When language is no longer a barrier

S was only five months-old, the daughter of a fairly poor family who decided to leave their village after it was bombed several times...

As they arrived in a neighbouring village, a bomb fell on their car. All the passengers, her father, mother and three of her eleven brothers and sisters, were killed outright, but she survived. 

Her leg was torn off and she had to be amputated at the thigh. One of her older sisters now looks after her. Aged 19 and wounded in the foot during a rocket attack, she has her own eight-month-old baby. So she’s now looking after both babies and also breastfeeds S. The solidarity at the hospital was amazing. For example, when her older sister was too exhausted to feed S, the other women on the ward did it for her. The baby soon became the hospital mascot!

I had a real connection with this little girl. The hospital medical staff told me her story before I met her and said that she cried a lot of the time – perhaps because of the phantom pain caused by her amputated leg.

When I saw her for the first time, I took her in my arms to establish a physical contact and, speaking in French, told her what had happened to her. She listened very carefully and it felt as if her eyes were piercing me, that she was looking right into my soul. It was a highly charged and very special moment. All the women around us were also listening to my words, spoken in a language that was totally foreign to them, not able to understand, but grasping the meaning, just like S. 

So I looked her in the eye and held her – more supported her – in my arms and stroked her face. I wanted to tell her her story, put into words the terrible things she had been through. So I told her she really hadn’t been lucky, that she had had a really sad experience and that she wasn’t going to see her parents again. That she must have been absolutely terrified, that she must have heard a huge bang and felt the intense heat and seen the flames. And I told her that she couldn’t possibly have understood what was happening. I said it wasn’t her fault and that she was going to have to be really brave. She understood my intonation, she felt supported and she glimpsed an expression of reassurance when I said that we understood her, that we knew she must still be terribly frightened.

Then she answered me. She really spoke to me; she said something. It was a kind of communication, a dialogue between her and me. I talked to her again and she answered me. I told her she had lots of things to say. This went on for several minutes while the women watched us in amazement. Soothed by the stroking, she fell asleep. She slept peacefully for a good five minutes and then became agitated. All of a sudden, she really flinched and the expression on her face was awful. Maybe she was reliving the explosion? When she woke up, she scrutinised me again with her piecing look, and then started to gurgle.

I saw her regularly; I never missed an opportunity to see her. She was the hospital’s favourite and was passed from one person’s arms to the next. I remember a particularly moving moment when a wounded patient (and a hardened fighter) took her in his arms and spoke some very pretty words to her in Arabic that meant, “you’re this hospital’s little treasure”.

Then one day I gave her a teddy bear and she was so excited. There aren’t any toys in the hospital and it’s tough for the children. They’re in pain, they cry, they need their mothers. When they see a nurse or a doctor, they think there’s going to be more pain, they’re scared because the treatment isn’t easy. S looked at me with her inscrutable eyes, and then at the teddy and smiled. She grabbed its big ears and hugged it so tight that her fingers turned white. Then she put it to her mouth like babies do, with a look both questioning and enchanted, as if to say, “What’s this, a toy? Is it mine?” She played with it for 15 minutes or so, a very long time for a child her age as they don’t usually stay focused on anything for more than five to ten minutes.

When she left the hospital, she went to live with her 19 year-old sister and relatives in a house meant for ten people but by then had twenty to thirty people living in it. S has returned to the hospital from time to time for her dressings to be changed and physiotherapy. The Syrian psychologist has been able to see her since I left.

And what will happen to her now? How is she going to learn to walk?  How are her family going to be able to buy the prostheses she’s going to need? And as she grows, she’ll need different sizes.          


Charlotte wrote this post at the end of 2013. In January 2014, five our colleagues were taken in Syria and we had to suspend all communications around the conflict for their safety. Now, our staff are safe and back home with their families.

We are publishing Charlotte's blog retrospectively as we feel her stories should be shared.