There was a clear moment when 48-year-old mother-of-four Hala Kamil decided it was time her family left their home in Aleppo. Their sprawling apartment sat squarely on the frontline of Syria’s second city, towards the north. For the last three years, it had been showered with missiles, gunfire and soaked in bloodshed.

Hala had been watching a neighbour search for her missing children, among their rubble strewn street, in the aftermath of a barrel bomb - when the epiphany came.  

“I didn’t want to see my children cut down in front of my eyes,” she recalls, speaking in her first interview. “I was watching the mother of those children. She was sent to hospital but she came walking back because she wanted to find them. She couldn't. She was going crazy in the street. I don’t want to be that mother looking for my children.”

At that time, Hala and her family - Mohammad, now 15, Helen, 13, Farah, 9, and Sara, 6 – were spending each night sleeping in a corner of their apartment - “so if a bomb hit we would all be in the same place and would go together”.

Their father, Abu Ali, had been taken by Isil in front of their eyes, captured outside their home, in 2014.

Their subsequent flight from Syria to the medieval town of Goslar, in Germany, has now been documented by director Marcel Mettelsiefen in part two of his Children on the Frontline series - airing tonight on Channel 4. 

Following David Cameron's announcement last week that the UK will resettle Syrian child refugees, it has never felt more relevant. 

Hala and her eldest daughter Helen, 13, are in London for an early screening of the documentary. They are eloquent, measured and concise - hardened by their experiences.

Their story began in 2013, when Mettelsiefen met their father, Abu Ali Al-Sahiba, a Sunni freedom fighter and commander of the Free Syrian Army. The first documentary they made together, won fistfuls of awards, including two Baftas and an Emmy - and focused on his children’s life entrenched on the frontline. 

It depicted Farah, then 7, learning to make bombs with her father and collected red ribbons that, when lit, would ignite them. Helen, then 11, taught local girls maths in corridors after travelling to school became too dangerous. All four children learnt to identify the whistling noise of different projectiles.

Before war, their parents had been mechanical engineers and university graduates, living in a comfortable apartment, in an affluent district.  But as a commander and high profile rebel, their father gambled daily with their young lives by remaining to fight and was outspoken in his opposition to both President Bashar al-Assad and Isil.

He admits on that first film he was playing with fire: “Perhaps I sacrificed their lives. Here, they could get killed any moment”. Later he rolls down his trousers to show myriad shrapnel and bullet wounds scarring his legs.

But Hala would never have left him voluntarily: “It took us eight years to conceive and the children are so special to us. But it is important to show that we are all on the frontline together. We had a lot of respect because we were there with him. My husband was involved in everything; he helped civilians, set up bakeries to feed people, gave people money who didn’t have it.”

Two years ago, Abu Ali was captured by Isil. Pick up trucks stopped outside his house and masked men forced him away. He is still missing, presumed dead, although his family hopes he will return. 

Sara, his youngest, pinned a note to the wall of their house before they left in a dusty minivan for the Turkish border. She drew a picture of her heart “for Daddy” and wrote that he should look for them in Germany, should he ever return to their home.

Unlike many of the three million Syrian refugees who have fled their homes since the outbreak Syria’s war, their journey to Europe was, relatively speaking, easy. It didn’t involve smugglers, months in putrid refugee camps or perilous sea crossings.

They passed through a refugee camp at Turkey’s border in two days before travelling to Istanbul to stay with relatives. There they applied for visas at the German embassy. Money saved helped, as did the fact Germany had just pledged to admit 30,000 Syrians – at the time, more than Europe Australia and Canada combined.

Hala had travelled in hope that - as a single mother with four children under 13 facing threats from pro-government and Isil forces because of her husband’s political status - she would be first in line. Her hunch proved right - and although it took three months for the paperwork to come through, they boarded a flight to Germany in March last year. A house in Goslar was allocated and 350 euros per person per month, the same as other Germans relying on welfare.

Hala may have escaped persecution but now she is facing a new problem; discrimination, “The only thing I fear is religious intolerance. People say that over here we are Muslims and seen as terrorists. This frightens me.”

Helen and her siblings have appeared at the sharp end of it.

“Some people are really bad. If you are a bit loud or do anything they don’t like they say 'get off our land'. But I don’t listen to them. It is the same for other refugees in my class.”

Goslar, once a wealthy spa town, appealed for refugees in 2014 to ease a population that was aging and slowing declining. But tempers have since flared and right wing demonstrations increased as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door migrant policy had the opposite effect - and one million arrived looked to settle in Germany.   

Much has changed in the last few months too. Helen now wears lipstick, takes selfies and wants to be an architect “to help rebuild Syria”. Her hijab is off and her long hair is spread around her shoulders.

“It is so different. I love Syria but I like Germany too…Here in Germany a girl is not ruled. She has her freedom,” she says.

Her brother Mohammad likes to speak Arabic with his family, although his sisters often switch to German. His aim is to be doctor when they return to Syria to help the many people who will be suffering from psychological problems.

Not least his mother, who, although safe in Germany, clearly still suffers the scars of upheaval, loss and grief.

Every morning she wakes to the sound of planes flying overheard and runs into her children’s bedrooms, forgetting where she is, imagining a barrel bomb hurtling towards them: "They terrify me."

Despite that, she wants to return to her family and the search for her husband. 

“I will go as soon as it is safe,” says Hala, resolute. “It doesn’t have to be rebuilt, it can be in absolute ruins and I will return.”

For now, she is waiting for German doctors to sign her off for work. Her dream is opening a Syrian restaurant in Goslar, encouraged by neighbours, who love her family’s meals.

“Work is freedom for me. People must know that nobody comes here to take the food from another person, or to take his job or his flat, we want to be safe and we want all the world to know what happened in Syria. All the world is a big house for everyone, and we are a big family.”

 

First published in Telegraph