Wearily, his mom leaves the family’s one-room home at the bottom of the apartment building to walk to the store. Her preteen son quietly sneaks out the door and peeks around the building corner to make sure that his mother is not turning back for something she forgot. He already knows that his father is away.
The boy looks at me with the bright, determined eyes of someone about to do something both forbidden and joyful. He starts running the water in the little sink next to the door. Both sink and surrounding space are overflowing with dirty dishes.
The dishes aren’t fancy – mostly mismatched soup bowls, small plates, clear glasses, and some soup spoons for utensils. Mom had “rescued” these dishes which had been discarded by the richer apartment tenants whom this family serves.
At the sink Hassan needs a little more height to get a better angle. He pulls over the bright green step stool, rolls up his sleeves past his elbows, and starts soaping dishes.
His younger sister and I are sitting on a floor cushion with pencil, paper, and worn school booklets. Even school supplies are hand-me-downs among refugees. We are working on her homework, a fairly regular activity for us.
Astonished and amazed, I sneak peeks at Hassan’s activities. What 11-year-old boy in his gender-regulated society does “women’s” work? I remember a few months earlier that he wanted to learn some food prep. His father quietly told him that it was not fitting activity for a boy.
“What is this oldest son doing?” I ask myself as I watch him rush quietly. I’ve known this family for a couple years, and we have become trusted friends, but this is new to me.
He finishes the mismatched dishes and tackles the big oily pots and pans. With great care Hassan manages to pile everything on the little drying rack beside the sink without a single item falling.
In the meantime, he has also boiled water in a simple metal kettle and set a tiny tray with hot tea on the floor in front of me. This time his father would approve. Serving tea to adult guests is considered culturally appropriate and expected from the oldest son in a family. Even his little brother has gotten a cold drink.
Next I see Hassan on his hands and knees wiping the floor with a big wet rag and taking out the trash. It’s obvious that he is rushing to finish before either parent comes home.
Then he disappears into the tiny bathroom. The raggedy little bathroom rug is dumped outside. I nonchalantly look in; I don’t want to embarrass him with my attention. Hassan just smiles happily at me as he continues scrubbing bathroom floor, tiny shower area, cleaning toilet inside and out and sink.
In his culture the toilet and the floor of the bathroom are one the most undignified places in a home. And here is a preteen boy on his knees scrubbing corners!
The old worn bathroom ends up sparkling as much as possible, and I see Hassan’s eyes shine with satisfaction. After dusting every surface in his tiny home he is finished. With a sighing smile Hassan plops down next to his little brother to watch TV.
I realize that love for his mother made Hassan see beyond cultural restrictions and perceived degradation. You can correctly imagine her joyous surprise when she came home. She thanked him and praised him and hugged him. The look I saw on his face showed that his heart was full.
About the Author: Christine is an IDEAS Associate and community health professional in Lebanon, working among refugee communities. Read more about Christine's work: With You in the Moment: A Refugee Woman's Story.