Entering the Ghazieh collective shelter in south Lebanon, I was struck by the conditions: women, men, the elderly, children, babies were all packed into small rooms rented for US$300 a month. They live in horrendous conditions – with no access to cooking facilities or decent sanitation.
I was in one of the many locations across Lebanon where Syrian refugee families have moved into empty buildings, garages and other structures under construction to seek shelter. I was there to talk to Syrian children about their daily lives as refugees. A young girl caught my attention, but, as I approached her, she ran towards the neighbours’ room. A few minutes later she came back and stared at me, but she didn’t want to speak, so I started talking with some of the women present.
Half an hour later, the girl – whose name turned out to be Yasmeen* – came to me and told me that she wanted to tell me her story. “I came here from Syria three years ago with my little brother, with my uncle. My parents stayed behind to take care of my siblings. I am 14 years old now, and my brother is 12. Can you imagine? I was only 11 and he was 9 when life put us on the road of exile.”
Yasmeen grew angrier as she spoke: “I used to go to school in Syria and was among the best students. I left school and fled with my brother without knowing anything of this world. Do you know how a girl feels when her mother and father are not with her? Do you know how it feels that you have to work and manage alone when you are 12?”
As she talked, I thought about the thousands of unaccompanied minors who have fled Syria to different countries in the region. I thought of myself at her age. Yasmeen insisted I listen to her, as she told me about her daily life.
“I wake up at 4 a.m. and work for 10 hours for US$6. I come back and do domestic work, cook until sunset and then I go to sleep. Look at my hands from all the work; they are as rough as rocks, my back aches.
“I have been here for three years, but it feels like one long day. Every day is the same, nothing new happens. You have to work, you have to survive and you have to pay rent. Is this a life worth living?”
I asked her what she was afraid of, and she told me – of life, and of the world.
“At night, I think about my family and worry about them getting killed in Syria. I worry very much about them. I worry that anything might happen to me or to my brother. I feel like I am 20 years old. I can’t carry all these worries. I am still too young.”
Soha Boustani is Chief of Communication, UNICEF Lebanon.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.