Beirut – Abdul Halim Attar looked drained, puffing on a locally manufactured Cedars cigarette as he paused to collect his thoughts on everything that has happened to him over the last few days.
Originally from Yarmouk in Syria, the 35-year-old Palestinian-Syrian fled to Lebanon three years ago with his two children: Reem, who is almost four years old, and Aboudi, who is nine. A single father, Attar found a tiny two-room apartment in a rundown area of Beirut’s Jnah district, and began selling pens on the street to make ends meet.
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Leaving Aboudi at home to look after the flat, he would hoist Reem on his shoulders and spend several hours a day smiling and laughing with passers-by as he offered his pens for sale. On a good day, he would earn about $35.
But last week, Attar’s life changed dramatically. A passer-by took a picture of him with Reem asleep on his shoulders as he was trying to sell his wares, and the picture went viral, prompting a fundraising campaign to help give him a better life.
By Monday, the #BuyPens campaign had already raised more than $150,000, as people from around the world rushed to help the Attar family.
He told Al Jazeera that he feels he is living in a dream.
“I still can’t believe this is happening to me,” he said. “I didn’t understand what was going on. One day I woke up to go to work; suddenly hundreds of people were coming up to me, trying to talk to me, and I didn’t understand why.
“I was scared at first,” he added, noting he was initially concerned that security forces may be trying to take his children away. “[At first, I thought] I would run away.”
But he quickly found out that he had become the focus of international attention. “One woman came up to me, saying she broke her feet looking for me for five hours, and told me what was going on… I’m still in disbelief,” he said.
Cramped and barely furnished, Attar’s apartment is located at the top of a set of broken stairs. On a recent day, Reem, with big brown eyes and a captivating smile, played with her hair clips, while Aboudi sat quietly on the couch, observing the guests in the room.
Asked why he sold pens, Attar smiled. “Because everyone needs a pen,” he said. “Whatever you do in life, whoever you are, you’ll need a pen.”
The #BuyPens campaign has been actively looking for a new home for the Attar family, and said they will receive the funds at the conclusion of the campaign, in just under two weeks. Attar said he knows exactly what he will do with the money.
“I want to use the money to help Syrians. I don’t want to be the only one being helped; there are thousands of children on the streets. There are people who are worse off than I am,” he said passionately. “Syria is my country; these are my people. In Syria, we used to welcome everyone and help them.
“I am lucky because at least I have a roof over my head and somewhere to sleep,” he added. “There are many who are barely living. I hope this campaign grows to help all Syrians. I hope other Syrians get a campaign the way I got a campaign, and people can see the conditions they are in.”