‘They’ll hear my voice’: Syrian siblings hearing for the first time

Celine and Aslan are Syrian siblings with hearing impediments. But when Aslan had cochlear implant surgery, Celine had to wait – until now.

Girl in red clothes smiling
Celine was not old enough in April to get a cochlear implant like her brother, but now she can hear [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Reyhanli, Turkey – Celine Abu al-Zumar is nearly four years old, and as she was about to hear for the first time in her life, her mother was near tears.

“In less than three months, the dream became a reality,” Fatima al-Essa exclaimed.

Celine was finally approved for cochlear implant surgery like her brother Aslan had been in April.

Fatima, a 26-year-old Syrian living in Idlib, Syria, recalled her sadness that her children Celine and Aslan, now five and a half, were born with a hearing impediment and had grown up feeling they were somehow different from other kids.

Joy and heartbreak

Earlier this year, Aslan had surgery – which normally costs $16,000, an amount his family could not afford – funded by the relief organisation Alameen in neighbouring Turkey.

Fatima was overwhelmed with joy when the implant was switched on and she saw her son react to sounds. But, she told Al Jazeera at the time, her heart broke for Celine.

Aslan had been prioritised for the cochlear implant programme as he was approaching the age of six after which he would no longer be eligible for the surgery.

Father holds son and daughter in his arms
Khalid Abdel Razek Abu al-Zumar holding his son Aslan and daughter Celine in a park in Idlib in April [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“Since I returned with Aslan from Turkey, all my focus was on Celine, who felt that something had changed in her brother and that he was responding more to me and his father than she was,” said Fatima.

“Despite my joy at Aslan’s regained hearing, I cried every night for Celine, worrying that she might feel in the future that we favoured her brother over her.”

Now it was Celine’s turn and Fatima could not wait to see Celine’s journey – with her brother by her side.

Sibling love

Aslan and Celine are cheerful, engaging children who enjoy interacting with others, bringing smiles to the faces of the staff in the Reyhanli hospital where they had their surgeries.

“Celine is very sweet and interacts quickly with people, and with one innocent smile, she steals the hearts of those around her,” said Rama Asfari, an Alameen staff member.

Rama joked that Celine and Aslan vied for attention at the hospital, the little girl turning on the charm whenever the medical staff talked to Aslan during her examination.

“One minute is enough to build a friendship with Celine and to get you involved in playing with her,” added Rama.

Girl standing in corridor
Celine was fitted with a cochlear implant, allowing her to hear [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Aslan was focused on supporting his sister, understanding how serious Celine’s surgery was – his world had already changed because of it.

He sat on a chair next to Fatima outside the operating room, head down and hands clasped together. He did not look at anyone, keeping his eyes fixed on the door as he waited for his sister to come out.

A long, anxious three hours later, Celine came out, still groggy with anaesthesia. Aslan stayed beside her until she woke up.

Aslan’s behaviour reminded Fatima how much her son had changed since his surgery.

Of her five children, Aslan and Celine were always close, being close in age and sharing a hearing impediment.

Before his surgery, Fatima said, Aslan would tease his sister and argue with her over toys as all siblings do – but since receiving his implant, his demeanour had changed towards Celine, becoming gentler and kinder.

It was that softness that Aslan displayed as his sister lay in the operating theatre.

“The tenderness I saw from Aslan towards his sister strengthened me and made the time Celine spent in the operating room easier,” said Fatima.

Celine with her hands on a table
Celine’s mother, Fatima, says she was worried her daughter would not be approved for the surgery and would grow up to think her parents favoured her brother more [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Funding implants

Both Aslan and Celine are beneficiaries of a programme by Alameen in cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.

“The campaign started … with cochlear implants for 60 children from northwestern Syria and, due to overwhelming response, the campaign turned into a full programme to include 1,430 children in several countries around the world,” said Yasser al-Tarraf, an Alameen official.

Al-Tarraf told Al Jazeera the programme in northwestern Syria has allowed 120 children to hear so far and plans to provide cochlear implants in the future for 700 children in northwestern Syria and 240 Syrian and Turkish children in southern Turkey.

“Additionally, 490 children will receive cochlear implants in Lebanon, Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq… [over] approximately one and a half years” said al-Tarraf.

Happiest person on earth

The morning after the surgery, Celine, her brother and her mother went to the room where the external hearing device would be fitted. Her hearing was to be tested for the first time in her life.

A quiet came over the room as the doctor fitted the device and connected it to the computer for programming, Celine looking at her mother and brother with anticipation.

Father plays with his two children
Aslan and Celine always played together – but now they can hear each other too [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The device was activated and Celine was able to hear for the first time in her life.

Shock stole over her face, and the foreign feeling of sound seemed to make her uncomfortable at first as she looked around at the doctors, seeming to beseech them to make it stop.

But they had to continue, calling out to her and slapping the table to test the device’s sensitivity to different noise levels.

As Celine got more used to what was happening, emotions alternated across her face, surprise then joy then shock when a louder sound came through the device.

Aslan started playing with her, clapping his hands to attract her attention and get her to understand what had changed. Looking trustingly at her brother, she brushed tears away and began to smile.

“Today, I am the happiest person on earth,” Fatima said, as she saw the impact of the surgery on her daughter.

“From today, we’ll live a normal life with my children who have gained their hearing, and I’ll hear their voices, and they’ll hear my voice and their father’s voice.

“My heart is with the families still waiting for their children’s turn to get cochlear implants, said Fatima.

“With every prayer, I will ask that they also live this moment.”

Doctors in Reyhanli, Turkey, operate to put in a cochlear implant for Celine
Doctors operate on Celine in Turkey [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera