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.”
* * *
In an abandoned onion-processing plant in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, newlyweds Mohammed and Hanaa sit on the floor of what they jokingly call the “best mansion in the land.” Their two-room makeshift apartment in what is now an impromptu garlic-storage and sales facility is a source of pride for the couple. Before their marriage last month, Mohammed gathered his life-savings, the equivalent of some $300, to rent the best accommodation for them. Most of their friends and relatives live in tents.
Mohammed and Hanaa arrived last year from Raqaa, Syria, now a stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “They stole our country,” says Hanaa. “But none of the sides are thinking about the Syrian people, so none of them will win what’s left of it.”
Mohammed had been studying social sciences at Aleppo University, where he was on track to begin his Ph.D. Hanaa had been studying humanities at Raqaa University, with plans to become a history teacher.
“I want to teach young people about Syria’s rich past,” she says. “The present is so ugly, but the past ... the past has beauty.”
The couple hopes to open an informal school in their settlement, but for now their days are filled with often-failed attempts to find well-paid day labor to maintain their home and save up for something better.
“Every day, we die a hundred deaths here. Just look at my face,” Hanaa exclaims, before heading out to work the potato fields with a gaggle of refugee women. “I didn’t always look so tired. I’m only 18!”
Her older sister, Zainab, lovingly pokes her. “You’re so dramatic,” she teases. “Don’t be lazy.”
“I never thought I’d spend my days picking potatoes,” Hanaa retorts, laughing uneasily. “This is my new life ... the Syrian Queen of Potatoes.”
She covers her hair, squeezes Mohammed’s hand, and sets off into the fields.
* * *
“Four,” Asma answers, staring blankly into the dusty distance. Since fleeing to Lebanon from the city of Idlib two years ago, Asma and her family of eight have lived in four different locations. She can’t even bring herself to call them homes. The family is currently nestled in northern Lebanon in a tiny three-room shed where her father has found semi-consistent work at a small cement business.
She has settled into her corner of the musty space as best she can, arranging the few belongings she owns—a pink brush, a red-beaded bracelet, and a few neon notebooks. But settling in is something to be avoided. Her father just received word from his boss that the family must move again by the end of the year. They have no idea where they’ll go.
Asma has always been a top student. Back in Idlib, her uncles and cousins were engineers and doctors. Many of them have died in the fighting.