Orphans of War by Bearta Powell
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Today, as the threat of global terrorism grows stronger and the evening news portrays war atrocities, it is good to be reminded of those who have lived, or continue to live, on “the other sid”. They don’t watch the atrocities on the news while sitting at home and they don’t discuss the war amongst friends at dinner parties – they watch the shootings and the bombings from their front doors, their parks, and their playgrounds.
Orphans of War
by Raleigh, North Carolina author Bearta Powell
is the story of a girl growing up in Lebanon during what was known as the “twenty year war” in the Seventies. One of five siblings, Bearta enjoyed a happy childhood with loving parents, sisters and brothers. But when Bearta was four, she lost her grandmother and then her mother in quick succession. A year later, her father died too. The five children were now orphans at the tender ages of eleven, nine, seven, five and three. Relatives were reluctant to take on the responsibility of the children, so the decision was made to place the children in a Children’s Village SOS – an orphanage. During their time there, war in Lebanon increased, and bombs fell near the orphanage, killing several children. There was severe rationing, food was scarce and the electricity and water supplies intermittent. Life was hard, physically and emotionally. These children had lost their parents, they didn’t even have any of their own clothes or toys to comfort them as all of their belongings had been taken away when they entered the orphanage. The SOS house mothers did what they could but most were ill-equipped to cope with the number of children and their emotional needs; they were hard-pressed just to ensure that the children had enough to eat and clothes to wear. The orphans were fed and schooled, but their emotional well-being was ignored. There were no hugs and kisses, and certainly no praise or encouragement.
The siblings reached sixteen they left one by one to enter the Foyer, which was the SOS “stepping stone” to prepare them for the real world: a stopgap between the childhood of the orphanage and the adulthood that awaited them in the outside world. Bearta struggled with the transition, as did most of the children but she managed to cope. By 1983 the political situation in Lebanon had worsened. The Americans had left the country after the bombing of their Embassy building in Beirut. Unemployment was at its highest and schools were closed. Bearta and Tina (one of her younger sisters) decided they must try to leave Lebanon and get to the U.S. to start a new life.
However, the Embassy in Beirut has already closed so they had to travel to Cyprus to apply for U.S. Student Visas at the Embassy there. Bearta and Tina made it, not without adventures along the way, and completed their applications. However, they had little money to prove they could support themselves, no “contacts” within the system and few of the documents required by the immigration officials. Time and time again they applied, time and time again they were refused. So they travelled to France and stayed in Paris, applying to the U.S. Embassy there. Eventually their applications were approved and they flew to New York and onto Virginia Beach where their brother lived, having moved to the U.S. several years earlier. Bearta and Tina enrolled in college to learn English. They could both already speak English but needed to be better if they wanted to take degrees and get good jobs. It was at college that Bearta met the man who was to become her husband.
Twenty years later, only Christa, Bearta’s eldest sister, remains in Lebanon, waiting to enter the U.S. Christa has been on the waiting list for over ten years; Bearta has managed to visit several times when the situation was peaceful. Sadly, the situation has worsened again and Bearta does not know when she will see her sister again.
What makes Bearta’s story so uplifting is the level of determination she and her siblings have shown to do the best they could to survive. I would have liked more detail in the book, it is only 116 pages and Bearta’s story would have more impact if she had not had to tell her story so sparsely. It must have been exhausting and terrifying to travel as a teenager from Lebanon to Cyprus to France to the U.S., never knowing if she would be turned back or how long her money would last, but little of this is detailed.
The use of a child’s voice makes Bearta’s story very immediate to the reader. Sometimes the narrative is a stream of consciousness, the memories tumbling out, almost tripping over themselves in their anxiety to be heard. This can make the story a little confusing on occasions but the heartfelt emotion of Bearta’s story is never in doubt. You are sure finish the book feeling awed by Bearta’s strength and gladdened by her love and gratitude for America.