For Liene, the sounds of shelling, airstrikes and war in Syria have become as normal as the sounds of rain and thunder to an average child her age in most parts of the world. While she speaks of her school, her home and her “normal” daily life, it is striking how this little girl has become so used to the horrors of a harsh reality, defying it with her innocence.
The 10-year-old, who lives less than two kilometers away from one of the most dangerous battlefields in Syria, insists that she is safe within the walls of her home and in the company of her loved ones. For Liene, living in a country devastated by war for half her life is insignificant.
“I do hear shelling and airplanes at night, but that doesn’t scare me,” she says plainly. “I just cover my ears and look out the window to see what’s happening then I carry on reading with my little brother. We’re used to these sounds now.” Liene makes remarkable statements like this with bold indifference.
“My country has everything I could ever wish for; my school and friends are here. Why would I ever give that up?”
When asked where she would go if she could escape the war, she looks clearly shocked: “I would never leave Syria!” she says dismissing the outrageous suggestion. “My country has everything I could ever wish for; my school and friends are here. Why would I ever give that up?”
Happiness in times of war
Her parents say she has always surprised and inspired them from the day she was born.
“On the way home from the hospital where Liene was born, I was studying her features when she looked me in the eyes and smiled,” her father says with admiration. “She has continued to amaze me in unexpected ways ever since.”
Liene and her father. Photo:WFP/Dina El-Kassaby
Liene starts her morning routine bouncing cheerfully around her home getting ready for school. She teases her siblings and giggles like any happy child would. You would feel she is consciously doing this to remind her fragile father that despair is unwelcome in their happy home.
She is steadfast, unwavering, never showing even the slightest sign of weakness that is expected of any person, let alone a child living in the midst of a brutal war. It is like Liene supports her family by denying herself the relief of fear and vulnerability and all that is left is a smiling girl, delighted by the gift of life.
Against all odds
Liene’s parents moved from the village where they met and fell in love in southern Syria to Ashrafiyat Sahnaya, a small town in rural Damascus that became home shortly after their marriage seventeen years ago.
From there, her father began his career as a chef in one of Damascus’ most renowned hotels; a profession that allowed him to provide generously for his wife and four children. But when the conflict started, tourists left the country one by one and the family’s rhythm broke.
Iskandar, Liene's younger brother in his first grade class at school. Photo:WFP/Dina El-Kassaby
The comfortable life they once enjoyed is a distant memory, yet Liene doesn’t notice the hardship her parents complain about. She holds that Syria is the most wonderful country in the world, that her school is the most beautiful school, that she is the happiest and luckiest girl, that her family is the most fortunate.
Her mother has become the bread winner for the family. The money she makes as a teacher at Liene’s school is barely enough to sustain the family’s needs, but it allows her to keep the usual pace of her children’s lives. She even gets to walk to and from school with them.
In the last five years, Ashrafiyet Sahnaya has transformed into a hub for hundreds of thousands of displaced families. But Liene’s family did not move. They chose to stay in their home regardless of its close proximity to the fighting. To them, death can come anywhere at any time. For them, sticking it out together it was a safer option than running towards the unknown.
Liene walks to school with her mother and younger brother. Photo:WFP/Dina El-Kassaby
WFP is investing in hundreds of thousands of Syrian children like Liene through a school feeding programme meant to boost micronutrient intake while improving enrolment and regular attendance. The programme is ongoing in areas with high concentrations of displaced families like Ashrafiyat Sahnaya thanks to support from the European Union.