A sister's courage
Most of all, Hala misses her mother's bedtime stories. "I was playing outside when our house crumbled," she says. "I saw people carrying my mom downstairs."
Is Hala smiling, or about to cry? I'm not sure. I've finally gathered the courage to ask her what happened.
"She was in pieces," she tells me. "Her legs, her arms. They couldn't find all of her." Hala was ten years old.
On March 25, 2012, Hala went to school, and played with her friends. Her mom cooked a meal, then took a nap. It was day two of the battle of Saraqeb, a city in north-western Syria. The violence was about to reach her village.
"When we first saw tanks, we were a little afraid," she says. "But then we saw people distributing bread and food, and figured we shouldn't worry too much."
I first met Hala at a tented settlement in central Bekaa, East Lebanon. She had been here for a year, one in a million refugees who have fled Syria. They call her "the orphan"; her tomboy walk and winter hat make her easy to spot. She speaks with a disturbing nonchalance; a hardness, common amongst many refugees I have met. Her hair is falling out.
"Kamel rushed inside while I hid in the playground," she tells me. "When I ran up the stairs to find him, he was unconscious. People rushed him to the hospital, but since the accident he is done."
"My father told us it was best if we fled to Lebanon. We haven't heard from him since the day we left."
Kamel, 18, is the eldest. He was smarter than the rest of them, says Hala, "perfectly normal, like everyone else," but the incident changed him. He barely speaks now, and suffers from seizures. Nemer, Hala's older brother, forced himself to marry a refugee girl at the settlement, to take care of his younger siblings. They are 17 and 16 years old.
"My father told us it was best if we fled to Lebanon," says Hala. "He promised he would follow. We haven't heard from him since the day we left." Nemer believes he is dead or abducted. Both have lost hope of seeing him again.
There is a routine to Hala's small village. Women and girls peel potatoes, young boys carry bread on their shoulders. The children race to fetch water before it runs out. There is a sense of community: the friendships, the children's cheerfulness, the older men insisting you join them for coffee.
Four days of walking the settlement's tiny, muddy alleyways have made me realize that this routine is shrouding a minute-by-minute struggle. I watch Nemer groping for hope, terrified of failing his siblings. A mason by trade, he's up at 4 a.m. collecting and selling scrapped plastic to put food on the table. I watch Hala, the sister, the caregiver, the 'orphan', missing out on school.
And yet, they remain eager for life. After three years of tragedy, Hala and her siblings seem to have a thirst to bring back a sense of normalcy into their lives. On his way out to play, Hala's younger brother gives Nemer's wife a kiss on her cheek. Nemer notices and smiles. Hala's younger sister sews a dress for a worn-out doll she found on the street. Hala meticulously washes the dishes and aligns them on a crooked metallic shelf. She plays with a discarded rope and proudly counts each jump until she trips, only to start again.
Lebanon is now hosting 1 million registered refugees. Half of them are children like Hala. And over half of the children are not going to school. Many have missed out on three years of education. They cannot read or write. Hala's friends at the settlement attend a nearby informal class. She decided she doesn't want to go to school. She has a family to tend to.