One of the most indelible images of 2016 has been that of a five year-old Syrian boy named Omran, sitting dazed in the back of an ambulance. Omran lives in Aleppo, one of the most contentious cities in the five-year Syrian civil war in which over 450,000 civilians have been killed to-date. As with three year-old Aylan Kurdi, Omran’s narrative put a young, innocent, and human face to the conflict in a striking and unforgettable image. We see Omran right after he was rescued from the rubble of his home that had been bombed. The video that circulated in the late summer shows Omran being placed in the ambulance, with the camera lingering on him as his rescue worker immediately turns to rush back to the scene. We are left viewing a young boy in shock who attempts to wipe away the blood and dust that covers his face. His astonishment does not leave him any energy for shedding tears.
Omran’s stunned expression and the helplessness of his situation was fixated in my mind for weeks following the circulation of his photo. I prayed over his plight and the dire situation the remaining children in Aleppo face daily as they and their families struggle to survive a four year-long siege on their city due to the endless fighting between government and rebel forces. I wrestled with how international treaties, ceasefires, and diplomatic talks over the years have failed to save Omran from living almost his entire life in a brutal civil war that does not permit him to have the safe childhood every child deserves.
As the civil war continues to unfold in Syria, my prayers for Omran have evolved to encompass the city of Aleppo and its many people working to preserve their dignity and survive in a city that has been predicted to be completely destroyed by Christmas, should the bombing campaign of the Syrian government and Russian forces continue.
Thanksgiving weekend and the month of December has seen some of the most intense recent fighting as Syrian government forces launched a ground assault to retake eastern Aleppo. Thousands have fled their homes, often on foot, in an attempt to find safety. Others have been left trapped in the shrinking rebel-held area of Eastern Aleppo, while others fear arrest and separation from family members at the government-controlled checkpoints and reception centers that have been installed for processing those civilians fleeing into government-held Western Aleppo.
The Twitter account of seven year-old @AlabedBana, with the help of her mother, has provided dispatches from their home in eastern Aleppo via text and video of the escalation in violence and its effect upon the daily life of a young child. The news of the past three weeks and Aleppo’s impending fall to the Syrian government has shaken me, and it is with these images and names of Aleppo’s children that I hold this ancient city in my heart as I pray. Please pray with me.
Father, our hearts ache for Syria and its people as the country remains locked in a brutal civil war. We especially lift up Aleppo. Its status as a city divided between government and rebel-controlled areas represents the conflict at large and what is at stake each day it continues. Please guide the leaders of the rebel groups controlling Eastern Aleppo, the Syrian government, the United Nations, and the leaders of the other countries, such as Russia, involved in brokering a ceasefire that will hold. Grant them wisdom and empathy for the plight of the civilians, young and old, caught in the midst of this conflict.
We thank you for the local doctors and nurses that have been on the ground in Aleppo and their perseverance beyond measure that sustains them in their work. They have survived multiple direct hospital bombings, lost colleagues, worked under extreme conditions with scarce supplies, and treated horrific injuries. Please grant them sustained strength and a renewed hope in the difference their work is making in the life of every individual they treat. They sacrifice their safety every day in their choice to remain in Aleppo, and their work is extremely dangerous, exhausting, and challenging in every aspect. Please protect them.
Thank you for the teachers and caretakers who have persevered to continue the education and futures of Aleppo’s children. From an underground orphanage to an underground library, they are striving to maintain a sense of normalcy and stability in the lives of children and adults, and their work is critical to the future of Aleppo. Thank you for their creativity under extreme conditions and the degree to which they are dedicated to preserving the dignity and future of the city’s children through education. Please protect them.
Thank you for the international aid organizations and their workers that remain committed to delivering aid, despite numerous setbacks in obtaining access to the frontlines, attacks on humanitarian aid convoys, and political obstacles. Please grant them perseverance and a safe means of delivering critical aid to the cities that remain under siege and in critical need of food, medicine, and children’s clothes. Please protect them.
Thank you for the everyday residents of Aleppo, such as the volunteer-led rescue group the White Helmets, whom have taken on extraordinary responsibilities and risk their lives to save their neighbors from the rubble of bombings. When people are running from destruction for safety, they are running towards it; determined to save every life they can life from the ruins. Their courage and endurance is humbling and needed every hour in Aleppo. Please sustain and protect them.
Thank you for the people within Syria and throughout the world - journalists, photographers, and other civilians - who have helped raise awareness of the plight of Aleppo. They have brought the story of its civilians into the hearts of people such as six year-old Alex from New York, who wrote to Obama with an offer to adopt young Omran: “Dear President Obama,” wrote Alex. “Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him…we’ll be waiting with flags and flowers and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”
Efforts such as these remind us that war does not distinguish between religion, ethnicity, color, age, or gender; that each of these civilians struggling to survive were made in the image of their Creator and deserve the same opportunities to express and receive love, pursue their ambitions, express their faith, seek an education, and have everyday safety and stability in their lives. Alex’s heart for a boy his age in need and his firm belief that his efforts to help Omran will have an impact is what we each need when we hear of injustice. Instead of complacency, please give us each faith to act the way Alex’s desire to help someone in need compelled him to action. Please inspire each of us to be open to our hearts breaking for the people of Aleppo and to act upon it in our own ways. We thank you, Father, for the life of every person within Aleppo today. May we recognize their inherent value as a fellow human being upon this earth and their dignity and right to life. Help us to hold them in our hearts every day during this Advent season and persistently lift them up in prayer for protection today and a hopeful future for tomorrow.
-Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Jordi Bernabeu Farrús