Aslan's journey to hearing: Giving thanks to God

Aslan smiles and waves
Aslan, a nattily dressed, smiley little boy in his home in Idlib, Syria [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Aslan, a nattily dressed, smiley little boy in his home in Idlib, Syria [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Idlib, Syria and Reyhanli, Turkey - When Khalid Abdel Razek Abu al-Zumar heard that his five-year-old son had been accepted into a programme that would restore his hearing, he rushed to prostrate himself in prayer to thank God.

Aslan, a nattily dressed, smiley little boy, had been hearing impaired his whole life, and now he had a chance to hear his family’s voices and play with other children his age in a whole new way.

"My heart would break whenever kids avoided playing with my kids because they can't communicate with them in the usual way," said Khalid, who is 31 years old and a father of five.

Joy casts a shadow

Aslan and Celine in their living room, dressed snazzily and smiling large in their home in Idlib, Syria
Aslan's little sister Celine also lives with a hearing impairment [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Aslan's little sister Celine also lives with a hearing impairment [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Khalid’s happiness almost defied description, but there was a lump in his throat because Aslan’s little sister Celine was not approved for a cochlear implant, despite the three-and-a-half-year-old also not being able to hear.

"I was told Aslan was given priority over Celine because he’s nearly six, at which point the surgery would no longer benefit him," Abu al-Zumar said.

It had seemed hopeless before Aslan’s selection to join the cochlear implant programme organised by the International Association for Protection of Wars and Disasters Victims (Al-Ameen) and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre.

The cost of cochlear implants for Aslan and Celine was out of reach for a family whose breadwinner was an agricultural worker.

"It was impossible to secure the $16,000 needed for Aslan's surgery, but my hope in God never wavered," Khalid said, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the sound of plastic blocks being poured out onto the living room carpet.

Fatima plays with Aslan in their living room in Idlib
Fatima plays with Aslan in their living room in Idlib [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Fatima, 26, fully covered in her niqab, sat amid the colourful blocks, playing quietly with Aslan and Celine, with only the odd exclamation from one of the children to break the silence.

Over the years, Fatima and Khalid had developed a system with the children that allowed communication and understanding, Khalid explained. Fondly, he called it his spiritual connection, which tells him what they need and tells them to look over at him whenever he needs to tell them something.

The four family members also have their own form of sign language, one that the three other siblings try to use as much as possible with their brother and sister.

But eight-year-old Sham, seven-year-old Assia and four-year-old Asienat sometimes find it hard to play with Aslan and Celine because they are a bit rough when frustrated at not being understood, Khalid said, adding that this also happens when they try to play with other children in the neighbourhood.

Khalid pushes the excited kids on the swings
Khalid pushes an excited Aslan and Celine on the park swings [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Khalid and Fatima worked hard with the children once they had their diagnosis, teaching them how to read and write so they would have a way of communicating. Aslan learned some rudimentary lip reading and could sound out some letters.

"We see it every day, how much Aslan and Celine want to express what’s going on inside them, so we worked together to create these different tricks to allow them to do that," Khalid said.

School was not an option, as there were no specialised schools that the children could access and when Khalid took Aslan to a neighbourhood school, "they asked me to have Aslan pronounce any letter or respond to any sound to be accepted, but he couldn't do it”, he said.

Heading out

Fatima's back is turned, Aslan looks at us over her shoulder at the border crossing from Syria to Turkey
Aslan, tired, climbs into his mother's safe arms [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Aslan, tired, climbs into his mother's safe arms [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

To get his cochlear implant, Aslan had to get to Turkey, along with 29 other children who were in the first batch of surgeries the programme was going to fund and execute.

He headed out with his mother, bidding his sisters and father farewell at their home in Idlib. The Hammam border crossing was far enough away from Idlib that it would be hard for Khalid to get there and back with the other children.

Aslan was excited about the journey, cheerfully waving at everyone they met and captivating the staff at Al-Ameen and the King Salman Centre who were there to welcome the 30 children going to Turkey for surgery.

In his snazzy yellow jacket and black baseball cap, Aslan cut a dashing figure as he soaked in everything happening around him.

Aslan talks to a little boy in a brown sweater
Aslan makes a friend, another little boy crossing into Turkey [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

But eventually, he had seen enough and tiredness set in, so he climbed into his mother’s arms to be carried for a while, safe and secure.

After hours on the road, Fatima and Aslan arrived in Reyhanli, where they could rest and meet the rest of the team that had gathered to complete 60 cochlear implants for Syrian children whose families could not afford them.

"We decided to divide the children into two groups for reasons including logistics, legal procedures, getting travel documents for some parents and children, accommodating the kids and their caregivers, as well as arranging permits for crossing to Turkey," said Muawiya Harsouni, the Al-Ameen director.

More than 1,000 children in northwestern Syria are in urgent need of cochlear implants before they lose their hearing permanently, he said, but donor funding is lacking because these treatments are not seen as emergency relief. So, for now, the team has to be happy with the 60 children they will help in two batches.

Celine smiles and waves
Celine smiles and waves [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

In Reyhanli, Aslan’s file had to be reviewed again by the Saudi Arabian medical team, which pored over his scans and ran new assessments to double-check all the information.

After all the checks were done, the medical team informed Fatima they had approval for her son's operation.

"I was worried about Aslan's surgery, of course, but when they told me it would go ahead… I mean, this was the moment I’d been waiting years for," she said.

All that remained was getting an excited little boy to sleep so he could rest up for the next day.

The implant

Dr Ahmed al-Zafiri during Aslan's operation
Dr Ahmed al-Zafiri during Aslan's operation [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]
Dr Ahmed al-Zafiri during Aslan's operation [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]

Early the next morning, Aslan was prepped for surgery and wheeled through to the operating theatre, looking very small in his hospital smock and hairnet.

Fatima sat in the corridor outside for the three hours it took to complete the surgery.

She sat nervously, reciting prayer after prayer, pausing whenever someone opened the door leading to the operating theatres to ask anxiously how Aslan was doing, if the surgery was done yet.

Until, finally, he was wheeled out.

His surgeon, audiology and cochlear implant consultant Dr Ahmed al-Zafiri, came out to announce that everything had gone well, as had all of the first batch of 30 surgeries.

Aslan curled out on a gurney, out cold and looking very small
Aslan looked very small on his gurney post-op [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]

The doctor, a volunteer at the King Salman Centre, said he believed strongly in his mission: “I believe that God blessed us with this courage and knowledge to help people and give them everything they need.”

A really touching moment in this journey, he went on, had been watching videos of the families weeping tears of joy when being told their child would receive an implant.

"If I were to send a message to Aslan, I’d say: ‘Stay well, and I want to see your videos next year,’" he said.

He is not likely to meet Aslan again as the child moves into the post-operative phase.

Post-op, first sound

Aslan cries after hearing the first voice in his life in Reyhanli, Turkey
Aslan cries after hearing the first sound in his life [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]
Aslan cries after hearing the first sound in his life [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]

As soon as Aslan was wheeled back from recovery, not quite fully awake, Fatima was shown to his bedside to settle him in for the next phase.

Still a little drowsy, Aslan was confused about what had just happened and felt like something was not as it always was, trying to tug the bandage off and pawing at his covered ears.

Luckily for Aslan, his bond with Fatima is as strong as it is gentle and she was able to get him to stop picking at his bandage, holding him while he cried in confusion.

A couple of hours later, tears were forgotten as Aslan had a meal (he had been on orders to not eat anything for more than 14 hours) and was up and about, dashing between rooms, checking on the other children and playing with the staff who were delighted to interact with one of their patients.

Dr. Ahmed al-Zafiri
Dr Ahmed al-Zafiri [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]

Fatima, relieved that he had returned to his old self, settled in to wait for the next 48 hours.

Finally, the big day arrived. Aslan’s implant was going to be switched on and he would be able to hear the world around him for the first time.

To set up the implant, hearing specialist Mohamed Hamad al-Baqia connected an external sound processor to Aslan’s implant and started programming it via an external computer.

The first sound to break through Aslan’s silence startled him. Surprised, he laughed and then burst into tears, squeezing his mother’s hand as she soothed him while the technicians continued testing the implant with different types of sounds – sharp, soft and shushing.

Eventually, Aslan calmed down, having gotten used to the sounds he was hearing. He decided to curate his experience, grabbing a stick and tapping on a drum, enjoying a sound he had not known before.

Aslan in hearing test room as technicians programme his device
Aslan in the hearing test room as technicians programme his device [Husam Hezaber/Al Jazeera]

"That drumbeat Aslan made is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard in my life, and I’ll never be annoyed, no matter how long he plays it," Fatima said, a chuckle in her voice.

When he started crying from the sounds he was hearing, however, Fatima had had a moment of sadness remembering Celine, who still needed a cochlear implant so she could hear like her brother.

But, she concluded: "This is one of the happiest moments of my life.

“My son, Aslan, this boy who everybody loves when they meet him, can now hear people's beautiful words about him.

“Soon, he’ll be able to say my name, and his father's name!"

Khalid holding the two kids for a photo in Idlib, Syria
Aslan, left, Khalid, centre, and Celine out at the park [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Aslan, left, Khalid, centre, and Celine out at the park [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera