Rawan gives up and hurries back upstairs to flip through her journal, adorned with images of flowers and rainbows, the stuff childhood is supposed to be made of. On the first page, she has sketched out verses from a song she says she heard long ago, but only now understands: “To live through the pain of alienation that no one knows until they’ve lived through it.”
* * *
Almost every day, and often in the same powder-blue trench coat, Manal takes a 20-minute bus ride to a small community center for Syrian refugees in southern Lebanon. She brings nothing but two journals. In their pages are crushed flower petals, now browned, from her favorite garden back in Damascus. “It’s quiet here ... I can think,” she says, sitting in a corner of the center. “There’s too much noise at home, too much noise everywhere.”
Manal and her family fled their Damascus suburb two years ago after two of her relatives were thrown into prison and brutally beaten. She had planned to enter university and study business, but like most young Syrian refugees, she’s been struggling to find a way to finance her studies in Lebanon. She and her family work as grocers at a local market, living paycheck to paycheck.
People at the center say she’s mysterious. She lingers around the doorway before she enters a room. And when she talks, she pauses between sentences as if she’s traversing dim corridors in her mind.
“She’s sensitive, very childlike,” says an English teacher at the center. “She has experienced a world of trauma.”
But it’s not only a brutal war that has worn her down. In the midst of adapting to an undersized life in Lebanon, Manal says she decided it was finally time to lift “the dark cloud that has always been over my eyes.”
A few months ago, she disclosed to her mother and a psychologist at the center that for most of her childhood, male relatives raped her. She and her mother have been undergoing therapy, but her father still doesn’t know. Her dream is to write a book about her experience and to counsel other women around the region.
“I want to be a bridge of hope over a sea of desperation,” she says, reciting poetry she’s written in her journals. “I want to help other women who’ve been through the same horror. They need to know it’s not their fault ... please tell them I said it’s not their fault.”
Staffers at the center say she’s progressed dramatically, but it’s a wound that’s slow to heal and is compounded by displacement from war. Manal says she has sought solace through writings by Gandhi and Mandela, learning that everyone has a power inside of them, and that life is ultimately about sharing that power.
“I’ve learned that no situation is permanent ... the sexual abuse, even the war, none of it is permanent,” she says. “After every darkness, there is a sun.”
But even in the darkness, she quickly clarifies, “There’s a moon. And sometimes there are even stars.”
* * *
Hani is something of a rock-star refugee. His near-perfect English (which he taught himself in part with translated Paulo Coehlo books) and unflappable charisma have made him a go-to for humanitarian aid agencies. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees even visited his family’s makeshift home, barely more than tarp draped across a wooden frame, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last spring.
“I don’t mind the attention ... it’s good for me to remind people that I’m here, I still exist ... I still dream,” he says, squinting uncomfortably. He suffers from a congenital cornea defect and is barely able to open his eyes outdoors. “But there’s only so much you can talk about your past. I’m no longer Syria Hani ... I’m figuring-it-out Hani.”
Back in Homs, Hani was a star student whom his teachers and classmates affectionately called “the robot” for his ability to answer questions quickly and almost always correctly. He won several writing and chess competitions, and played in a band called The Dreamers. A voracious reader, he’s read almost all of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s books (“I could eat them”) and has even incorporated the word “code” into his email address and online user names. He had plans to study engineering at a top Syrian university on a full scholarship. That was before his home was looted and burned, and before his cousins were murdered, their throats slit.
“Hani was and is our dream child,” his father says, covering his face in his hands. “His destiny is so much more than this.” Hani’s parents are desperately trying to procure enough funding, through either their salaries or scholarships, for him to study engineering at a private Lebanese university, but they can barely afford to maintain their home in a tented settlement. Still, the boundlessly jovial 21-year-old refuses to wallow in the widening gap between himself and the person he was meant to be.
“I have so much energy, so much life ... I know I’m a star,” he says. “Even if my light is dim right now, I’m still in the sky.”