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Sports champion provides artificial limbs near Aleppo

In the thick of the Syrian war, an athlete channels his skills to help amputees receive prosthetics.

Many Syrians who have lived through the six years of the Syrian civil war have been forced to change their work, study or specialty fields as they have been displaced from their hometowns.

Some young Syrians have been highly innovative and displayed excellence in their new fields. One young man, a sports coach, put his knowledge of the human body to use in an entirely new way for him. Ghazal Hilal from Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, now makes and fits artificial limbs for victims of the aerial and ground bombardments of Syrian and Russian forces.‎ 

In addition to being a coach, Hilal is an international referee in kickboxing. He has won several national and international championships.‎ He is also a coach and referee in the Chinese martial art of wushu kung fu, and in bocce for people with special needs. He holds a black belt in taekwondo and organized and participated in many tournaments in Syria from 1994 to 2012.‎ He once participated in the General Sports Federation in Syria, which is affiliated with the Arab Socialist Baath Party, but left to join the General Authority for Sports and Youth in Syria, a civil sports organization. He is now a member of the executive office in that sports body.‎

Al-Monitor met Hilal in Kilis, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Two weeks earlier he had finished a workshop with Handicap International, based in Lyon, France, which helps people who have been injured or disabled during wars.‎ Al-Monitor asked him about his humanitarian medical work. He said, "A dentist and I, along with prominent residents of my town [Tal Rifaat], have established in the northern Aleppo countryside a center for people with special needs such as people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, who are mute, or who have special educational, physical and psychological needs, in cooperation with specialists in these areas."‎

With the war came an increase in cases of amputations and physical disabilities, which Hilal said inspired him to start making and fitting artificial limbs locally within his limited means.‎ ‎"In 2014, Mustafa al-Najjar, the manager of Bab al-Salama border crossing between Syria and Turkey, contacted me," he said. "He deserves the main credit in creating and supporting the Steps of Happiness center for [making and fitting] artificial limbs in the Bab al-Salama camp.‎ Then the center’s manufacturing and services were developed with the support of donors and philanthropists. This service has to cover a very large area of Aleppo and its countryside, all the way to the Iraqi border.”

He added,‎ “‎Due to the center’s considerable services to amputees and patients with motor disabilities, we have been in communication with Handicap International to train our staff for two and a half months and to develop the manufacturing and [fitting] of artificial limbs.‎ ‎Thanks to the training, our manufacturing has greatly improved and has become comparable to artificial limbs made abroad. We hope to receive more training and support, God willing, to be able to offer this service to the largest possible number of sick and needy people, whose numbers have greatly increased in the past two years as a result of shelling and land mines."

‎Hilal spoke about his humanitarian work proudly and affectionately. He described the smiles on the faces of children who receive artificial limbs and how some of them take pictures that they immediately send to their mothers.

Since the center opened, Hilal has helped with treating and providing artificial limbs for about 400 wounded people, according to statistics from the Steps of Happiness center.

Al-Monitor spoke via phone with Walaa Ahmad, a 17-year-old Syrian girl from the al-Bab area east of Aleppo who was among those treated at the center.

“I have suffered from fever since I was 7, leading to the amputation of both my legs," she said. "About two months ago, I had them replaced with prosthetic legs at the Steps of Happiness center, with the help of Hilal. I regained hope in life and movement after difficult years.”

‎Hilal believes in the power of human will. He has trained children and young people to help themselves through meditation and how to protect themselves through martial arts. He also offers a noble humanitarian service in the northern Aleppo countryside to people with special needs. With his work, he is sending a message to the world that human will and determination can endure even under the harshest and seemingly impossible conditions.

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