Singing for Syria: Carols by Candlelight

Hadia Almahli speaking at the concertOn Wednesday 29th November the Cathedral hosted 'Singing for Syria: Carols by Candlelight', an Advent Carol Service raising money for the Hands Up Foundation.

It was wonderful to see such a large audience at the concert, including members of staff and students from Christ Church, as well as the general public. As well as congregational carols, there was a range of music performed by students at Christ Church. The College Choir, directed by Christ Church Junior Organ Scholar Makoto James, sang Vaughan Williams' arrangement of 'The truth sent from above' and Rutter's 'What sweeter music', joining with the Christ Church String Orchestra to perform Finzi's 'In terra pax', in which the soloists were Sofia Kirwan-Baez and James Jenkins. The Christ Church String Orchestra also performed the 'Elegie' from Tchaikovsky's 'Serenade for Strings'. 

The highlight of the evening was the address, given by Dr Hadia Almahli. Hadia is currently a visiting academic in the University of Oxford's Department of Chemistry, and has been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Christ Church since 2015. She came to Oxford as part of a scheme to provide refuge to academics fleeing the civil war at Syria, coordinated by the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara). Prior to arriving in the UK, she graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy, Aleppo University, and was selected by a Franco-Syrian fellowship programme to pursue her higher education in France. She obtained her Master's and PhD in Medicinal Chemistry in 2010 from the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Paris XI. She then undertook postdoctoral training in the Chemistry of Natural Substances Institute (ICSN) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. She then returned to Syria to begin her academic career and teach in the Faculty of Pharmacy at Aleppo University. Due to the war in Syria she was forced to move to Egypt in 2013, where she worked for two years at the Egyptian University as an Assistant Professor, before being awarded a fellowship at the University of Oxford in 2015, to enable her to pursue her scientific research and her academic career. 

In a moving speech, Hadia gave an insight into life in Syria during the civil war, including the horrors and deprivation that she and her family witnessed on a daily basis, and spoke of how she and her family had lost everything when they fled Syria to escape the violence. Hadia told us of her difficult choice to leave her ill parents in order to continue with her academic study, and how her decision was influenced by her desire to support them financially and hopefully be able to one day bring them to the UK. Hadia's family has now been spread across the world due to the conflict in Syria, after her brothers and sisters, who are all medical doctors and pharmacists, lost their pharmacies and clinics in Syria. She has not seen her parents since 2013, except on Skype, and spoke emotionally of her wish to see them again and help them to live safely once more. Her greatest dream is to return to her homeland to contribute to building a new and peaceful Syria. Hadia's speech was incredibly poignant and affecting, as she told the congregation her story and gave an unparalleled glimpse into the reality of surviving the conflict in Syria. 

The Hands Up Foundation is a charity set up by four British friends who were inspired by their time in Damascus and wanted to remind their friends in Syria that they have not been forgotten. Their aim is to raise money and awareness through creative fundraising initiatives. The concert was part of an initiative called 'Singing for Syrians', a fundraising initiative that encourages individuals, bands, choirs, schools and churches across the UK to raise the roof and as much money as possible by holding a singing event as part of a wider initiative. The concert formed part of this initiative, and all of the money raised from ticket sales and the retiring collection will go to support the Hands Up Foundation and its work raising awareness and funds for those affected by the war in Syria. 

Photos from the concert are available in the gallery below. Read this blog post to find out more about Hadia and her story so far.