November 6, 2015

Syrian Refugee Girl’s Light Shines at Adventist School

, news editor, Adventist Review

The tweet caught my eye.

“A friend of ours died recently. This video highlights her dreams. #RefugeeStruggle #SyrianRefugees,” read the message from @MENAunion, the Twitter account of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Middle East and North Africa Union.

A click on the tweet’s link opened a six-minute video showcasing a vivacious 11-year-old Syrian girl with chubby cheeks and a brilliant smile. The girl, Diana, recounted the horror of war in her homeland. She rejoiced at the opportunity to attend the Adventist Learning Center, a school for refugee children in Beirut, Lebanon. She spoke of her dream of becoming a medical doctor to serve others.

“My life dream is to become a medical doctor,” Diana says. “Why? Because what I saw in Syria made me want to help people. I know how much I have suffered and how much other people around me suffered during the war. I want to help people.”

My curiosity grew. How did this young Syrian girl wind up in an Adventist school? How did she die?

I sent MENA a tweet for more information.

The reply came quickly: “Diana died after being in the hospital for some time. Her family was unable to pay for her medical attention, and she wasn't given the best care.”

Then the story fell between the cracks — much like the plight of millions of refugees whose stories are only now drawing international attention because of Europe’s migrant crisis. As I slowly began to collect information about Diana, other work obligations arose and I put her story on the backburner. Then it faded from memory.

But with Europe currently mired in the migrant crisis, and the Adventist Church stepping up efforts to help, my thoughts returned to Diana. I resolved to get to the bottom of the story about this girl, one of the more than 400,000 school-age refugee children living in Lebanon. The headlines may focus on the tens of thousands of migrants streaming toward Europe’s borders from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But Lebanon is a haven for refugees, with an estimated 1.8 million giving it the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, MENA communication coordinator Chanmin Chung told me, citing United Nations statistics.

This is Diana’s story.

Watch the video about the Adventist Learning Center featuring Diana. Video from MENA.

War Reached Diana’s Village at Night

Diana was a founding student of the Adventist Learning Center in Beirut, moving into a two-room apartment directly behind the school as it was preparing to open in May 2013. She attended the center’s summer program in July 2013 and studied there for the 2013-14 school year and the start of the 2014-15 year.

The youngest of six children, Diana lived in the cramped apartment with her immediate family — three sisters, ages 22, 21, and 16, and two teenage brothers — and the family of a 13-year-old cousin.

Diana’s Muslim family came from a village outside Hasakeh, a city in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

“It was the middle of the night when the war reached their village,” said Alexis Hurd-Shires, director of the Adventist Learning Center. “Diana once told us that they fled at 2 or 3 a.m. by foot. They walked and ran 30 kilometers to a neighboring village where her grandparents lived.”

Diana believed that God had brought her family out of Syria to a safe place, Hurd-Shires said. She loved to learn about God and to serve others.

“She and her classmates were particularly excited when they got Bibles,” she said. “They loved the stories and wanted to read them for themselves.”

Diana’s father moved the family to Lebanon after staying for several months in a crowded home with many relatives.

“Diana was cheerful, always smiling and positive,” Hurd-Shires said. “She loved to draw and despite her age used the walls of her new house as her blank canvas. Drawings and words dot the walls of the stairwell, her kitchen, balcony, and living room.”

She was especially close to her mother and could often be seen leaning on her, joking with her, and doing things together, she said. Diana and her 13-year-old cousin, Feriel, as the youngest in both families, worked as the errand girls, bringing water when necessary, choosing produce for dinner, and buying whatever the family needed from the local markets.

“The girls loved Sundays because they could wander through the neighborhood and see what was happening around the city,” Hurd-Shires said. “Everyone in the area knew and loved Diana.”

A Baffling Illness

In October 2014, Diana fell ill with unexplained high fever, joint and body aches, and a lack of appetite. After several trips to the doctor, the family checked her into one of two local hospitals covered by the UNHCR, a facility attached to a university and largely staffed with medical students.

Her sickness stumped the doctors, and she didn’t improve. So after three weeks the family brought her home against the doctor’s wishes.

Diana did feel a little better in December and returned to school for six out of the 13 school days before Christmas break. During the holidays, however, the fever and pain returned, and the family decided to seek treatment in Damascus. Diana was hospitalized for two weeks before dying on Sunday, Jan. 25.

“To my knowledge the doctors in Syria also did not have any idea about what was wrong,” Hurd-Shires said. “In the end they said the high fever caused fluid to collect around her heart, which eventually caused so much pressure on the heart that it was unable to beat.”

The death devastated her classmates, who were already reeling from the loss of the school’s assistant director, Suzanne Barisamian, a 29-year-old local woman who had died from surgery complications a few months earlier.

Diana’s cousin, Feriel, and a best friend, Aayat, didn’t show up for classes for a week.

One of Diana’s classmates, 11-year-old Abduallah, sadly told Hurd-Shires: “Diana and I were here from the start. This was our school.”

The school organized a memorial service attended by many refugee families on the Thursday after Diana died. Many expressed shock about the death, saying even though they had fled war in hope of finding peace in Lebanon, no one was exempt from this reality of life.

Diana’s classmates tearfully watched the video in which Diana shares her dream of becoming a doctor to help people.

“We discussed the fact that although Diana will never become a doctor, she did realize her dream to help people,” Hurd-Shires said. “Through the video alone the school received close to $20,000 in 2014 to help pay for jackets for kids, heaters for homes, food boxes for needy families, rent for families possibly having to return to Syria, and medical bills and medications that families could never afford on their own.”

The Adventist Learning Center created a special album dedicated to Diana on its Facebook page where friends of the school from around the world could remembered Diana’s loved ones in prayer.

“Sending prayers for Diana’s family and friends,” wrote Facebook user Debra Gardner-Baasch. “A tragedy within a tragedy.”

Diana would have turned 12 on April 15.

A School Inspired to Serve

Diana’s family struggled after her death. They felt that living in Lebanon didn't protect them any more than living in Syria, Hurd-Shires said. After the initial fighting that they had fled, their community began to return to a semblance of normality. Their house still stood, and their neighbors were moving back.

“Education was a big part of the family's culture, and here in Lebanon education had ended for all but Diana,” Hurd-Shires said. “They felt like their chances of a good life in Lebanon were not significantly greater than life in Syria, and so decided to go back.”

The family left in June, five months after Diana died. Her older sisters have resumed their studies, and her father has found a new job. Diana’s death has been hardest on the mother.

“The family says she's just not the same anymore and even being back at her home in Syria has not improved her outlook on life,” Hurd-Shires said.

Back in Lebanon, Diana’s story did not end with her family’s departure.

In the months that remained of the school year, all the students and teachers felt inspired to do something more to serve others, Hurd-Shires said. The school, with the help of a college student volunteer, Tamara Giebel, organized a clothing drive that collected three carloads of clothes for refugees living in camps, whose conditions are worse than in the city.

In addition, the students started saving the 250 Lebanese pounds (16 U.S. cents) that they received to spend on a snack every day, raising more than US$100 for refugees in the camps.

Several of Diana’s classmates looked for ways to serve their neighbors. Salwa, 13, organized a group of girls over the summertime that chose an elderly person to visit once a week.

“Together they would clean the person’s home and then spend time talking and sometimes bringing food,” Hurd-Shires told me this week. “They were really excited to see the response of the older people they were helping.”

Salwa also has been inspired by a good-natured, competitive streak that Diana had to always want to do her best, to learn faster, and to understand more.

“We have to do our best in the time that we have,” Salwa told Hurd-Shires one day shortly after Diana’s death. “We don't know what will happen, but we have an opportunity to do our best now."