* * *
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.
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“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.
“If I continue my studies, I can find a way to help rebuild my country,” she says. “That’s why I stay up late ... to practice my writing, to practice anything.”
But since fleeing to Lebanon, she’s barely been able to stay in school. For the past five months she’s been enrolled in a UNHCR-funded school, but she fears the education won’t be enough to get her back to where she was: “able to think normally, to dream normally.”
For a recent homework assignment, her teacher asked her to write about a favorite film or friend. She says she wrote instead about the only thing she really knows—her home on a hill back in Syria, surrounded by white flowers and tall trees.
“Our home in Syria is an abandoned castle,” she says in a near whisper, reciting lines from memory. “We lived in it like kings. Now we’re abandoned and humiliated. We have no crowns, but our hearts still wear them.”
This reporting was made possible in part through support from UNHCR.