JINDERIS, Syria (AP) – A girl born under the rubble of her family’s earthquake-shattered home has left the hospital and gone to her new home, where she was with her aunt’s family Monday.
The girl had been in the hospital since hours after the February 6 earthquake. She was discharged on Saturday and her aunt and uncle adopted her and gave her a new name, Afraa, after her late mother.
Afraa’s mother died in the earthquake, along with her father and four siblings. A day after the infant arrived at the hospital, officials named her Aya — Arabic for “a sign from God.”
Afraa’s story has been widely shared in news reports, and people from all over the world have offered to help her, with some saying they want to adopt her. However, the relatives who took her in said that no matter how difficult they are, the best place for the infant is with the family.
On Monday, Afraa was taken care of by her uncle, Khalil al-Sawadi, who is now staying with relatives in the town of Jinderis in northern Syria after his home was also destroyed in the earthquake. Al-Sawadi and his wife have four daughters and two sons, and now Afraa will live with her cousins.
“She’s one of my children now. I don’t want to separate her from my children,” al-Sawadi, who is also a cousin of the newborn’s parents, told The Associated Press on Monday as he sat cross-legged holding Afraa and surrounded by his six children. “She will be dearer than my children because she will keep the memory of her father, mother and siblings alive.”
He added that days after Afraa was born, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Attaa.
While he was in the hospital in the nearby town of Afrin, the director’s wife breastfed Afraa.
Judicial officials in Afrin had taken over Afraa’s case after the girl attracted international attention and some people came to the hospital claiming to be related to her even though they had different family names than Afraa and her mother.
For several days, al-Sawadi was worried that someone might kidnap her, and he often visited her in the hospital.
A hospital official said Afraa was handed over to her aunt’s family days after a DNA test was conducted to ensure the girl and her aunt are biologically related.
“It was sad and some nurses were crying” when she was taken from the hospital, said Dr. Hani Maarouf who had been caring for Afraa since she was brought to the facility. He added that the girl was in very good health when she was released.
Rescue workers in Jinderis discovered the dark-haired baby girl more than 10 hours after the quake while digging through the wreckage of the five-story apartment building where her parents lived.
Al-Sawadi recounted how he rushed out of his home when the earthquake struck and found that the nearby building where Afraa’s family lived had been reduced to a pile of rocks. Along with others from the area, al-Sawadi said they dug through the rubble in heavy rain for hours until he grew tired and sat down to rest nearby.
Shortly after, someone called him to identify a dead woman they found under the rubble. He told people around that she was his cousin, Afraa. Then they began to hear a child crying and frantically removed the sand covering the baby, whose umbilical cord was still connected to her mother.
Al-Sawadi said he took a razor from his pocket and cut the umbilical cord and gave the girl to another cousin and they drove her to a nearby hospital where he was told the girl was in good health. They drove to another hospital in the nearby town of Afrin where they were told it was full and could not take any more patients. They continued to another hospital, which was also full, before reaching the children’s hospital where she was kept until Saturday.
He said that during the chaos after they pulled Afraa from the rubble, al-Sawadi thought the newborn was a boy and asked the doctor to name “him” after her late father Abdullah Turki Mleihan. They later found out it was a girl.
He said the girl was kept in hospital for almost two weeks until the paperwork for her adoption was done.
The devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake with its epicenter in Turkey’s southeastern Kharamanmaras province struck early on February 6, followed by several aftershocks. Many communities in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria were reduced to piles of crushed concrete and twisted metal. More than 44,000 people have been reported dead, a toll expected to rise as search teams find more bodies.
The earthquake destroyed dozens of housing units in the town of Jinderis, where Afraa’s family had lived since 2018.
Afraa’s father, Abdullah Turki Mleihan, was originally from the village of Khsham in eastern Deir el-Zour province but left in 2014 after Islamic State captured the village, Saleh al-Badran, an uncle of Afraa’s father, said earlier this month. .
“I want to raise her in a way that she will not feel the need for anything,” said al-Sawadi, who buys and sells cars. Surrounded by his children, al-Sawadi asked them if he should give Afraa away to the well-wishers who offered to adopt her, and they said with one voice, “No.”
Mroue reported from Beirut.