"I really want to go back to school," says 15-year-old Fatmeh, "because work, work, work. ... Life isn't only about work."
But that's what her life is about right now.
Fatmeh used to be a top student at her school in Syria. Now she spends her days working in agricultural fields in the fertile Beqaa Valley, picking vegetables, plucking weeds and tending crops. And when the foreman thinks that she and the other kids in the fields aren't working hard enough, he hits them with a black plastic pipe.
Before: Her Typical Teenage Life
Three years ago Fatmeh was pretty much a typical teenager. "My life in Syria was really very nice, very beautiful. I swear to God, really beautiful," says Fatmeh, sitting in the shack her family has built out of scraps of tarps, plastic sheeting and salvaged lumber. She fiddles with the ends of a black headscarf that loosely frames her face.
Fatmeh says back in Syria they had a big house surrounded by a garden.
Her father taught high school — geography, sociology, history; her mother looked after the family. Fatmeh had her own computer.
Her life was all about school — classes, friends and homework. She was a top student, and she loved Arabic literature. But slowly the civil war crept closer and closer to their town until finally there was fighting all around them
"Bombs and fighting were everywhere," Fatmeh says. "We lost a neighbor, a cousin and the husband of our aunt. The house next to ours was bombed. So we left to survive."
The family ran west, with Fatmeh and her older sister clutching their younger siblings.
They walked for a day through fields and slept with a group of shepherds. Finally they caught a ride, standing up in the back of a truck, to the Lebanese border.
They wound up in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, nestled halfway between Damascus and Beirut. The valley is Lebanon's wine country and agricultural breadbasket. Now it's also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, living in makeshift shelters in informal camps. "We want to go home, to Syria," says Fatmeh. By "home" she means to a Syria before the civil war.
"I had a dream that when I came here to Lebanon I would study here and go to school here and become an Arabic language teacher here," says Fatmeh, sitting on the floor of the shack she shares with her parents and six siblings. "And then [I hoped] when I go back to Syria, my dream would have been achieved. But it did not work at all with me here."
Now: Work, Work, Work
Now her life is consumed by work in the fields and work at home cooking, cleaning and tending to her younger siblings. Her parents don't allow her to go out in the camp alone. Her one link to the outside world is her cellphone. She uses it to keep up with news about Syria, and sometimes when she's alone she likes to record herself singing songs about her homeland.
Fatmeh's mother, Chowk, says she wishes her children could go to school but her family has few options.
"What can we do?" asks Chowk. "We are forced to work."
Fatmeh's family is mired in debt. When they arrived three years ago, a Lebanese landowner offered to help them. He paid off the driver who ferried them from the border. He let them camp on his land next to hundreds of other Syrian refugees. He lent them money to buy materials to build a meager shelter. He offers them food on credit at his store.
Fatmeh and her family are paying him back with the only thing they have — their labor.
She and four of her siblings work up to 14 hours a day in the landowner's fields, but the family still owes him roughly $2,000, according to Chowk. They've asked that we not use their last name out of concern for their safety and the safety of family members still in Syria.
The landowner, Fadel Yassine, has the leathery skin of a man who has worked long hours in the sun and smoked since an early age. Sitting in his small grocery store, with shelves of tinned meats and beans behind him, Yassine says he's been incredibly generous to the Syrians.
"Look, look at this," he says as he pulls out a thick black ledger. Inside the book he keeps a tally of how much each refugee family owes him.
"I have been patient with them, but the debt is growing and I need my money," he says.
He says he's the only one helping them. This isn't entirely true, but it is true that international food aid to the refugees this year was cut sharply.
When we ask specifically about Fatmeh — how much she earns, how much her family owes — Yassine waves his cigarette impatiently in the air.
"Everyone is Fatmeh! All of them are Fatmeh," he yells. He insists that Fatmeh is no different from the hundreds of other Syrians living on his land.
Fatmeh and her siblings work seven days a week in Yassine's fields. At 5:30 in the morning they climb into the back of a truck that later in the day will be loaded with sacks of vegetables. Some days they pick onions. Other days it's cucumbers or potatoes. If there's a lot of produce to harvest, they often work until 7 or 8 at night. On a typical day they finish at 3 in the afternoon. Fatmeh earns roughly $8 for a day's work — although she never sees the money. The landlord subtracts her wages straight from her family's debt.
For Fatmeh, the labor is exhausting and some days she's too tired to go back to the fields.
Frightened Child Laborers
On a bright Saturday morning we go to one of Yassine's fields to look for Fatmeh.
Yassine's son, Nazir, is overseeing a crew of roughly 30 Syrians picking potatoes. Some are women. Most are children, including several of Fatmeh's siblings.
Fatmeh had showed up for work in the morning, but left early because she was feeling ill.
The youngest child in the field is 7 years old.
"The foreman, he loves the younger children because they are faster in collecting," says Fatmeh's older sister, Bouchra. Bouchra is 18. Like many of the older girls, she has wrapped a scarf across her face to block out the sun and the dust.
"They like the children because they're faster," Bouchra says. "Parents don't like it, but they are forced to send their children."
Foreman Yassine walks through the freshly plowed dirt of the potato fields twirling a stiff piece of plastic irrigation hose. The children call the hose "the stick." If the kids slow down or space out, Yassine hits them.
"This stick does not hurt your body," Yassine explains after striking an 8-year-old across his back. "But for children, it's a tool for making them feel afraid. You know, children are young and they get afraid easily, so [with this] they can work more. It does not hurt at all; don't worry about the kid."
Minutes later when a 9-year-old stands up straight instead of scrambling to get more potatoes, Yassine yanks the boy by the ear. The boy yelps and collapses in the soil. As much out of humiliation as pain, the boy buries his head in his forearms, sobbing.
The boy's mother, who's also working in the field, looks away.
Dreams To Remember
This bleak life in Lebanon hasn't totally beaten down Fatmeh.
She says she still has a "very small hope" that someday she'll be able to return to school and eventually go to college.
"Very small, small hope," she says. "I really want to go back to school."
But with no end in sight to the Syrian civil war, this 15-year-old's dreams are withering away in the fields of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
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.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Fatmeh...
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FATMEH: (Singing in Arabic).
BEAUBIEN: This song is about her love for Syria.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.