Girl burned in tent fire beating the odds – but mum says she’s shunned by society


Dalal is the little Syrian girl they never thought would survive.

Now four years old, despite horrific burn scars and no hands she is confounding the doctors, her family and everyone who knows her, all over again.

We watch as she concentrates hard on manoeuvring a pen between the stumps which she’s been left with. It is tough work for the little girl with no fingers.

She’s bent right over the paper she’s working on, trying hard to write her name as well as simple numbers. We notice she can manage to draw outlines which resemble hearts.

Dalal’s mother says other children ‘scream in fear’ and they are struggling to get her into school

This young girl so badly mutilated by fire has a big heart herself despite her physical disadvantages.

Her eyesight’s not brilliant either, with heavy skin scarring all over her face making it hard to open them fully. Dalal’s skull is bald but for tufts of hair at her nape.

But her older sisters, Gazal and Hala, tie the little hair she has into a ponytail like theirs.

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Doctors fought for months to save Dalal’s life not really believing they would succeed or she would have the strength for the multiple operations she needed to pull through.

When we first saw her, she was swathed from head to toe in bandages and had many horrific burns.

Dalal, 18 months old at the time, was pulled out of the fire barely alive

Eighteen-month-old Dalal suffered severe burns in a tent fire in Syria

We first reported on her when she was a baby. Fire had ripped through her family’s tent, which had been pitched in a field in northwest Syria in the middle of the winter of 2021.

Her family had fled their home in Idlib province and were close to the Turkish border – along with tens of thousands of others trying to escape the regime bombing and fighting between Bashar al Assad’s troops, anti-regime groups and other militias.

The winter was bitter and the temperature in their tent near to freezing. There was a fire stove the adults lit to try to keep the family of six small children warm. But somehow the tent caught fire.

Her eldest sister, Yasmin, who was about 10, desperately tried to save Dalal, who was then a baby. But Yasmin was quickly overwhelmed by flames and smoke and could not be resuscitated.

Dalal and her dad
Dalal’s dad stayed with her as she underwent numerous operations in Turkey

Four of her younger siblings managed to scramble to safety or were helped out, but Dalal was already engulfed in flames. By the time she was pulled out, she was horrifically burned and barely alive.

Turkish authorities gave permission for her to be whisked across the border as a medical emergency and she was raced to Mersin hospital – unaccompanied by any family members at this stage.

A team of doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to save her.

‘Skin black like cole’

Lead surgeon Dr Cagatay Demirci told me then he never believed they’d be able to save her. She was so badly injured; her burns were so deep and she was so young, the challenges seemed insurmountable.

Her skin was “black like coal in many places”, the doctor said.

“Our team went to work on her and did what we could, but we left that night thinking she would not make it through the night,” he said at the time.

“But when we came back in the morning, she was still here, still alive. And we thought okay, this baby wants to live.”

Dr Cagatay Demirci with Dalal in 2021
Dr Demirci (with Dalal in 2021) says she’ll need many more surgeries as she grows

And as she continued to pull through each complex operation – and there have been many – she confounded everybody. They called her the “miracle baby”.

But surgeons couldn’t save her fingers and had to amputate all her digits. Her face was terribly burned, the flames eating away at her eyelids, lips, hair, ears and hair follicles and feet.

Dr Demirci said then: “She will need many, many operations throughout her whole childhood as she grows and develops.”

Sky’s coverage of her astonishing survival was spotted by a single mum in Britain who was so moved by Dalal’s tale of tragedy and endurance, she set up a JustGiving page.

Within a few weeks, Lisa Cavey saw tens of thousands of pounds had been raised which would pay for an entirely new life for Dalal’s family.

First her father, Abdul Fattah, travelled to Turkey and stayed with her for months as she had operation after operation.

When it became apparent her survival depended being out of the Syrian battlefield and remaining in Turkey to receive medical help, the donations ensured passports were organised and funded the rest of the family.

Dalal has been having laser surgery

Turkish authorities agreed her heavily pregnant mother and four siblings could join her.

The money helped pay rent for the family, now living as refugees in southern Turkey alongside four million other Syrians who fled the war across the border. It also contributed to medical help – because Dalal is likely to need multiple operations for years to come.

Ms Cavey has been in regular contact with the family ever since. “I cried when I saw the news report about Dalal,” she told me.

“Being a mother myself, I realised that could have been my daughter. They are of a similar age.

“I just felt it was so wrong that this had happened, and the family were in this situation through no fault of their own. I felt compelled to take some action.”

A Turkish-based charity called INARA, set up and run by journalist Arwa Damon, took on Dalal’s case and helped connect her with doctors and physiotherapists who’ve been helping her with her injuries ever since.

“Dalal’s case is exactly why I founded INARA,” she explained.

Dalal and her family
Dalal’s family are in Turkey alongside four million other Syrians who fled the war

“To be an organisation that is willing and able to take on complex cases that require critical surgeries over the course of a child’s development,” adds Ms Damon.

“Often, what I saw from my experience in war zones is that these children tend to fall through the cracks in access to medical care or do not receive the many surgeries they need and as such end up relegated to a life in the shadows.

“INARA through its medical and mental health programme basically gives them the ability to see that their life is not over, that they do deserve and can be a part of society, even though it might be hard.”

Brave Dalal ‘not accepted’

But the war in Gaza, as well as the global economic downturn, has seen a depletion of public finances and much aid support for humanitarian groups diverted.

Doctors believe Dalal needs multiple expensive surgeries and are investigating if it’s possible to create fingers for her, perhaps by performing an intricate transplant of some of her toes to her hands.

Nothing has been decided yet as they explore the best options, but any surgery is expensive and Turkish authorities are dealing with inflation at around 70% and a crippling cost of living crisis.

Her mother, Fatima, is praying for more medical treatment for her daughter and describes heartbreaking moments in the playground when other children catch sight of Dalal.

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“They scream in fear,” she says. “She is not accepted by the society. That is a fact.” She says she’s struggling to get any school to admit Dalal for the same reason.

Dalal is astonishingly independent, shrugging off help as she pulls on socks herself using her stumps – and climbs up the kitchen doorframe positioning her severed arms to hold herself up.

Each achievement is applauded by her family – but her now five siblings tell us of the hours of frustration, the tears and anger too.

“She cuts salad with us,” her eldest sister Gazal says. “She wants to do everything but she cries and says ‘why don’t I have fingers?'”

Alex Crawford reports from Southern Turkey with cameraman Jake Britton, specialist producer Chris Cunningham and Syria producer Mahmoud Mosa.

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