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Syrian Native Smuggles Toys to Children Trapped in Aleppo

Rami Adham delivers toys to Syrian children in a refugee camp near the war-torn city of Aleppo in February 2016. (Photo courtesy of Rami Adham)

Haunted by images of terrified children living in the mist of war in his hometown of Aleppo, Syrian native Rami Adham wanted to help them.

And so in 2012, he began a series of perilous journeys to smuggle toys into Aleppo.

“Initially, I traveled to Syria to see the situation on the ground,” said Adham, who lives in Finland.

"I took with me my own savings and the toys that I collected from my own children," Adham, a father of six, said in a telephone interview with VOA.

Since that first trip, Adham says he has traveled more than 28 times to the city he left 27 years ago.

By his estimate, he has delivered some 20,000 toys.

In his most recent trip in September, he spent nearly two weeks in Aleppo. Over time, he has brought teddy bears, Barbie dolls, "Buzz Lightyear" and other toys gathered from donors worldwide. He also brings in some food and medicine – whatever fits in large cloth sacks that he and some other volunteers can carry on their backs. On a usual trip, he can bring some 80 kilograms of goods into Aleppo, he said.

The journey from Helsinki to Aleppo is not an easy one. Adham, 43, said he flies to Turkey and then takes circuitous routes, crossing the porous Turkey-Syria border into Aleppo on foot. The crossings are illicit; only humanitarian aid workers are officially allowed to pass the borders toward Aleppo.

Smuggler Brings Happiness to Children Trapped in Aleppo
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For his safety, he relies on his contacts inside Syria to reduce potential risks. But Adham said he has faced serious threats to his life.

"It is a war zone," Adham said. "The worst case was early this year when I was trapped in a place that got bombed and I was injured badly."

In that incident, Adham said he was taken to a field hospital in Aleppo with a broken arm and shrapnel in his back and neck. He was later transferred to a hospital in Turkey for further treatment.

His work has garnered international media attention from BBC, CNN and other Arabic media outlets.

Adham leads a nonprofit Finnish-Syrian association that receives toys from throughout Europe and also sponsors over 400 orphans in Syria. It runs three schools in rebel-held refugees camps near Aleppo. His charity organization facilitated education opportunities for over 2,000 Syria children, he said.

"My work started with a small circle of my friends and the circle grew to include neighbors,” Adham said, adding it expanded to other cities in Finland and elsewhere.

Children have been ravaged by Syria’s civil war, with hundreds of thousands killed, wounded or displaced.

"The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare," Justin Forsyth, UNICEF's deputy executive director, said recently. "There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing."

Rami Adham is surrounded by Syrian children who gather near a field school in Aleppo that has since been destroyed, Sept. 2015. (photo courtesy of Rami Adham)
Rami Adham is surrounded by Syrian children who gather near a field school in Aleppo that has since been destroyed, Sept. 2015. (photo courtesy of Rami Adham)

On Thursday, a top United Nations official warned that rebel-held eastern Aleppo could be "totally destroyed" by the end of the year.

The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said if the Syrian and Russian airstrikes on the city continue, "Thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed and many of them wounded."

Outside observers estimate as many as 100,000 children are among the 250,000 people trapped in rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

VOA’s Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report.

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