Alya’s story

A young Syrian refugee living in a collective shelter in Arsal, Lebanon.

UNHCR/Salah Malkawi

Through the Looking Glass

For a teen-age refugee,
a shard of broken mirror helps restore a sense of self.

Alya’s story
  • Written by
    Joelle Eid
12 December 2013 12 December 2013
Syria Lebanon

5:30 a.m. My alarm rings uncontrollably as I struggle to get out of bed. Waking up this early can only mean one thing: a trip outside the office. And on this autumn day, my destination is Tyre, a coastal city in southern Lebanon which hosts a little over 90,000 refugees from Syria.

Halfway through the day, we stop at a “collective shelter” where over a dozen families are living: four floors of pure grey concrete layered on top of each other, with no sign of colour. We go in, and as usual are greeted repeatedly with “Al-Salamou Alaykom,” meaning “Peace be upon you.” My colleagues based in the south are quickly distracted by the familiar crowd, answering all sorts of questions related to assistance, food and health care.

I go ahead and perform my usual routine: running after the children. They follow me everywhere, begging for a picture. Today, however, it’s not one of the younger children who catches my attention, but 16-year-old Alya, whose eyes signal a story I am determined to find out.

“Let me just fix my veil,” she says with a laugh.

For a teen-age refugee, a shard of broken mirror helps restore a sense of self. UNHCR/Joelle Eid

UNHCR/Joelle Eid
For a teen-age refugee, a shard of broken mirror helps restore a sense of self.

I ask Alya if I can take her picture and talk for a bit. She smiles, looks at her father, who quietly gives his approval, and then nods shyly. “Let me just fix my veil,” she says with a laugh. “It always tilts to the side.”

Then she turns around to face the newly built wooden wall separating her family’s small room from their new neighbours, who are also refugees from Idlib, Syria. A tiny mirror, glued to a piece of thin wood and decorated with plastic buttons, is screwed into its pale surface.

Nine months ago, back in Syria, her family was forced to leave everything behind. “I was not even in our house when my father said we had to leave,” Alya tells me. “I had a room of my own, my own closet and a huge mirror that belonged to my aunt.”

She goes on to explain how hard she begged her parents to buy her a mirror and how, when they declined, she went looking in the fields outside the shelter. It took Alya and her younger brother Mahmoud two weeks to find a broken mirror. Eventually they decorated and mounted it with help from their father. Alya’s eyes light up as she shares her success story with me.

That evening I return home, set my alarm for the next day and find myself looking at the enormous, three-meter-long mirror in a bedroom I hardly have time for. Alya comes to mind and I wonder: What if I suddenly had to leave everything behind?