A Teen Who Fled Syria Had High Hopes For Her Life In Lebanon: #15Girls : Goats and Soda Fatmeh is one of hundreds of thousands of children who have fled Syria with their families. In Lebanon, she works in the fields up to 14 hours a day, clinging to her dream of going to college.

A Teen Who Fled Syria Had High Hopes For Her Life In Lebanon: #15Girls

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War brings many different kinds of destruction. Lives, homes, dreams can all fall apart. For 15-year-old Fatmeh, one day, she's a top student at her school in Syria, college-bound. Now she's a refugee in Lebanon caught in a situation she never could have imagined. NPR's Jason Beaubien brings us her story as part of our series exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls around the world.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Fatmeh has just finished her morning's work.

FATMEH: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: She's sitting on the floor of her family's tarp-covered shack in a makeshift refugee camp.

FATMEH: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: She reaches over, a mischievous glint in her brown eyes, and lifts the cloth flap that serves as a wall.

FATMEH: (Speaking Arabic). Look at the furthest neighbor. Look how close he is. This is the furthest.

BEAUBIEN: Every day, she hears husbands arguing with wives, kids being scolded. She can smell the food of families around her. She laughs as she tells us this, but it's a dark laugh.

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) There is nothing funny here. You expect a funny story in our lives. There's nothing funny here.

BEAUBIEN: Fatmeh and her family fled the civil war in Syria three years ago. Her family has asked that we not0 use their last name out of fears for her safety. Fatmeh says this life is not what she planned.

FATMEH: (Through interpret) When I come here to Lebanon, I would study here, go to school here, and then I become an Arabic language teacher here. And then when I go back to Syria, my dream would have been achieved.

BEAUBIEN: She says she has to go. She needs to take care of her younger brother. The next day, we go to look for Fatmeh at her job. It's a Saturday morning in freshly plowed potato field. About three dozen Syrian refugees trail behind a tractor. It's hard to tell which one is Fatmeh. Many of the women and girls have wrapped scarves across their faces to keep out the sun and the dust. Most of the crew are children. Even Fatmeh's 7-year-old sister works here.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: Each time the tractor plows another row of potatoes, the children scramble in the dirt to grab them.

NAZIR YASIM: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: The foreman...

YASIM: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: ...Nazir Yasim, yells at the kids to move faster.

YASIM: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: Yasim carries something the kids call the stick. It's a still piece of irrigation hose. A boy slows down for a moment. Yasim walks over, and then he smacks him with the black plastic pipe.

BEAUBIEN: Why are you hitting him with that?

YASIM: (Through interpreter) Oh, don't worry about the sticks. It doesn't hurt your body. The sticks make the kids scared and work harder. Don't worry about them.

BEAUBIEN: Yasim is not just the foreman. His father owns these fields and the land where the refugees live. He tells us Fatmeh was here earlier, but she had a nosebleed or something, he says, and went home early. She gets sick all the time, he says. She's not a reliable worker.


BEAUBIEN: Fatmeh is resting back at her family's shelter. She tells us that sometimes she likes to record herself singing. She goes and gets her cell phone.

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) Now I will let you hear a song I recorded because it's nice.


FATMEH: (Singing in Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: This song is about her love for Syria.


FATMEH: (Singing in Arabic).

(Laughter, through interpreter) My life in Syria was really very nice, very beautiful. I swear to God. It was really nice. We used to go to school every day.

BEAUBIEN: She says their house was big and surrounded by a garden. Her father taught high school. Her mother looked after the family. Fatmeh had her own computer. Her life was all about school - class, friends, homework. She loved Arabic literature. Then one day, the fighting of the civil war became unbearable.

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) The house next to ours was bombed, so our house was about to be bombed.

BEAUBIEN: So they ran out the door, Fatmeh and her older sister clutching their younger sibling.

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) Bombs and fighting were everywhere. We lost some people. We lost our neighbor, our cousin and the husband of our aunt. So we left to survive.

BEAUBIEN: They fled with only the clothes on their backs, scurrying on foot west towards Lebanon. At the border, they heard about a camp on a farmer's land where they could stay. Once they got here, the landowner lent them money for wood and tarps to build a shelter. He offered them food from his store on credit. Then the landlord demanded his money back. They paid with the only thing they had - their labor. But their work in his fields doesn't even cover their daily expenses. Their debt, they say, is about $2,000 and rising.

FADEL YASSINE: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: We went to see the landowner. Fadel Yassine is sitting behind the counter of his small shop not far from Fatmeh's tent. Cans of peas and processed meats are stacked on the shelved behind him. Yassine is proud of what he's done for the refugees.

YASSINE: (Through interpreter) These people need help. They can't survive anymore without help.

BEAUBIEN: Yassine wants to show us how generous he's been to the refugees. He pulls out a black ledger.

YASSINE: (Through interpreter) This is my daily diary. Look at this.

BEAUBIEN: He records in it the debt of the hundreds of refugees living on his property. He waves a lit cigarette as he flips through the pages.

YASSINE: (Through interpreter) For example, we have Damran, a Syrian refugee. He owes me 1,750,000 Lebanese lira, which is almost 900 U.S. dollars.

BEAUBIEN: This book shows that everyone is in debt. Is that what you're saying?

YASSINE: (Through interpreter) This is right. Look; look. I have been patient with them. But their debt is growing, and I need my money.

BEAUBIEN: For every day Fatmeh works in his fields, he subtracts $8 from her family's debt. All of this is illegal. Most Syrian refugees aren't allowed to work in Lebanon. Kids can't either. But Yassine says this is crazy.

YASSINE: (Through interpreter) So what do you expect me to do, let them starve? When you see the truck carrying the workers, you see who they are - small, small, small children just working to get their food.

BEAUBIEN: Later in the afternoon when that truck does come back from the fields, the small children pile out.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Speaking Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: The children lead us through the makeshift shacks towards the edge of the camp. They want to show us something - their school. Fatmeh watches with a tightlipped smile.

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) In their eyes, it is the only school because they don't go to a school. But this is not a school.

BEAUBIEN: There are no formal classes. It's just a tent erected by an aid group, a place for kids to hang out. Fatmeh hasn't gone to school a single day in three years.

Do you think you will be able to go back to school - at some time, you'll be able to go back?

FATMEH: (Through interpreter) Hope - there is very small, small hope. But I really want to go to school because work, work, work - life is not only about work.

BEAUBIEN: You the younger girls call us into the tent. They want to sing us a song.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: The kids sit in a neat row, beaming. But the song is actually about the tragedy of Syria's civil war and the loss of childhood. As Fatmeh watches, you can see in her face that she realizes something at 15 that these younger girls don't yet know. There is no end in sight for this refugee life.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Arabic).

BEAUBIEN: The foreman from the potato fields sticks his head into the tent. As the song ends, he sneers at the girls and says, today, you sing, but tomorrow, you'll be back in the fields. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And that story was produced by Rebecca Davis.

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