BEIRUT: “Come, Raed. Do you want to remember what happened during the explosion?” The 10-year-old boy nods. They were out in the playground, picking teams for a game of tug-of-war, laughing before a birthday party.
It was a collective birthday for the children at Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya, an orphanage in Bir Hasan, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Many of the kids lived on the streets, and do not know the day on which they were born.
“We were picking the teams and then the explosion happened and I fell, I was dizzy,” Raed said.
“The emergency teams came and took me.”
He spent three days recovering in the hospital. Twelve other children were lightly wounded in the twin suicide bombing that struck the neighborhood in February during a wave of attacks linked to the war in neighboring Syria.
Nabil Khaled, 13, also remembers the day. He covered his head with his coat and ran inside, only to see a younger girl bleeding. He carried her into the orphanage and washed the blood away.
“The white jacket became red,” he said.
Dana Safadieh, who had asked Raed the question, was there too. Dar al-Aytam’s head of education remembered staff and children preparing cakes and sweets. There were 250 children at the center, and some 30 staff members.
And then the deafening noise.
“It was so, so loud that it can never be forgotten,” she said.
There was dust, screaming and blood. She wanted to make sure every child was alive first, tightly embracing every one she saw. It was too early to evacuate the children, but the dust was suffocating, she said.
When they walked out hand-in-hand, some still had markings on their faces, whiskers and clown noses from an interrupted celebration.
There are no more children at Dar al-Aytam. The bombing damaged the structure of the center, which is now staffed only with construction workers trying to rebuild.
It was not the first time the building had suffered in a terrorist attack. The Iranian Embassy suicide bombing in Bir Hasan last November also caused damage, as well as frightening the children.
“We’re basically rebuilding the whole place,” Safadieh said.
Nisrine Ammar, who runs the group’s humanitarian activities department and was also there the day of the explosion, said they hoped to reopen it as soon as possible, perhaps as early as the new school year.
Going back to their old home will be good for the children and the staff, she said.
“It is important for us to go back,” she said. “It is true there was an explosion, but we don’t want to run away from there.”
Dar al-Aytam’s headquarters is a far cry from the devastation wrought on the orphanage by the bombing. The day after it was struck, shattered glass and concrete remained, with the tiny coats and backpacks that were left behind seeming out of place amid such violence.
But the same day also saw the beginning of an ambitious plan to salvage the children’s education and the center, as well as restoring their hope for a better future.
“If we didn’t continue with them, a large percentage would end up in the street,” Safadieh said.
Dar al-Aytam moved the children to their main headquarters in Barbir, splitting them into existing classrooms, opening new sections, organizing refresher sessions and revising their curriculum. Some of the children are due to take public school exams this summer.
Here, rows of classrooms stretch through the hallway, at the end of which is a psychologists’ room for the children. They play chase on the school’s sun-baked football court.
After the bombing, the organization held workshops to teach staff how to interact with children suffering from the aftermath of the explosion, as well as group therapy sessions for children and staff, “so they can tell their stories,” Safadieh said.
They also held drama therapy sessions in which they would re-enact the day of the explosion, as a means of coming to terms with the horror.
Some needed individual therapy, because they no longer felt safe, worried that explosions might recur, and because the only home that many of them knew was no longer there.
“They would ask, ‘Where are we going?’” Safadieh said.
“For them, their home was gone, but we wanted to show that there was another home.”
Staff also met with families who were too frightened to send their children back to the center to continue their education. Some of the children who attend Dar al-Aytam are not orphans, but school dropouts.
Safadieh explained that the staff “had to tell them that this could happen to the children when they’re with their family.”
Roughly 90 percent of the children are now back at the center. The rest were either kept at home by their families, or sent out to work.
The center also worked to provide medical care for children who began exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as involuntary urination, as well as dizziness and abnormally high heart rates.
Today, Dar al-Aytam organizes sports events and activities to help the children feel like part of a community, and to find an outlet for their stress.
They even held a larger birthday party than the one that was cut short by the suicide bombers.
“This gave them a message that life is coming back,” Safadieh said.
Nabil, the 13-year-old who was at the playground when the explosion shook the neighborhood, and who sleeps at the center every night, seemed reserved. He no longer has fear, he said.
“But I don’t want to stay here, I want to go back,” he said. “I was there for four years. It’s my home, and my family.”
Though the children are recovering, there is much work to be done.
“The building can be repaired, but the children need time,” Safadieh said.
Safadieh said they have learned simply to pray for forgiveness for those who injured them.
“We had to teach them that what happened was wrong, that we don’t want to grow up to be like this,” she said. “We don’t want to breed hatred and malice.”