A SYRIAN MUM-of-five battled bombs, snipers and spiralling inflation to make the best glasses in war-torn Afrin.

On the eve of civil war that tore Khulood Mamkalo’s life apart, the optician was making 25 pairs of glasses a day.

She had her own shop in the heart of Afrin, a city 60km northwest of Aleppo - bought when she was 20-years-old by her proud father. Business was booming. By 2011, she employed two others - and had a lab where she cut her own lenses.

Four years later, Khulood was fleeing south to the Syrian capital Damascus - telling her five children to close their eyes and sleep as a succession of heavily-armed soldiers boarded their bus.

In the years in between, Khulood watched as her business floundered, her friends died - and her country split apart in a brutal civil war that continues to claim lives in her hometown.

“The war ruined everything,” said 37-year-old Khulood, who arrived in Swindon 18 months ago after a terrifying two-week journey.

Born to a well-off family, Khulood was the second oldest - helping her younger brothers and sisters with their schoolwork. “My father bought a big house for his family,” she said. “There were always people, sometimes staying with us.”

She graduated second in her class from Aleppo’s Health Institute. Her professor asked Khulood if she would come and work with him, but Khulood struck out alone. In 2000, aged just 20, she opened up her own shop in the heart of her home city Afrin.

She had little competition, said husband Abdin Omar, 41, who first set eyes on his future wife when he visited the shop on the pretence of booking his grandfather an eye appointment.

“Before Khulood’s store, people were going to Aleppo city from their villages to get their glasses or for their eye tests,” he said.

“After she opened, customers were coming from all around Afrin.”

Khulood says she built a strong following by focussing on customer service - and spending “a lot” on advertising.

In her light, modern shop she let would-be clients pick up pairs of glasses and try them on.

“If you want to open a shop you need a smiley face,” she said. “People liked the deal. When people came in, they felt comfortable - then they said, ‘I will send my brother, I will send my sister’.

“With this customer service, I built my business.”

At the height of her success, she was selling hundreds of pairs of glasses a month. For common prescriptions she was able to have a new pair of glasses ready within an hour. More unusual lenses had to be bought in from nearby Aleppo.

“Every day we made about 25 pairs of glasses,” she said. “It was a very busy shop.”

The business was not immediately hit by the fallout from the Arab Spring, which spread across the Middle East from December 2010.

When the demonstrations erupted in Damascus and Aleppo in spring 2011, northerly Afrin was initially unaffected.

That changed as Aleppo became a key battleground the following year. The ancient city was divided between government forces loyal to President Assad and a motley of rebel armies.

The fighting split up Khulood’s family. Her husband, an experienced geologist, was stuck in Aleppo - while Khulood and her five children lived in Afrin. The battle for Aleppo, in which an estimated 31,000 people have died, also had devastating consequences for Khulood’s burgeoning business.

“I built my business, I built my future. But the war destroyed everything,” she said.

Prices rose as hyperinflation hit. The round-trip to Aleppo for more specialist lenses that once took less than two hours now took 20. Check point soldiers would steal and smash Khulood’s stock.

Electricity supplies were unreliable, forcing Khulood to cut the glass lenses by hand. She remembers cutting one pair of lenses for an elderly gentleman: “I didn’t have enough electric power to make my machine work.

“They’re small machines – very old machines. It would usually take five minutes, but it took one-and-a-half hours to make it manually.

“The glasses were for an old man. He couldn’t see anything without his glasses.”

Life at the height of the civil war was hard. When the couple’s eldest daughter turned eight in 2014 the family scoured the Afrin for the ingredients to make a birthday cake. “In all the city, they couldn’t get one kilo of flour for a cake,” said husband Abdin.

Returning to Afrin after visiting Abdin in Aleppo, Khulood and her five children had to make the terrifying dash along “The Cross”.

Like Sarajevo’s infamous “Sniper Alley”, The Cross was the dividing line between government-controlled west Aleppo and the rebel-held east. Stretching a third of a mile, hundreds of civilians were gunned down trying to cross it.

Khulood and her children almost didn’t make it across. As they ran along The Cross, a man was shot next to them. “The children were shouting, ‘Somebody has died’,” Khulood said.

Abdin got out of Syria ahead of his family. Crossing into Turkey, he was smuggled into Greece on a boat packed with 45 other refugees.

Over the space of half a year, Khulood attempted to make the same journey six times with her five young children. In winter, temperatures along the mountainous border between Syria and Turkey can plummet below zero – made worse by the freezing snow.

On one occasion, the children were forced to listen as an old man they were walking with was taken behind a tree and kicked unconscious by soldiers.

“He had blood coming down his head,” said Khulood – who was forced to flee, half carrying the man, as the soldiers aimed their guns just above her children’s heads.

She says her children – now safely at school in North Swindon – still have nightmares about the war: “All of them have problems when they are sleeping at night. All of them are afraid. They say, ‘Mummy, the bombs are coming’. When there’s an aeroplane in the sky and they’re playing outside, they all run in.”

After her sixth attempt to flee across the Turkish border failed, Khulood was ready to give up. Husband Abdin was insistent and secured permission – via the Red Cross – for his family to join him in the UK.

The journey along the newly-opened bomb-pitted road to Damascus took 20 hours. It was interrupted by militia checkpoints and soldiers barging onto the bus. Khulood said: “Soldiers came into the bus and they had many bombs, weapons and guns. My children were afraid. I said, ‘Sleep, don’t look at the soldiers, don’t look at the bombs.’”

In Damascus, she stayed with a family for 10 days while the International Organisation for Migration, the Red Cross and British Consulate in Lebanon arranged flights to Heathrow.

Now living in North Swindon, Khulood is keen to return to her former career as an optician. Despite her experience, larger firms have been reluctant to offer Khulood volunteer roles or jobs – due to her English.

Khulood, who speaks Arabic, Kurdish and English, hopes that a language course at Swindon College will help her back into her old career.

Later this year, she expects to start volunteering at the Great Western Hospital’s eye clinic – supported by Broadgreen-based Harbour Project’s Steps2Work scheme, which aims to get skilled refugees back into work.

“Swindon is a very quiet place,” she smiled. “It’s a safe place and people here are all helpful. My children like their school and they have a lot of friends.”

But she remains fearful for her family. War returned to Afrin in January, with the Turkish government shelling the Kurdish-dominated city.

Tearful as he remembers his home city – famous across Syria for its olive oil and known by locals as a “Small Paris” – Abdin said: “This area was the safest in all Syria - and now it’s the most dangerous.

“They call us [Kurds] pigs.”

Khulood shows a picture on her phone of a school in the city – ripped apart by a bomb. “I was talking to my father five days ago,” she said. “While we were talking I could hear bombing outside. My cousin said to me, ‘We have to leave, we have to go underground’.”

Despite the bombing raids that force an entire city into underground shelters, Khulood’s 72-year-old father refuses to flee: “He says, ‘I won’t leave my land, my village. If I live, I will live here – or I will die. I don’t want to move.’”