Jandaris, Syria – It was a party, a celebration of life for so many children and young people who survived one of the worst natural disasters in decades.
The big white tent was decked out in balloons and streamers, with colourful games marked out on the floor and all manner of hula hoops changing hands.
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Among the people being celebrated at the World Vision party was little Afraa, the baby who was born as her mother died under the debris of the massive earthquakes that struck northwestern Syria and southern Turkey on February 6 last year, killing 4,500 people in Syria and some 50,000 in Turkey. She turns one on Tuesday.
“Since I was a child, people would say ‘Hope is born from suffering,'” Khalil Shami al-Suwadi, Afraa’s uncle by marriage, said.
“On the day of the earthquake, seeing Afraa born beneath the rubble of her home made me realise how true that was,” he added.
An entire family wiped out
Jandaris, in the countryside of Aleppo, was one of the areas most affected by the earthquake, with more than 510 people killed and at least 810 injured, according to the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets.
The day of Afraa’s birth was when her parents and four brothers were killed when their house in Jandaris collapsed in the earthquake.
After being rescued from the rubble and taken to hospital for treatment, she was named Aya by the medical staff. Later, her aunt, Hala, who was the sister of Afraa’s 26-year-old father Abdullah, and uncle, Khalil, changed her name to Afraa to honour her late mother.
She lives with her aunt and uncle and her six new siblings. Eleven-year-old Mal al-Sham is the eldest, and the youngest is Ataa, another little girl who was born two days after Afraa and is also turning one soon.
In March last year, Hala told Al Jazeera over the phone, “I would have never given up Afraa. She’s my niece, my blood. Many people wanted to adopt her, but we would not have it. We will take care of her just like our own children.”
She is still nursed by her aunt, alongside her cousin Ataa, and has recovered from the rib fractures and bruising she suffered under the rubble last year. Not only that, she has also taken her first steps and is babbling away.
“When she took her first step, I was immensely happy. But I remembered her parents and how they would have been over the moon if they were with us,” said al-Suwadi.
‘Baba’ and ‘Mama’
“My heart has eight compartments for my wife and my seven children [including Afraa],” said al-Suwadi. “She is a trust left to us by her parents, may they rest in peace.”
Afraa has started saying a few words and has called out “Mama” and “Baba” her aunt, Hala, and uncle, Khalil.
“It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the word ‘Baba’, but for some reason, when Afraa said it, I felt a strange, indescribable sensation,” al-Suwadi added.
Because she spends all day with her big cousins, Afraa is also constantly trying to talk to them, making demands and telling stories that nobody is sure they understand completely.
The children play, argue, and sleep together, and there is an especially strong bond between her and her eight-year-old cousin, Doaa.
“I love all my siblings, but Afraa is my favourite,” Doaa confided. “I love playing with her and being close to her,” she said, adding that it goes both ways, with Afraa preferring to be with Doaa at all times, including playtime and bedtime.
“When she cries, my mom will hold her. But it doesn’t work, she keeps crying. But when I pick her up, she stops crying immediately,” Doaa said.
The al-Suwadis are hopeful and looking forward to the future with their seven children, but sometimes that sunny outlook is clouded over by the occasional aftershocks that remind him of what happened a year ago.
“What happened to us in Jandaris was a disaster in every sense of the word, and I pray that it never happens again,” he added.
But for an afternoon, in that lively, decorated tent, children and their carers were able to get together and talk about their experiences, celebrate being there together, and marvel at how much the nearly-one-year-old Afraa had grown.
Malik Abdulghani, a World Vision education programme officer, told Al Jazeera: “Having Afraa with us for this event, which is near her birthday and the anniversary of the earthquake, symbolises that in the heart of every hardship, there is hope.”