It was 2013 when I first met Fatima.
The then 10-year-old lived on a rooftop in Mafraq, a small Jordanian town, with her mum and dad – the only child of parents who were both deaf and mute.
A year earlier, the family had escaped from Baba Amr – the epicentre of fighting in the Homs offensive. They had left their home in the dead of night in a bus, and arrived in the town just the other side of the Syrian border with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
I had driven up there from Amman with some sketchy instructions – “drive into Mafraq, straight over the first roundabout, right at the second”. There were no road names, and I had no GPS.
But somehow, I found the office of the social worker, who took me to find Fatima. As I stepped out of the car, sweaty and as red-faced as the aircon-less, vermillion Chevrolet hatchback I rented to get there, I saw her standing there smiling at me – cool in her rust-coloured sweater.
Fatima skipped deftly up the rough cement staircase in her flip-flops and led me through a rusting metal door onto the roof, and there was her home – a one-roomed shack in the corner of the hot, flat concrete.
Laundry flapped on a line in the breeze, casting shadows as Fatima showed us a 360-degree view of the flat plains surrounding the town. We looked straight to the north towards Fatima’s country.
There was no sign of running water or electricity, but her mum made a pot of hot, sweet sage tea for us on a small camping gas stove.
“My mum and dad can’t talk so when someone comes around, I talk. When the phone rings, I talk,” Fatima explained – repeating in sign language for her parents, who were sitting and watching.
It was clear how much the three cared for one another – the parents dependent on their daughter’s ability to communicate on their behalf to the wider world.
Fatima shopped for them with their United Nations food vouchers, collected water for them from the neighbours. It was a loving, harmonious family unit.
But as Fatima played idly with a plastic cup attached to a piece of string with a ping-pong ball on the end, her face crumpled up slightly.
“I’m lonely. I need a brother to have fun with.”
I took a photograph of her seated on a metal water tank, one of her dolls sitting beside her, looking out over the plains below. She told me how she dreamed of her old life in her home village and their big house surrounded by farmland, and full of other family members.
“My school was very beautiful. I learned some things, but now I’ve forgotten them all,” she said. The hot wind screamed through the doorway of the family’s makeshift home, covering us all in a layer of dust.
Why wasn’t she at school? Humanitarian agencies were working tirelessly to provide all child refugees with an education. But thousands missed out – notably those with disabled parents who were needed to run the home.
“My dream is to become a doctor, to go back to Syria, and to spend all of my life there,” Fatima told me quietly.
It didn’t seem an impossible dream for a bright, 10-year-old girl.
Three years later
Three years later, on another assignment, I decided to try and find Fatima. They had moved, but with help from one of the social workers in Jordan I located her family, who were now in the village of Riba’a, in Mafraq district.
Fatima came out of the house to meet me, smiling shyly.
“I’m happy with my life,” she told me. “We have a bigger house. Our Jordanian landlord is kind to us and only charges us for rent every other month.”
It was a huge improvement on their previous lodgings – with running water, electricity, a fridge and a television. She showed me her own bedroom with pride, her brightly-coloured dresses hanging from the curtain rail.
“We’re good. And everything’s fine. My parents are kind to me. We are all now good at sign language. There’s no one better than them.”
Her parents had visibly aged in three years – her father’s hair was now completely grey. They nodded as if to support their daughter as she spoke.
But as Fatima looked out of a new window, to a new view, her dreams were the same yet unfulfilled.
“I can’t read and I can’t write. I can’t even send a text message. I don’t feel comfortable with that. My peers can read and write, and I can’t. I don’t feel good about it, and sometimes they make fun of me,” she said.
“My main dream is to go back to Syria. My second dream is that my parents begin to speak. My third dream is to become a doctor. But I don’t think that any of these dreams will come true.”
More than three years have passed again, and whenever I look at these photographs, I wonder how Fatima is doing: whether she got any of the schooling she longed for, or if she is still gazing out of a window, deep in a daydream that may never be realised.
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