"When I was a little girl, no one told me I can become someone important – that I can study and make something of my life. Everyone said you will get married and have children – this is the image of women in our country."
These are the words 32-year-old Dr. Amani Ballour says to me over the phone almost as if to provide a foreword to the story I would later pen about her prodigious work in war-torn Syria.
Dr Amani Ballour. (National Geographic)
As an aspiring paediatrician, Dr. Amani was forced to end her studies and medical training due to the devastating war in Syria. She soon opened a subterranean hospital, where she was appointed leader of a team of 130 medical practitioners in this secret medical facility serving the 400 000 civilians of the besieged city of Al Ghouta from 2012 to 2018.
Due to the nonstop onslaught of conventional and chemical warfare, brutalised and displaced victims constantly flooded the subterranean haven through secret entrances and an intricate network of tunnels. Despite the limited supply of medical resources, Dr. Amani and her team worked tirelessly to restore health and hope.
This is where Dr. Amani Ballour and her fellow women colleagues Samaher and Dr. Alaa, claimed their right to work as equals alongside their male counterparts, doing their jobs in a way that would be unthinkable in the oppressively patriarchal culture that exists above.
Dr. Amani (center) and Dr Alaa (right) in the operating room. (National Geographic)
Her work underground has now been brought to light by Oscar-nominated director Feras Fayyad (“Last Men in Aleppo”) in a documentary simply and aptly titled The Cave. This doccie has been described by National Geographic as "a stirring portrait of courage, resilience and female solidarity."
And speaking to Dr. Amani, one can't deny the fervour in her voice, especially when she reiterates through the various subjects we touch on during our conversation, the clarion call for women to know - and fight for - their rights.
As a working woman who rejected the patriarchal prescription for womanhood in her conservative society, Dr. Amani is well-acquainted with the word "no", to which she would always retort "why".
"When I wanted to ride a bike, for example, I was told ‘no you can’t, you are a girl’. When I wanted to climb a tree, they said ‘no, you can’t you are a girl.’ My mother was very [meek] and all the women around me were also very [meek] in their families, and [weren't in a position] to make decisions… and this made me want to challenge them and ask why."
Her family discouraged her aspirations to be an engineer on the basis of having never seen "any female engineers in [their] community", so she opted for med school - a decision also catalysed by the fact that she was an academic achiever in school. This was a decision she says her family supported because "being a doctor is a great thing in Syria - they're respected."
Now an adult, Al Ghouta's beacon of hope would still be subjected to the same sexist socialisation she faced as a child eager to climb a tree. I'm reminded of a scene from The Cave where a man enters Dr. Amanis' subterranean hospital in search of medication prescribed to him that he couldn't find in all of Al Ghouta. When Dr. Amani tells him they also don't have the medication, he makes an attempt to debase her credibility as a manager... one who also happens to be a woman.
The satisfying exchange plays out as follows (verbatim);
Patient: "Find someone who can help me. A male manager who can do a better job."
Dr. A: "So are hospitals with male managers able to get you medicine?"
Patient: "Yes. Women should not work. A woman belongs at home with her husband and children."
Dr. A: "You also have a home and children." (implying that he too, as a man, could be at home with them)
Dr. Amani tells me that it's not just men who uphold an archaic mindset about gender roles. When I ask how women in Syria have received her and the work she does, she says "some women admire me, but unfortunately a lot of women still hold the same views as men in our culture. Some don’t know that they have rights – they just believe what men say and do what their husbands want them to do, and it’s really frustrating for me to convince women of their rights."
Dr. Amani - A woman among men. (National Geographic)
Although she handled the patient above with an admirable sense of stoicism, this 'retired' paeditrician expresses that doing the award-winning work she does is "high pressure" on her as she was the "first woman manager of the hospital in that area and in those circumstances."
"If I failed as the manager of the hospital, they would say that about all women, and use me as a bad example, saying ‘she failed so all women will fail.’ So it was very difficult for me to be a woman, a manager, and a paeditirician [in the cave]," she adds.
When we talk briefly (due to this being a difficult topic for the Doc) about tapping into her maternal instincts as a medical caregiver to children, Dr. Amani speaks with the same softness we see depicted in The Cave during her interactions with children.
*Trigger warning: Graphic images
Dr Amani comforts a little girl. (National Geographic)
"Working with children is very very hard for me, and now I can’t work as a paediatrician anymore because working with them really traumatised me – it touched me a lot to see them suffering," she says.
"I remember all of them very well. Some of them I had known since they were babies and they grew up in front of me. I saw lots of dead bodies of children (some of them I knew), especially in chemical attacks. It was very difficult and it’s a long story to talk about children and their suffering in war zones," Dr. Amani adds with palpable sensitivity in her voice.
Dr. Amani Ballour is no longer in rebel-held Syria and is now in Turkey, the recipient of several esteemed international awards, and married. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Council of Europe’s Raoul Wallenberg Prize for her humanitarian efforts and now continues to raise funds for women in Syria.
Dr. Amani shares that she also has meetings with politicians and parliament members who she hopes will be custodians of change and release Syria from the stronghold of brutality.
"We love you and we are scared for you. Your plants are here still waiting for you," are the poignant words that concluded a voice note Dr. Amani's dad sent her while she was still working in The Cave in Al Ghouta. The words struck a chord with me, perhaps because of my own close relationship with my dad, but more so because the message comes full circle.
Dr. Amani Ballour may not have gone straight back to the plants she left at home, but in The Cave she planted many seeds of hope - manifesting the meaning of her name. And the fruits of her labour are still blossoming as she continues to fight for women and children.
"It’s a long journey, but we need to start."
The Cave documentary kicks off National Geographic’s brand initiative for 2020, Women of Impact, which will showcase history-making and boundary-breaking women whose stories create a stunning portrait of their past, present and future impact on our world.
Additional information and images supplied by National Geographic