Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Lebanon
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“Those children gave me much more than I gave them, and the love I saw in their innocent eyes filled me with positive energy.”

Zeina* was born in Sweida Province in southern Syria. She studied Business Administration and Psychology at university and specialized in the rehabilitation of those with special needs. .

Zeina began as a volunteer in a social welfare center that worked with orphaned children as well as those with autism and special needs requirements. Over the course of the three years she spent as a volunteer,  she had the chance to work in every branch of the center.

She remembers the first case she was entrusted to supervise: that of Ayah, a four-year-old girl who had lost her mother and suffered from psychological and speech development problems. Zeina was greatly affected by the little girl’s case, and spent a great deal of effort to provide treatment and recovery. Ayah’s situation markedly improved, and Zeina became consumed with helping as many children as she could.

“Ayah was beaten often, every day, by her stepmother,” says Zeina, “who forced her to eat in the chicken coop outside after tying her hands together. The little girl would imitate the movements of a chicken, eating without using her hands, and she was utterly neglected by everyone else at the center because her case was so difficult and she was in such a terrible physical state.”

Zeina says that most of the supervisors at the center worked with their wards in a cold professional manner, without regard for the human and emotional needs of children. The children desperately required such tenderness which had been deprived to them their whole lives.

Zeina tried to build kind and warm relationships with the children at the center, slowly gaining their trust and making it easier to help them.

“I lived at the center during the week,” says Zeina, “and on Thursdays and Fridays I’d bring a number of children along with me to spend the weekend at my parent’s house. Over the course of six months, some sixty different children visited my house, until I was forbidden from taking them out of the center because of an administrative decision.

“Those children gave me much more than I gave them,” continues Zeina, “and the love I saw in their innocent eyes filled me with positive energy. I found meaning for my own life in becoming important to someone else’s.”

Zeina recounts how the lives of children with special needs at the center were doubly difficult, their disabilities compounded by the fact that they were also orphaned.

“There was a little girl named Marwa,” recalls Zeina, “who was autistic. During that time, in 2006, there was no real awareness about autism and how to deal with autistic children, and Marwa’s case was quite special. None of the supervisors at the center understood her behavior. It was the first case of that sort I had seen up close.”

Zeina recounts the violations and the inhumane treatment that children and the elderly were subjected to at the center. “One of the supervisors punished a group of children once by locking them in the basement, which was overrun with mice, for seven hours,” recalls Zeina. “Another supervisor locked another group up in the bathroom for a long time, and there were children who were also punished with beatings.”

The rules at the center allowed girls who had no families or relatives to remain there until they were married, and these girls were often subjected to harassment by the administrative council at the center.

Zeina once managed to relay a complaint to the president’s wife, who visited the center and met with some of the children there and listened to their problems. The Director was then asked to fire one of the supervisors who had a particularly bad reputation, however,  a few days later, the director only asked the supervisor to submit her resignation, to ensure the firing would not prevent her from finding future work.

After three years of volunteer work, Zeina was given a job as head of the center’s auditing department. There, she discovered the center’s crooked finances, as she was responsible for signing off any anything to do with billing or other financial matters. She remained in her position for two years, and after uncovering one too many instances of financial corruption and suspicious transactions undertaken with donor money, she was summarily fired without being given a clear reason, and an official decision was issued forbidding her from entering the center ever again.

After being away from work for a while, Zeina managed to get word to the children that she would be passing by to see and greet them from afar. She stood outside the gates of the center and spoke to the children for about ten minutes through the bars. When the administration got wind of this, the children were punished for what they had done. Two years after this incident, a new board of directors was elected at the center, and Zeina was allowed to come visit the children whenever she wanted.


* A pseudonym was used at the narrator's request