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Tuesday 13 December 2016

As the city falls, thoughts of an Aleppo childhood
As the city falls, thoughts of an Aleppo childhood
Aleppo photo courtesy of ReliefAid 2016

For most observers Aleppo’s terrible endgame is too much to bear. For broadcaster, biographer and ShelterBox fundraiser Barbara Altounyan it brings echoes of her family’s eviction decades ago from Syria’s largest city 
Among those watching as Aleppo’s civil war plays out is ShelterBox supporter, Rotarian and former resident of Syria’s largest city, Barbara Altounyan
Barbara AltounyanBarbara recalls her childhood in what was then a city of great beauty. ‘I remember running through the underground souq markets and playing around the Citadel.’ Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, dating back to 6 BC. Now she sees it nightly on TV, its Citadel pressed into service by militia. Hardly a building unscarred, nowhere left to hide for families trapped by ceaseless bombing and gunfire. 
Barbara says, ‘We are an Anglo-Syrian family. I was just a child when, on an awful day in 1956, my family was given only 48 hours to pack up and quit the city.’ This was a time of heightened tensions between Damascus and Aleppo, and Syria’s shifting allegiances between Egypt and Iraq. 

‘Over two generations my family had established and run one of the city’s largest hospitals. Now I look at the situation in Aleppo with alarm, especially there being no functioning hospitals or healthcare.’

Her parents are gone, but she and her four siblings have had successful careers from nursing to IT to rock music.

But Barbara used her role as a broadcaster to return to the Middle East frequently. A BBC-trained TV and radio interviewer with more than thirty years’ experience, Barbara created documentaries and many successful TV formats including ‘Trust Me I'm a Doctor’, ‘Heir Hunters’ and ‘Pet Rescue’. Co-owner of independent Flame TV, she sold her stake to Avalon Productions in 2013.
She remembers her father’s medical break-through in helping to create the inhaler drug Intal for asthmatics. ‘The key ingredient was a small plant that grew on the roadsides around Aleppo.’   

And it was a connection with her father that has given Barbara a new direction in her career. Recording his memoirs on microphone just before he died, she has since discovered a market for ‘audio memoirs’ for bereaved families. This is now a registered charity – The Hospice Biographers – where residents of hospices countrywide can have their life stories recorded on audio, so their families will still be able to hear their voices and precious memories long after they’ve died. 

But amid these poignant recollections Barbara has found a reason to raise some cheer for her home city. 

She and her Rotary Club recently raised $2,000 for ShelterBox, a relief organization that has been active in Syria and its neighbouring countries for many years, taking shelter to displaced families, warm winter clothing, water filtration and carriers, and school packs for children.

The event was a ‘Gin and Jazz’ garden party at Barbara’s home, attended by around seventy people. And there was something very special about the drink on offer. It was a special pink gin recipe that hails from Syria, mixing the spirit with cassis, lime and spices - appropriate for Aleppo’s historic glory days as a wealthy trading centre on the spice routes. 
Barbara says, ‘The event was so successful that we plan to do in again next year, by which time I hope Aleppo will be seeing happier and more peaceful times.’

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