Syria’s brutal civil war has cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians—men, women and children. It would have cost even more were it not for the life-saving efforts of Dr. Amani Ballour, the heroine of Feras Fayyad’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave.
Dr. Amani, who trained as a pediatrician, ran a subterranean hospital in Eastern Ghouta, an area outside Damascus that came under relentless attack from Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. For her work she was recently awarded the Council of Europe’s Raoul Wallenberg Prize, named for the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II.
“Dr. Amani Ballour is a shining example of the empathy, virtue and honor that can flourish even in the worst circumstances: in the midst of war and suffering,” the Council of Europe’s secretary general noted. “[She] risked her own safety and security to help those in the greatest need.”
“I feel very proud [to receive the award] because I believe in humanity and I like to help people in this way,” Dr. Amani, as she is generally called, tells Deadline. “This prize is famous and will highlight the Syrian issue. This will make more people around the world know what happened in Syria, know the truth. And that’s my goal, to tell the truth for the people.”
She shares that goal with the Syrian-born Fayyad, who also earned an Oscar nomination for his 2017 documentary about Syria, Last Men in Aleppo. With the help of a team of cinematographers, Fayyad began documenting the immense challenges facing Dr. Amani. But first he had to overcome her initial reservations.
“I said no at the beginning,” the doctor recalls. “When Feras suggested this idea, actually it was dangerous for me to accept because the Assad regime and Russia were targeting hospitals…and I was the manager of the hospital and responsible for everything.”
Filmmaker and subject struck an agreement that the documentary could go forward so long as it didn’t interfere with Dr. Amani’s primary mission. The film captures the physician’s decisive action when the facility was bombed and her prescient efforts to reinforce it beforehand, as well as her response to chemical attacks that killed and injured dozens of civilians and jeopardized medical staff that came in contact with the victims. Multiple scenes show her remarkable ability to calm and soothe wounded children traumatized by war.
Dr. Amani’s male colleagues voted to make her chief of the hospital, but in such a patriarchal society she faced resistance from traditionalists who objected to a woman being in charge.
“Men in our community, they say, ‘No, you should be at home, or you can work in your clinic, but not to be a manager of the hospital,’” Dr. Amani remembers. “I insist and I want to challenge them and prove that a woman can [do this work]…I have to support women because if I succeed, all women will be supported. That will make men think that of course women can succeed and they can do that.”
Growing up, Amani’s career aspirations were circumscribed even by those closest to her, she says.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be an engineer. But actually my family, all of them say, ‘No, you are a girl. You cannot be an engineer.’ So I studied medicine after that,” she comments. “I didn’t like it at the beginning. But after about three years, I liked it. And I decided to be a pediatrician because I like children and I want to help people and to help sick children.”
In a key scene in The Cave, Dr. Amani comforts a young girl wounded in an attack, telling her she will be okay and encouraging her to think about what she wants to become one day.
“Every day some children died [at the hospital] and I wanted to say to her that, ‘You will survive and you have to think of the future. You can be teacher, you can be doctor,’” Dr. Amani explains. “This is very important to me because no one said that to me when I was child. No one said to me that I have rights. No one said to me that I can be an important person in the future…All the people around me, they said, ‘You can get married and have children and work in the home.’ This is the idea about women, and all the time I was wondering why I can’t [do something else], why do I have to get married, what kind of life is this? I don’t want this life.”
Dr. Amani was forced to flee Syria in 2018 after the Syrian government and allied forces crushed the last bit of resistance in Eastern Ghouta.
“The leader of the Russia army said to the people, ‘You should leave by buses or we will kill all of you.’ We had no choice. We were forced to leave,” she reveals. “I was very sad at that time and actually I cried a lot when we left. In Al-Ghouta are our memories, our dreams. I was born in Al-Ghouta and grew up there and I like the hospital. I like the Cave. I can’t find words to describe what I felt that time.”
Dr. Amani is living for now in Turkey, where she has refugee status. She hopes to resettle in Canada possibly; the United States is not a possibility because of Trump administration restrictions on immigration from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries.
In the meantime, she has started working for a European foundation, noting, “We aim to help and empower women in conflict zones, to support women leaders, to support the children also.”
She has applied for a visa to come to the U.S. to attend the Oscars with director Fayyad, but whether that will come through remains uncertain. As for her long-term plans…
“I will study, because I really care about that. I may study radiology or something like that,” she mentions. Dr. Amani doesn’t see herself continuing with pediatrics, finding that idea too difficult to conceive after all she has been through.
“Now I will be working to support women,” she affirms. “I can’t continue to work with children. [The war] has traumatized me.”