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Bana al-Abed: From a Syrian War Zone to New York City | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Bana al-Abed with her mother, Fatemah, near Bryant Park in New York on Friday. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

As airstrikes rained down on Aleppo while the Syrian government wrested the city from rebel forces, Bana al-Abed and her mother, Fatemah, were tweeting daily about life under siege.

“Good morning from Aleppo,” Bana said in halting English in one of the videos posted to her account in October. “We are still alive.”

Less than a year later, their lives are no longer dictated by airstrikes and uncertainty, thanks in part to the international attention on the young girl and her Twitter account.

Settled now in Turkey, a world away from life in a war zone, Bana, 8, and her mother have written a book chronicling their experiences. This week, the young girl visited New York — meeting with Twitter staffers, speaking to children in a charter school in Harlem and rubbing shoulders with Colin Kaepernick, the football player whose protests against police brutality and racial oppression last season set off a national debate.

With her long hair, deep brown eyes and missing front teeth, Bana quickly attracted thousands of followers when she first began tweeting last autumn and became a symbol of the plight of Syrian children.

Her family, like thousands of others in Aleppo, struggled to survive during the siege. First they were running low on food and water, then they lost their home in an airstrike.

Finally they joined thousands of residents who boarded buses and evacuated the city in December before leaving Syria behind for Turkey.

“The last days were horrible days,” Fatemah said on a recent autumn morning in New York in an interview with her daughter by her side. “From November to December, it was hell.”

The pair now appear to be thriving. Bana’s face looked fuller, and her front teeth had grown in. Her English came easily, and she had a new American Girl doll with her, a souvenir from her visit to the city.

“This is my baby,” she said, stroking the doll’s blonde hair. She named her Christine after the woman who edited her book, “Dear World,” a phrase borrowed from her tweets.

The two are still using the @AlabedBana Twitter account — now with more than 363,000 followers — to post personal messages and comments on current events.

Bana was relaxed and confident, self-possessed beyond her years. Her waist-long brown hair cascaded down her back in waves as she chatted excitedly about seeing the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and the tall buildings.

She sang a few lines of a Justin Bieber song and talked about her new school in Turkey. Her favorite subject is math, and she wants to be an English teacher when she grows up.

But when she talked about Aleppo, she was somber and spoke carefully.

“It was very hard,” Bana said, recalling how her home was destroyed in an airstrike. “And also, you know, my friend, her dad and brother died.”

When her Twitter account was opened in September 2016, thousands shared messages of support for her. But there were also critics.

Even after many of her photos and videos were verified and other residents corroborated her story, some doubted the family was in Aleppo at all, arguing that internet access would have been impossible or that the family was distributing “fake news.”

Others suggested that Bana was being used as a propaganda tool, either by her parents or to push the rebel agenda.

The city had been sealed off to Western journalists for months, and while the Twitter account provided a particular insight into the city, many of the details were impossible to verify.

But in New York, Fatemah defended her decision to open the account for her daughter, and she said Bana was deeply involved from the start.

“We decided to go to Twitter because of direct access to the world,” Fatemah said, adding that she wanted to raise awareness about their struggle in Syria.

(The New York Times)