Why Lea Of Lebanon Wants To Leave Home: #15Girls | KERA News

Why Lea Of Lebanon Wants To Leave Home: #15Girls

Nov 1, 2015
Originally published on November 2, 2015 5:41 pm

Lea Hatouni is like a lot of other teenagers around the world. She likes music and hanging out with her friends. Her favorite band is the British rock band Coldplay. When she has free time she stops by the snack shop where her brother, Kenny works. "I talk to Kenny. We laugh and put on music. We start to dance and doing crazy stuff," she laughs.

And she loves to paint her fingernails her favorite color-- dark blue.

Like any teen, she has big dreams.

Right now, she shares a bedroom with her four siblings. She fantasizes about a room of her own. "With a big closet full of dresses and clothes," she laughs. "And I'll have my own window and my own bathroom!" One day, she hopes to become a translator and travel the world.

But there's an edge to these adolescent dreams. Hatouni is a Christian living in Beirut, Lebanon, a part of the world dominated by Islam. Her family is crammed in to a small two-bedroom apartment in Achrafieh, the city's Christian section.

The war in Syria is raging just 50 miles to the west. Her own city still bears the scars of a civil war that split Beirut along religious lines. Money is a constant concern for Lea's family. Good jobs are in short supply. Which makes her worry about her future. Lea understands that to be successful in Lebanon ...she's got to focus.

"After school we don't have a lot of time to waste, we need to study," she says.

Lea is in the 9th grade. Her public school sits just a few blocks from her apartment.

St. Georges Orthodox Church is also a short walk away.

"Every Sunday we come here to the church to pray," Lea says about her family. "Every Sunday."

But it's not out of obligation. Church gives her a sense of peace. "When I come here it's like a time when I can stay with myself and talk to God," she says. "I tell him I'm sorry if I did something wrong and it makes me feel better."

Quotes of Christian scripture are painted in flowing Arabic on the walls. Candles flicker in front of alters on either side of the altar.

The cathedral has just been renovated. Lea is proud of the newly painted murals on the walls. She says the church is a calm and comforting place.

Above Lea are striking new portraits of the apostles painted in classic Greek Orthodox style. Gold halos surround the saints' faces. But in a sign of the ongoing tension here, the icons are painted on special paper that can be peeled off, rolled up and spirited to safety if the church is attacked. This isn't just paranoia; many churches were desecrated during Lebanon's civil war.

That conflict turned Beirut in the 1980s into one of the most dangerous places on earth. It was what Baghdad was a decade ago and Aleppo is today.

In a way Lea Hatouni is a product of Lebanon's civil war. Her father, Michel, fled the fighting and ended up in Brazil, where he met Lea's mom, Eni.

Eni and Michel still joke about who pursued whom.

Lea inherited her mother's dark skin and jet black hair. She also picked up Portuguese from her mom.

In Beirut it's quite common for students to speak English and French in addition to Arabic. All of this nurtured Lea's love for languages and hopes of becoming a globetrotting translator after college.

Her mom doesn't want her daughter going abroad until she's much older, maybe in her late 20s.

Lea smiles in a non-committal way as her mother says this.

Later, away from her mom and walking through a small park, she talks confidently about becoming a translator. In her mind her career is playing out like a movie that's set outside of Lebanon.

"I think if I go outside Lebanon it's better. I'll have a better job," she says.

So even though Lebanon is currently at peace and even though her world now swirls around a few blocks in the Christian section of Beirut, Lea expects that eventually she'll have to leave. Leave as her father did in order to fulfill her dreams.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where you grow up plays a huge role in the person you become. For the past few weeks, we've been exploring the lives of 15-year-old girls around the world. NPR's Jason Beaubien brings us the story of a teenage girl in Beirut and a choice that so many young people face, stay at home or build a life somewhere else.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Fifteen-year-old Lea Hatouni lives in the Christian section of the Lebanese capital with her family in a cramped walk-up apartment.

LEA HATOUNI: So there is two rooms, one for my parents and one for their five kids.

BEAUBIEN: In many ways, Lea is like a lot of other teenagers around the world. She likes music and hanging out with her friends and painting her nails dark blue. She fantasizes about getting her own bedroom.

LEA: Yes, I always dream to have my own room (laughter) with big closets full of dresses. And I have my own window and my bathroom (laughter). Yes.

BEAUBIEN: But there's an edge to these adolescent dreams. The war in Syria is raging just 50 miles to the west. Her own city still bears the scars of a civil war that split Beirut along religious lines. Lea sees this fragile world around her and understands that to achieve her goals here, she's got to focus.

LEA: After school, we don't have, like, a lot of time to waste. We need to study.

BEAUBIEN: Lea wants to show us the other major force in her life besides school.

LEA: This is the church, the St. George Church.

BEAUBIEN: St. George's is just a few blocks from her apartment. Lea is part of the youth group here and says she comes here regularly to pray.

LEA: When I come here, it's like a time where I can stay with myself and talk to God. And I tell him I'm sorry if I did something wrong. And it makes me feel better. Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: As she talks, Lea is standing under portraits of the apostles. Saints' faces are painted on a special paper that can be peeled off, rolled up and speared into safety if the church is attacked. This isn't just paranoia. Many churches were desecrated during Lebanon's civil war. That conflict turned Beirut in the 1980s into one of the most dangerous places on Earth. In a way, Lea Hatouni is a product of that war. Her father fled the fighting. He ended up in Brazil, where he fell in love with Lea's mom, Eni.

MICHEL HATOUNI: No, really, really, she was very beautiful, with beautiful hair.

BEAUBIEN: The two of them still joke about who pursued who first.

ENI HATOUNI: You loved me (speaking foreign language).

BEAUBIEN: You loved me, she says.

M. HATOUNI: No, no, no. She - (laughter).

BEAUBIEN: From her mother, Lea learned Portuguese. Like a lot of students in Beirut, Lea also speaks English, French and Arabic. This international city has nurtured her love for languages. After college, Lea's plan is to become a translator, travel the world. Her mom isn't entirely enthusiastic about this.

E. HATOUNI: Lea - a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl. (Speaking foreign language).

BEAUBIEN: Eni says Lea is beautiful but innocent. She doesn't want her daughter going abroad until she's much older, maybe in her late 20s. Lea smiles in a noncommittal way as her mother says this. Later, away from her mom, walking through a small park near her apartment, Lea talks confidently about becoming a translator. In her mind, her career is playing out like a movie that's set outside of Lebanon.

LEA: I think if I go outside Lebanon, it's better. I'll have a better job. Yeah because Lebanon is like, whatever you - you're working in, you don't have a great job. You're not happy about it.

BEAUBIEN: Like her father before her, Lea is preparing to leave here in search of a better life. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.