It was a story that brought the NPR translator to tears.
As part of our series on 15-year-old girls around the world, reporter Jason Beaubien and producer Rebecca Davis were looking for a 15-year-old Syrian refugee. The group World Vision helped lead them to Fatmeh, who lives with her family in a makeshift shelter on a farmer’s land in Lebanon. Fatmeh wanted to tell her story: She used to live in a nice house, have a computer, loved going to school.
Then her family fled the war in Syria three years ago and ended up in Lebanon. Now instead of attending class she works in the fields up to 14 hours a day, earning money to help her family pay off their debt to the landowner for allowing them to live on his property. Mona Daoud, who works for World Vision and is in her 20s, served as the translator for the interview. We talked to Beaubien about Fatmeh and her older sister Bouchra, who’s 18, and about what made Daoud cry.
What drew you to Fatmeh for your story?
She and her older sister, Bouchra, completely understood the situation they were in. They were frustrated and wanted to tell the world about it.
These girls work in the fields and don’t go to school. Why isn’t there a school for them?
The government is not allowing formal refugee camps to be set up inside Lebanon for the Syrians because Lebanon has Palestinian camps that were set up generations ago and aren’t going anywhere. And they really don’t want the roughly two million Syrians to stay forever.
And no agency is overseeing the refugees?
Some groups come in and do some things on the edges, but there’s no structure as you would have in a formal camp run by the U.N.
So no schooling?
The long-term goal is that any Syrian refugees should be integrated into the Lebanese school system. The problem is there simply is not enough space in the Lebanese school system.
Fatmeh seems to still hope that somehow she’ll get back to school. How does her sister, Bouchra, feel?
Bouchra was Fatmeh’s age, 15, when they first arrived in Lebanon. Bouchra can see that if her life doesn’t change soon she is going to be trapped as a farm laborer. And she’s incredibly frustrated. She was much angrier than Fatmeh. When we were interviewing Fatmeh and Bouchra and their mother, the mother started crying and Bouchra says, “Don’t hide your crying. People here are crying every day, and it’s okay for the world to see that. ”
And then Mona Daoud, your translator, cried as well.
Mona was this lovely Lebanese woman and she was helping show us around. At one point we went out to the field where crews of Syrians were picking potatoes. I was interviewing one of the foreman, and he started hitting one of the children, a boy about 8 years old, with this plastic piece of water hose and screaming at him. The kid was in tears. I’m asking the foreman why he’s doing this. Mona is trying to translate his response, and tears are coming down her eyes.
What did the foreman say?
He said that this doesn’t really hurt them and it’s just to motivate them to work harder.
Are you surprised he didn’t just throw you out?
I thought we might get run out of the fields. It’s illegal for the Syrian refugees to work. And under Lebanese law, children under 14 are not supposed to work. I thought they would not allow us to be there, to take photos, but they feel like they’re giving employment to these refugees who don’t have any other way to make a living, so they justify it as giving them a way to make some money.
Why don’t the refugees pack up and go?
Even though this is really awful and they’re not happy in this situation, physically they do feel safe. They do not worry about getting hit with bombs or gunfire. So as precarious as their lives are in Lebanon, this is an improvement over what they were facing in Syria.
It must be awful to witness a scene like that the boy being beaten.
I recognize that I can’t fix it. But as a father of two kids who are 10 and 12, like a lot of those kids working in those fields, this was one of the moments that just tore me apart: to watch a mother watching her kids get whipped with this hose by the foreman in the potato fields and she just turned away because she feels she can’t do anything about it.
Do you have any hope things will change for Fatmeh and her family and the many other refugees in Lebanon?
The Syrian refugee problem is so big, and you have all the refugees flooding into Europe, people drowning at sea. So people in situations like this [in Lebanon] aren’t really getting much attention. It might not be as dramatic as the kids drowning in the ocean, but people’s lives are being lost here — these girls’ futures are being erased every year they don’t go back to school.
Is there any way the public can help?
It has been heartwarming to see the number of people who want to help. I wish there was an amazing program to give to, I wish I had some easy answer. But so far I don’t.
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