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7-year-old's story shows pain, worry of Syrian refugees

By Danielle Dellorto, CNN
updated 6:36 AM EDT, Fri September 13, 2013
Abdel, 7, left his home in Syria four months ago for a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
Abdel, 7, left his home in Syria four months ago for a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN producer Danielle Dellorto spent a week at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon
  • 7-year-old Abdel's story dramatizes the pain, worry, alienation that refugees face
  • Abdel left behind comforts of home; in a 10-by-10 tent, he's "the man of the house"
  • He's painfully thin; he says his last meal, just rice, was a day ago

Editor's note: Danielle Dellorto is a senior producer in CNN's Medical Unit. She and Dr. Sanjay Gupta traveled to Lebanon this month to meet refugees who have been forced from their homes in nearby Syria by the violence there. Here's her look at how the trip affected her.

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (CNN) -- I never imagined I would find myself in Lebanon, on the outskirts of the brutal civil war in Syria. As a 32-year-old woman from Chicago, I didn't know what to expect.

When I got on the plane last week, it seemed that U.S. or allied airstrikes on Syria were imminent, and honestly, it was pretty scary.

But the fear I felt about the possibility of airstrikes was put into perspective when I met 7-year-old Abdel in a Syrian refugee camp on the Lebanese border with Syria.

I will never forget the first time I looked into his eyes. The sadness and fear I saw there were years beyond his age, reflecting the extreme violence and horror he has witnessed -- sights and sounds of war that most of the world will only see in the movies.

Gupta: At refugee camp, nothing makes sense

For the seven days I was there, most of the kids in the camp followed us in a gaggle, circling us at times, giggling and practicing their English -- "hello" and "thank you."

They loved to see their images on my camera's display screen after I took their picture.

A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
Syria's refugee crisis
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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports from a refugee settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which borders Syria. It's estimated that nearly 1.5 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon to escape the ongoing violent conflicts. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports from a refugee settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which borders Syria. It's estimated that nearly 1.5 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon to escape the ongoing violent conflicts.
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Not Abdel. He stood off to the side, only glancing occasionally at the other kids following our crew around. He lingered nearby most of the day, but didn't talk to me or anyone else.

When I sat down on a curb, I motioned for to him to join me. I think I saw him smirk.

We just sat at first. He didn't talk. Then, via my translator sitting beside me, I asked Abdel if he liked Tweety Bird -- the cartoon character on the T-shirt he was wearing. He shrugged, saying he had never seen that cartoon.

They didn't have a television in his two-bedroom home in Syria, he told me. And of course there's not one in the 10-by-10-foot cement-floor refugee tent he shares with his mom and two brothers in the camp.

In Syria, he went to school -- first grade, he proudly tells me -- and played outside with his friends for fun.

But that was before the war. I asked Abdel if it still felt safe to play outside in Syria. He shook his head no, and held out his misshapen right arm. He broke it running from a gunfight, he said. It looks as though he didn't receive any medical care for his injury -- the bones healed so out of place, he can't bend his arm all the way or lay it out straight.

It wasn't Abdel's injury that led his family to leave its home for an uncertain future, a life as refugees. It was an explosion, just weeks later, that left his 4-year-old brother severely burned. Abdel's dad told them to flee. Get to the border until the violence subsides, he said.

Photos: Syria's war refugees - 'A feeling of loss'

Abdel's father stayed behind to work and protect the family's modest home, a scenario common to many of the refugees I met.

That was four months ago. Abdel now carries the title of "man of the house." The worry in his eyes is constant. The weight he is carrying is so heavy I felt it just sitting next to him.

Abdel, right, his mother and two younger brothers share a 10-by-10 tent at the camp.
Abdel, right, his mother and two younger brothers share a 10-by-10 tent at the camp.

Abdel now sleeps on the cement floor of the family's tent, in a strange place with none of the familiarity of home. He showed me the virtually empty living space, containing a plastic chair, a few blankets, a bucket.

His baby brother is extremely malnourished. Abdel himself is painfully thin. His last meal was yesterday, he said. He ate rice.

Meeting Abdel and hundreds of other refugees in just this one camp and hearing their stories make me fear the effect that potential U.S. or allied airstrikes would have. I worry that more fighting will only lead to more pain for children like Abdel.

The numbers are already horrific: More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed -- many of them women and children. In the latest atrocity, as many as 1,400 died last month in a chemical weapons attack, allegedly by the government.

I volunteered to travel to the Syrian border to help CNN tell the stories of the people who've been impacted by this wrenching conflict. The violence has pushed more than 6 million Syrians from their homes to other cities inside Syria or out of the country -- and more than half of the refugees, some 4 million, are under the age of 17.

When I met them, and heard the horrors they've lived through, it made me see that the human consequences of the war are compounding. Would outside military action really stop that?

While limited airstrikes might reduce the risk of another chemical attack, they might also spur more fighting and violence within Syria. It could take what's left of Abdel's home, and maybe even take away his dad.

But then again, the same could happen without international intervention.

I don't know what the solution is. But I know there has to be a way to help Abdel and the thousands of others like him.

How to help Syrian refugees

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