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Inside a two-room tent pitched on a muddy field in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Abu Mustafa’s wife is cooking supper — a watery stew made with pieces of chicken and potatoes — for her family of eight. While the meal simmers, Abu Mustafa introduces his children to the NBC team. “This is Aya, 5; Ikram,11; Angham,10; Hamza, 3; Mustafa, 6; Tarek, 5," he said.
"And this is Fatima. She is 13 years old. She is married," he said. Fatima married a Lebanese man in his 40s last year when she was just 12.
The family's plight and Fatima's marriage are intertwined. They have been living in this tent in Lebanon for three years. The shelling was so intense the day the fled their Syrian hometown of Homs that they left their dinner on the table. It was a perilous escape — in order to avoid getting hit by bullets and shrapnel, Abu Mustafa said the family crawled for three hours to reach safety. They left virtually everything behind.
They could hold out no longer. On top of the fierce fighting in the family's neighborhood, Abu Mustafa's two younger brothers had been hacked to death a month earlier by unknown assailants.
In Lebanon, the entire family live on 30 dollars a week given to them by a local charity. Abu Mustafa suffers from an old back injury which prevents him from working. Another daughter, 11-year-old Ikram, has a hole in her heart and needs an operation — but there is no money.
“Life is extremely difficult,” Abu Mustafa said. “How do I explain the hardship? We have means for nothing. We can barely eat. I can’t buy enough bread for the family. I can’t pay for electricity. I can’t afford to buy water. I even worry that I won’t be able to pay rent to live in this wretched tent.”
So last year, when a local shopkeeper asked for Fatima’s hand in marriage, Abu Mustafa gave his blessing. Although the decision to marry off his 12-year-old daughter wasn’t easy, he said, it means one less mouth to feed.
“It was very difficult. I can’t explain the feelings. But at the same time, there is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, so her marriage eased the financial burden on me," he said.
Abu Mustafa says he is relieved that his son in law, who is only two years his junior, is a decent man. “He lets Fatima visit us whenever she wants to.”
As we share tea with Abu Mustafa, Fatima sits next to her father and fiddles with her mobile phone. She is reluctant to speak with us, but is willing to be filmed. We asked her a quick question — Are you happy?
“Well, just a little ...” she replies.
Abu Mustafa knows full well that his family won’t be going back to Syria soon. “When we left Homs, I hoped that we’d stay in Lebanon for a month and then return to Syria. When the war ends I want to go back, but the chances of returning are less than one in a million.”
Although he no longer worries about feeding Fatima, there are still six other children to look after, and as long as the family lives in Lebanon, all they can rely on is the charity of others and the meager sum of 30 dollars a week.
That’s why he plans to marry off his three other daughters when he deems them old enough. “God willing, they will grow up and get married. We can save more money.”