She has perfectly painted, bright pink nails. She squeezes them into my neck as she hugs my face close to hers – the tightest hug I have ever experienced. It’s hard to focus on the interview I am meant to be doing as she kisses me on the cheek. The words being said, and then translated, wash over me despite my efforts to concentrate as I sit on a long flat cushion on the floor with her arms around my neck, struggling to breathe.
Some words are mumbled in Arabic in my ear and my translator, Michael, accepting the interview has taken on a new direction – and a new interviewee – tells me she is saying that she likes my hair. She doesn’t get many visitors.
Her name is Yara and she is 10-years-old. In other circumstances I doubt she would pay much attention to the stranger visiting her aunt and uncle. But this is her life. And someone, anyone, new to temporarily interrupt the monotony of that life in a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is a welcome guest.
Yara is one of approximately two million children who have fled Syria since the war began five years ago. She now lives with her aunt, uncle and their four young daughters in this tent. There is a stove in the middle of the room – which is the living room, dining room, playroom, bedroom. The cushion I am sitting on is also a bed.
Including children like Yara, there are more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered as living in Lebanon. It’s likely that counting unregistered refugees, that number is well over 1.5 million. Lebanon is smaller than Wales. The Lebanese government is doing everything it can to generously welcome the Syrians living within its borders, while taking care of its Lebanese citizens, but it’s impossible for the existing infrastructure to accommodate the needs of such a huge influx of people in such a short space of time.
Travelling across to Beirut, it’s possible to forget the crisis – or more correctly the people – that have fled neighbouring Syria and are now resident in this beautiful country. Although hundreds of thousands of Syrians have settled in the city, its metropolitan centre has managed to appear, on the surface at least, unaffected. Stretching ever upwards in tall, uniform, towers, its designer shops continue to sell to upper class customers and its luxurious restaurants remain filled with fashionable and attractive diners.
I enjoy a sizeable portion of bread and hummus in a beautiful eatery with big windows and simple but stylish furnishings. It should stick in my throat a little as I think of Yara and her family, and the many other families I have met this week. And yet it slides down quite easily, along with a healthy dose of guilt. Some wine. Grown in the same valley Yara’s family’s tent now squats. Their life seems worlds away from the glamorous city in which I now find myself.
But despite appearances, the city is not immune to the human suffering present in the cracks. Schools have started to run double shifts to try and make space for Syrian children to attend. The need for additional education is being met by churches – which are becoming schools, as well as food banks, day care centres and NGOs.
And still, children like Yara have nothing to do and risk falling prey to extremists or becoming victims of child marriage to save them from something worse.
No one can tell me exactly what happened to Yara’s parents. It’s implied that her dad left. Her mum? No one says. Perhaps, like so many, a victim of the war. Yara’s uncle and aunt receive food packages from a local church that help them to survive, supplementing an income of £4 a day from working in the vineyards.
Yara has big, sad, dark eyes. It’s a cliché, but they’re adult’s eyes. Eyes that have seen war, known loss, cried until there are no tears left to cry. She’s acting like a kid around me, with her big smiles, even bigger hugs, grabbing my hand and wanting photos of the two of us. But when your whole world is ripped apart by war, your childhood is one of the first things to go.
She and her cousins have been out of school since they fled Syria three years ago. In fact, Yara is probably the only one who has ever been to school at all. I interview her in the heat of the day and ask her about her life, and her hopes and dreams for it. She keeps telling me: “I miss Syria, I miss my school.”
The hundreds of thousands of Syrian children missing out on education – in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and beyond – are perhaps the greatest tragedy of this seemingly endless war. They are the future of their county, unable to forge anything lasting, sat in the dust outside a UN tent. Outside their country. More than homesick or traumatised, most of them just seem bored. Unable to learn. Unable to go home. Unable to choose.
And when you meet these children, these families, these humans, and you realise what they’ve lost in the hope of just staying alive, it’s hard to understand how we in the UK can call them a ‘crisis’. How we can have anything but compassion for these victims of war.
There’s only so many things you can carry across the border when you’re forced to flee. But your dignity should be one of them.