Before the civil war tore their country apart, Mohammed Alaa Al-Jaleel and Doha Al-Mohammed lived ordinary lives: He as an electrician, she as a schoolgirl.
Then the bombings began.
Now Al-Jaleel volunteers with an emergency response unit in Aleppo, pulling people out of the wreckage after airstrikes hit the city.
That’s how he met Doha.
She and her brothers and sisters were at home with their heavily pregnant mother and their father when an airstrike hit their neighborhood, Al Haydariya.
“I remember that there was a plane striking when I was peeling oranges for my siblings,” the 10-year-old says. “After that all of a sudden the house was blown up.”
“The plane dropped barrel bombs,” Al-Jaleel remembers, gazing out of the cracked windscreen to the wrecked city beyond. “We knew the area that was targeted was a residential area, where civilians live.”
“We were running, looking around, when we found the children who were thrown off the balcony into the street.”
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Covered in blood, dust
Al-Jaleel and his team had already loaded several youngsters into the back of their makeshift ambulance, tenderly scooping their limp, dust-covered frames up from the road.
They were about to head for the hospital when he glanced back and spotted Doha, who had gone unnoticed in the chaos outside the shattered apartment building.
“I looked back and saw Doha on the ground,” Al-Jaleel says. “I don’t know what it is that drove me to look again. She was covered in rubble, you could not see her there, but then I noticed her moving her shoulder.”
“I was really afraid,” Doha says. “My body was really hurting me from all the debris that fell on me. Then someone came and carried me. I was crying a lot, and bleeding.”
“I carried her running to the ambulance as fast as I could trying to save her life,” Al-Jaleel says. “I felt she was still alive.”
Footage of the rescue shows him urging her to “stay strong!” as he lays her on the floor of the white van, bloodied and drifting in and out of consciousness.
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Doha and her siblings were taken to hospital, where doctors were able to operate on her abdominal wounds and stabilize her.
Her five-year-old sister Yasmin, who suffered more serious injuries, had to be taken across the border to Turkey for treatment.
Miraculously, nobody was killed in the blast.
But five months after the airstrike in April 2016, Yasmin is still in Turkey, living with her grandparents who fled Syria two years ago.
The family keeps in touch via Facebook Messenger. On a video chat, Yasmin tells the rest of the family: “I don’t want to come back.”
Her brother, eight-year-old Abdullah, asks why not.
“Because there are airstrikes,” she says, pleading with them: “You come here and join me.”
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Family’s life in pieces
Right now, that is not an option: Turkey only opens the border for medical emergencies like Yasmin’s, which means many families like the Al-Mohammeds are stuck in Syria.
Doha’s father Abu, a tailor who suffered back injuries in the attack and has been unable to work since, says he would like to get his wife and children out of the country.
Until then, he has moved the family to a suburb of Idlib, where they are living in a house belonging to friends. It is marginally safer there, he says: the airstrikes aren’t as bad, and healthier food is available for the children.
Doha says that, far from their ruined home, she feels lost, her life in pieces: “Now I don’t have a room, no bed, no mattress. They were all destroyed by the bombing.”
But thanks to Al-Jaleel, the man who saved her, she can laugh again: he has built a playground and cat sanctuary for children trapped by the bloodshed going on around them.
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“I felt like she was my own daughter, my own child, that I would all my life care about her,” he says. “That’s why every now and then I check on her and I bring her here to my garden.”
This place, tucked away among the ruins of a once-beautiful city, offers Doha and others like her the chance to steal a few moments of joy amid the heartache of war.