weren’t the only family who lived there. There were more than 300,000 people inside the city. Most of them were children and women. So, you can’t really just think about yourself, and take your concerns away from these people.
Also, we were dealing with the children and we were helping these people. You felt like you were responsible for being with them. Not just as individuals, but also as a family. And you’re part of that community, which is trying to be resilient all the time. When you look at these children in these very bad circumstances, and you look at your child, you have lots of fears, of course, and you always fear bad things will happen. But at the same time, you feel like, “I need to stay here because of her. And I need to do everything I need to do because of her, too.”
Obviously, you were a journalist throughout the initial uprising and then through the siege. When you first started filming, did you consider yourself a journalist, or was this something you just naturally moved into as the horrors unfolded?
W: I wasn’t a journalist before, and I never thought about what I was doing during. I didn’t think, is this my career? It was just naturally, a thing I felt I had to do, for myself and for my community. For everything that was happening in Syria and Aleppo. Now, I started to think about, yeah, do I really want to make this my career and continue this? Now, I want to do that. But at the time, there was no plan at all. Even the whole film – I filmed everything I filmed and I never thought about how this material would be one, big film, For Sama.
So, how old is Sama and your second daughter now? [Editor’s note: Waad and Hamza learned they were expecting their second child a few months before leaving Aleppo.]
W: Sama is four years old, and Taima is two and a half.
Has Sama started to ask about her homeland? If she has, what do those conversations look like, when you discuss Aleppo, her early childhood, and what home is to you?
W: She still doesn’t literally understand location — like, where is this, and where is that. But, we’re trying to tell her about home. But I don’t want to put her under a lot of pressure to understand everything now. She knows Aleppo. She knows Syria. She knows that we now live in London. But she literally doesn’t exactly understand where this is, where is that, and how far this is from that. We went to one of our friends’ houses for the New Year, who is from Aleppo. And she thought we were going to Aleppo. She really knows that there’s something called Aleppo — but she doesn’t know, so far, what it is exactly.
W: But I don’t want to tell her, yet, exactly about everything. I will tell her, naturally, as much as I can. I’m not going to put any pressure on her about everything. We already feel that pressure.
Leaving Aleppo behind, relocating to London, how has that transition been for you? Do you miss home?
W: We really love London, and this community has many, many different people from different backgrounds and different countries around the world. So, I feel like this is the best place for me to live now. But, of course, we still hope that we can be able to be back to Aleppo as soon as possible. We wish it wasn’t so complicated. It’s not something we feel that could happen now. But of course, we want it.
And also, wanting to go back to Aleppo — that’s the reason why we’re doing this. We know that we can’t be back in Aleppo now. But what we’re doing now, in our way, is to be back. And it gives us a lot of relief, feeling that, yes, we miss Aleppo, but we know that we can’t be back now and we’re doing everything we can do to be there.
What do you want your kids to take away from your fight?
W: I really want my children to think about Syria, and what happened there. And think about what we were trying to do for them and for the future. And, I want them to be very open to the whole world. Like, of course, I want them to know that they are Syrian — and I hope they will be proud of being Syrian. At the same time, I want them to not feel close to any one culture or country. Instead, I want them to feel like their responsibility is to the whole world, not just where we lived. And also, for all of the parents — we need our children to understand that the door of the house is not the end of the world. It is the first step to go out into the world. We need to have this understanding, to accept everyone. Everyone in this world is equal and similar and there’s no difference. There are more things to share, and there’s more that we have on the same side, than things that divide us.
The moments where, Hamza, you’re treating all of these injured children and civilians; and then the next moment in the film, is you all painting the bus, or singing together, or making dinner and laughing or playing games while in a basement, hiding from the bombs. The juxtaposition was incredible. After living through this moment-to-moment experience of joy, pain, and danger, how is it to walk through the world in London, today? What do you feel when you think about what you went through?
Hamza: It’s very different. When we were in Aleppo, we never thought a lot about the future. We were definitely living day by day, and maximum, like, we have future plans for a maximum of five or six days. Now, in London, it’s a little more difficult. We need to plan for the long-term, for the children, where we want to live, what the schools are like, and all of that. It’s just different. When we were in Aleppo, we were just looking for essential needs. So for the children to have a good time, to have healthy food, to be protected when they are sleeping from missiles and stuff like that. To be in a safe environment. And the difference, in London, the essentials are always there. You never have to worry if your child is warm or cold. That’s provided. You just turn on the heater and that’s it. In London, we’re up on the next level on Maslow’s [hierarchy of needs.] We’ve completed the essentials. Now, we’re looking for the other needs.