RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Where you grow up plays a huge role in the person you become. For the past few weeks, we've been exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls around the world. NPR's Jason Beaubien brings us the story of a teenage girl in Beirut and a choice that so many young people face, stay at home or build a life somewhere else.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Fifteen-year-old Lea Hatouni lives in the Christian section of the Lebanese capital with her family in a cramped walk-up apartment.
LEA HATOUNI: So there is two rooms, one for my parents and one for their five kids.
BEAUBIEN: In many ways, Lea is like a lot of other teenagers around the world. She likes music and hanging out with her friends and painting her nails dark blue. She fantasizes about getting her own bedroom.
LEA: Yes, I always dream to have my own room (laughter) with big closets full of dresses. And I have my own window and my bathroom (laughter). Yes.
BEAUBIEN: But there's an edge to these adolescent dreams. The war in Syria is raging just 50 miles to the west. Her own city still bears the scars of a civil war that split Beirut along religious lines. Lea sees this fragile world around her and understands that to achieve her goals here, she's got to focus.
LEA: After school, we don't have, like, a lot of time to waste. We need to study.
BEAUBIEN: Lea wants to show us the other major force in her life besides school.
LEA: This is the church, the St. George Church.
BEAUBIEN: St. George's is just a few blocks from her apartment. Lea is part of the youth group here and says she comes here regularly to pray.
LEA: When I come here, it's like a time where I can stay with myself and talk to God. And I tell him I'm sorry if I did something wrong. And it makes me feel better. Yeah.
BEAUBIEN: As she talks, Lea is standing under portraits of the apostles. Saints' faces are painted on a special paper that can be peeled off, rolled up and speared into safety if the church is attacked. This isn't just paranoia. Many churches were desecrated during Lebanon's civil war. That conflict turned Beirut in the 1980s into one of the most dangerous places on Earth. In a way, Lea Hatouni is a product of that war. Her father fled the fighting. He ended up in Brazil, where he fell in love with Lea's mom, Eni.
MICHEL HATOUNI: No, really, really, she was very beautiful, with beautiful hair.
BEAUBIEN: The two of them still joke about who pursued who first.
ENI HATOUNI: You loved me (speaking foreign language).
BEAUBIEN: You loved me, she says.
M. HATOUNI: No, no, no. She - (laughter).
BEAUBIEN: From her mother, Lea learned Portuguese. Like a lot of students in Beirut, Lea also speaks English, French and Arabic. This international city has nurtured her love for languages. After college, Lea's plan is to become a translator, travel the world. Her mom isn't entirely enthusiastic about this.
E. HATOUNI: Lea - a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl. (Speaking foreign language).
BEAUBIEN: Eni says Lea is beautiful but innocent. She doesn't want her daughter going abroad until she's much older, maybe in her late 20s. Lea smiles in a noncommittal way as her mother says this. Later, away from her mom, walking through a small park near her apartment, Lea talks confidently about becoming a translator. In her mind, her career is playing out like a movie that's set outside of Lebanon.
LEA: I think if I go outside Lebanon, it's better. I'll have a better job. Yeah because Lebanon is like, whatever you - you're working in, you don't have a great job. You're not happy about it.
BEAUBIEN: Like her father before her, Lea is preparing to leave here in search of a better life. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Beirut.
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