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Aleppo’s Little Architect: Imagining a Brighter Future for Syria

Fourteen-year-old Muhammad Qteish spends weeks in his room in Syria’s war-torn city of Aleppo, gluing together small pieces of colored paper. Known around town as “the little architect,” Muhammad has spent months creating the new Aleppo, the Aleppo he hopes to help build once all the fighting is over.

Written by Tamer Osman Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Like many boys his age, Muhammad loves to draw. Well known for his creativity and artistic talents in his hometown of Aleppo, the largest and probably hardest-hit city in Syria, the 14-year-old boy has outdone himself this time.

When the armed conflict intensified in Aleppo in 2012, Muhammad, then a sixth-grader, was forced to quit school. After the Syrian government began to bombard his neighborhood in the Salah al-Din area of the city, Muhammad and his family moved into the cramped student dorms of Aleppo University. Seven months later they were able to return home, but unfortunately for children like Muhammad schools would remain closed in the area for another year. It just wasn’t safe to leave the house.

Cloistered inside as the war raged around him, Muhammad occupied his spare time building a model of Aleppo, his stricken city. He started his project using normal paper, but when his father saw his work, he went out and brought him cardboard and paint. Muhammad’s imagination soared. He designed and built a full model of Aleppo as he would like it to be in the future.

“I’ve loved to draw ever since I was little. My father would get me a new sketchbook and colors every week. When the revolution started, and because all the toy stores closed, I designed and built my own toys from paper,” Muhammad told Syria Deeply in his family’s cramped three-room apartment.

As soon as school reopened in 2013, Muhammad was eager to show his teachers the projects he’d been working on at home. The staff at the al-Rajaa school in Aleppo were thoroughly impressed with Muhammad’s talent.

“They and my father really encouraged me to continue,” said Muhammad.

Later that year, the school his mother taught at nearby was hit by shelling. Although she mother managed to escape with only minor injuries, the trauma surrounding the incident drove Muhammad further into his creative pursuits.

“I spent three to four months working on my first model. I designed and built what I believe modern Aleppo will look like after the fall of the regime. After we rebuild our city. There are tall buildings, beautiful streets, cars and trees,” Muhammad told Syria Deeply.

“I also collected [pieces of ] shrapnel and added them to the model and added words like ‘This killed my friend,’ or ‘This killed my relative.’”

With so many positive responses to his hopeful portrayal of the war-torn city, the young architect has said he’s decided to begin a new project – this time, incorporating the entire province of Aleppo.

He said the latest model – complete with streets, bridges, schools and mosques, in addition to neighboring towns and villages – is the culmination of a month’s worth of work.

“The second exhibition was a turning point for me,” said Muhammad.

“An organization in the city of Aleppo was very impressed with my work. They asked to show my work in an exhibition in Gaziantep, Turkey – so now I’m preparing for the trip. Hopefully my new models will be even better than my last ones.”

Muhammad’s father Wael is determined to prevent the war from killing his son’s talent. The boy’s talents have always far surpassed his age, he says, and he’ll be damned if they go to waste.

But Muhammad’s dreams go beyond the building of mere models – he hopes that one day he’ll be able to help rebuild Syria anew – a vision and skill he’s already been practicing with his models. “I want to be an architect. I want to help build my city and make it like other developed cities,” he said.

Top image: Muhammad Qteish, 14, uses one of three rooms in his families cramped Aleppo apartments to create his hopeful visions of a future Syria. (Tamer Osman/Syria Deeply)

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