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Maria Assi, 45, has thousands of children. While she only has one biological daughter, Leila, there are countless Syrian refugee children who consider her family.
As chief executive of Beyond Association, she spends all day working at refugee camps throughout Lebanon. At Fayda camp in Zahle, children stream in and out of a small room with a concrete floor where Assi sits by the wood stove sipping strong Turkish coffee. A small girl with short hair, Fatme, tugs at her sleeve and is rewarded with a hug and a quick cuddle. “Her mother died a few months ago in childbirth,” confides Assi in a whisper.
Beyond Association, a UNICEF partner, provides medical and education services to some 12,000 children. They are responsible for creating schools and medical clinics in camps that lack running water, roads or even basic sanitation. But her actual work goes far beyond this. “When you see a need, you can’t stop and say, 'This is not our job,’ ” says Assi. “We are practically living with them. They are our family. Whatever they need, we will work to provide it. If there is a marriage or a death or a sickness, we are there.”
In order to do her job, Assi lives in an apartment in Zahle. Her husband stays with her for three nights each week and spends the rest of his time in their home in southern Lebanon. Her daughter, Leila, is following in her footsteps. At 22, she recently switched from studying economics to studying NGO management.
“Because Fatima is without a father, mother or older siblings, I feel that she’s a part of my family. She has the big love of my heart. I wish every day that I could take her to my home, but I must respect all the children.”
And while many children in the camp consider her a parental figure, one refugee holds a special place in Assi's heart. One year ago, 12-year-old Fatima came to the refugee camp with her mother from their home in Syria. Her father had died before the war. Then, three months ago, Fatima lost her mother during a severe winter storm. Volunteers at the camp say that she died of a pneumonia exacerbated by the frigid temperatures — the family had no heating inside their tent. She had no older siblings or other family to care for her, so she ended up in the care of a half-brother — who doesn’t want her.
Luckily for Fatima, Assi has filled the emotional role of caretaker. She makes sure that Fatima participates in classes for children with emotional trauma, and Fatima now calls her Mama.
“Because Fatima is without a father, mother or older siblings, I feel that she’s a part of my family,” says Assi. “She has the big love of my heart.” Indeed, Assi has to resist the temptation to take the girl home with her. “I wish every day that I could take her to my home, but I must respect all the children,” she says.
Cases like Fatima’s are common among the refugee population. According to UNICEF, at least 8,000 children have arrived at Syria’s borders without their parents, and countless other have lost one or both parents while living in desperate conditions at refugee camps.
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The job of caring for these children and their families would be too much for most people to bear. In her role as CEO, Assi hears wrenching stories every day from the families in her camps. She puts in long hours and thinks constantly about the children she works with. “It’s not a job,” she says. “It’s my life.”
And Assi is not sure that she can do it again once this crisis is over. But she says that she finds her work uplifting.
“If I do my best, I will find it happy because I will put a smile on a child’s face,” she says. “I would only be sad if I didn’t have any way to help these kids.”
Yuka Tachibana contributed to this report.