Photo: Taking advantage of the sunlight after a cold night, three inseparable sisters sit next to their tent, playing and getting warm in the sun. Six-year-old Aaliya (in red), 4-year-old Hasna (in black), and 1-year-old Amal are Syrian refugees living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Hasna paints her fingernails with dust mixed with water while Aaliya holds their infant sister in a blanket to keep her warm.
“I take good care of them,” Aaliya says. “I’m the eldest, and my father told me to take care of my sisters.” The three live with their mother since they fled from the city of Al Rakka in Syria.
Looking at Aaliya’s eyes in that photograph (above) took me back to the day I met her and her sisters in the Bekaa Valley. The informal tented settlement where they live was under construction, and winter rains were already soaking the valley. The little girl using mud to paint her fingernails was one of the most touching things I’ve ever witnessed. In the midst of chaos, a little mud helped her escape to her own safe place.
On my brother’s fifth birthday, my father gave him an iPad. He’s 9 now, and all he does is play on his iPad, talk to friends, connect with people.
Two years ago, when I was in the Bekaa Valley filming a story of a refugee family with former BBC reporter Nadine Ghoury, I saw these three beautiful girls sitting next to their tent while all the other children of the camp played and sang together.
In this video clip of the children playing and singing, you’ll see the three sisters in the background by their tent on the right, and the moment when Ralph discovers them.
Instantly I realized that there was a story. I went to their mom and asked her a couple of questions. I stood on the doorstep, but she wasn’t comfortable talking to me because she was sick, alone in the tent, and busy trying to remove rainwater from their only room.
Once I received her permission, I went back to take some pictures of the children. Hasna was holding what looked like a bottle of nail polish. I asked, “Is this yours?” She didn’t reply, but her sister told her to open it. Hasna opened the bottle and started painting her fingernails and toenails. It wasn’t polish after all; it was just a little dust mixed with water.
Hasna was painting her fingernails with mud.
The only toy these three sisters had was an empty bottle filled with mud. It was heartbreaking to see these little girls finding comfort from something as little as mud.
Some mud and a worthless bottle made her happy. I didn’t know if she was happy—she didn’t look happy. But I knew that if someone took it away from her, she would be very sad.
Moments like that made me tougher, more realistic, and angry. Angry at the universe. Angry at my 9-year-old brother for having his iPad while the only thing these girls had was mud. Angry that aid organizations like ours can only do so much to help. In moments like these, it feels like so little.
I don’t know what happened to those children, but I’m sure their future is still uncertain.
Due to ongoing conflict, 4.6 million Syrians have become refugees and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria. Half of them are children—who are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have had to quit school. Learn more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis here.
Join us in responding to the basic needs of these refugee families and children. Donate to our Refugee Response Initiative today.