ALEPPO — Like many boys his age, Muhammad loves to draw.
Already known for his artistic talents in his hometown of Aleppo, the largest and probably hardest-hit city in Syria, the 14-year-old boy now has something to show the world.
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 bomb his neighborhood in the city's Salah al-Din district, 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 fill 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.
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Rising from the ashes and imagination. Photo: Tamer Osman
"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 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 says. "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 vows not to let them 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, wanting to see Aleppo at the level of top cities in the developed world. "I want to be an architect," he declares. "I want to help build my city." This designer's vision will require more than bricks and mortar to bring it to life.