BEIRUT — The lost children of Aleppo have come to the bustling Hamra district of Beirut to peddle cigarettes for change. They wander the alleyway bars underneath the towering presence of tourists and drunken teenagers. Lebanon’s newly passed smoking ban has created an outdoor culture that facilitates their vending. It is hard not to notice them, until you notice that no one else seems to.
Amal declares that Lebanon is striking — but, of course, Syria is incomparable in its beauty. She has her hair pulled back, speaking fast and with assurance. Her green eyes immediately draw attention to her stare. It is difficult to regard her as a child, though occasionally she giggles, exposing her concealed youth. My inquiries about where she is from elicit the same response I would later become conditioned to expect: “Halab" (Aleppo).
I’m excited to speak to her. She is the first refugee I sit with, myself fresh out of New York and eager to finally put a face to tragedy. But I begin on the wrong foot. I flood her with questions about her politics, her family’s politics, what she thinks of President Bashar al-Assad, of the Free Syrian Army.
Her response immediately prompts reconsideration on my part. At only 13 years old, Amal answers my questions with questions. Where are you from? Palestine. Then she unleashed on me as I had on her. What are your thoughts on Israel? Hamas? Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Her point is well taken, and I remind myself that she is more than a character in a news story.
I am immediately embarrassed that a reminder was even needed. My mistake is not unlike that of many others. I have unintentionally dehumanized her, reduced her to a reflection of how I expect refugees to be. It is because of these tendencies that we often regard those who suffer as props, only relevant when we feel like questioning or lamenting, as though the toll of the Syrian conflict suddenly evaporates when we are not looking.
I start over. I tell her what it was like for me growing up as a Palestinian in Lebanon, and how I used to be apprehensive about being asked where I was from due to the reactions I would get because of my nationality. She listens intently and nods, never interrupting. For a moment, I lose myself in my own musings until I am aware of the absurdity of the scene. I laugh, and she follows suit with a look of understanding on her face.
I ask if she ever feels the same way. Amal tells me most people already know she is Syrian. Once, she told a questioning store owner she was from Beirut, only to have him tell her she was liar. She is proud of where she is from, she says, but hates being regarded as a beggar.
“I sell gum,” she tells me, her expression suddenly frustrated. “I’m not a beggar. I’m a merchant!”
The frenetic nightlife in Hamra makes her work easier. She doesn’t mind it at night when it’s cooler, and there are more people who might buy from her. Sometimes, the bar patrons even ask her to sit down with them for a little bit and talk. But she always has to be cautious of store owners and bartenders who often tell her to leave, or drive her away “like cats,” she says. Or of people who have had too much to drink.
She informs me of one particularly cruel man who always asks Amal and her friends where they are from, only to retort, after they respond with "Syria," that they should go back. It becomes easier to speak. She begins to open up but I am careful not to put my curiosity before her humanity again.
Amal’s father works as a doorman for a building. In exchange for his work, their family is permitted residence in a small room under the building. Her parents and their youngest child sleep on the bed, Amal and her two sisters on the floor with blankets and a thin mattress. They share a single bathroom.
She seems embarrassed at what I might think of her living arrangements, and again redirects the subject of conversation to me. I tell her about New York and how if she ever were to visit she would have to fight off a thousand suitors. Amal laughs hysterically, and for a moment, the weight of the Syrian conflict is revealed to me.
I want nothing more than for Amal to laugh or be flattered or see New York. I want nothing more than for Amal to not have to sell gum on the streets of Hamra. As she leaves, she asks if I’d like to buy some gum. I buy the gum and we say goodbye. After she is gone, a man leaning against a corner store beckons me toward him. He has clearly been watching us for some time.
“Don’t believe a word,” I am warned. “It’s all for money.”
It’s past 7 later that evening, and I notice two foreigners with American accents discussing Syria outside a bar. Between lighting cigarettes, one talked about his longing to visit Syria and get a glimpse of what is happening, get a “human account,” he puts it. At waist level, a while later, a Syrian refugee child selling roses interrupts the conversation and implores the man to buy one for his female companion. The man gestures that he is not interested, impatiently mutters in broken Arabic, “Shukran, shukran, khalas,” then returns to his conversation.
“I’m dying to see the real impact of the war!”
Talal Alyan is a Palestinian-American freelance writer currently living in New York.
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