Tales of a Collapsing Exile

As if they had collectively agreed, without ever meeting, to have the same response: "We've got nothing to say".

After all the misery they've endured, all the photos of Martyrs and all the funerals that toured cities, villages and neighbourhoods where they live; they still have nothing to say.

The heat of the summer has left their lips dry, yet none of them blames it.

The only thing making these newly emerging rooms -where refugees await another hell-bearable, is the slight sense of safety they are feeling in it. A temporary safety, no matter how shaky the situation may get, it will still be immensely better than what they had endured in Syria. Here, in these rooms, there are no sudden quick deaths, no shelling, no arrests, no houses crashing over its owners, neither is there starvation. Therefore, it is a much merciful life according to many, despite all of its difficulties!

Less than two months ago, two Syrian workers died deep in a well in one of the southern Lebanese villages. They went down to clean it up, and later suffocated by the smoke of the generator which they brought along with them, and subsequently passed away. They were pulled out as two dead bodies while two other workers who had accompanied them survived. Ambulance sirens sounded loud in the village as the news spread; two Syrians died... “Well then, but has any Lebanese been injured?”

One of the workers was buried in a cemetery designated for burying dead Syrian refugees in the area where he used to live. The family of the other worker, who had only recently fled to Lebanon- refused to bury him in a “strange land”, so they arrived at the hospital and took his body back to Syria.

His family took him back to where he had run from: Death.

*****

- Haidar: Where do you live?

- Achrafieh.

- Haidar: So you're Christian?

- How would I be a Christian, and I’m wearing a Hijab!?

- Haidar: I don't know. You guys are difficult to understand!

Haidar fled to Lebanon 2 years ago along with his Family and settled in Al-Koula District. He came here as an 11 year old child and he just turned 13, during this time he has grown accustomed to the streets of Beirut and its people. He wanders around the areas where he sells chocolate bars and chewing gum.

They are originally from "Al-Shaghoor", but lived in "Al-Hajar Al-Aswad". [Both very well-known neighbourhoods in Damascus; Al-Shagoor is a neighbourhood in Old Damascus, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is a neighbourhood in southern Damascus.]

Haidar talks about how he liked Ramadan in Syria better. He used to sell "Jellab" and Tamarind (both homemade by his mother), as he accompanied his father during his work, he also used to sell "Mashateeh" (which he desperately tried to recall the Syrian name for). [Jellab; a cold beverage made from grape molasses, pulp of raisins, rose water and sugar.- Mashateeh; Lebanese name for a special bread called  “Marouk”   in Syria, it is often stuffed with dates.]

Haidar feels that the people in Syria were different; he feels that everything has been so different since he arrived here. And often he dreams, Oh how much he yearns for his dreams to come true.

*****

It was a large crowd; men, women and children pushing each other at a small bakery window, over which stood a sign bearing the bakery’s name written in black and red on a white metal background. Swarms of dust filled the air around caused by the movement of the crowd’s feet upon a sandy ground.

Loud noises mixed with arms that rose to the sky, some of them waving while others stood still. Across the street stood a man selling fresh lemonade from his stand. He was motionless, not making the slightest movement.

The scene was eerie in its entirety.

"They are all shabiha, they're not worth your time". [Shabiha; a term used to describe the Syrian regime's thugs, which means Ghosts.]. I was met with this statement as I attempted to pull over and understand what was happening. A Tripolian man -who is the landlord for two Syrian families in Tripoli- pointed out the sizes of the men that were standing there; "Look how big each of them is, why don't they go get a job, they're standing all day just waiting for a pack of bread."

The eyes of people observing this scene were looking down with distraught at the crowd; a crowd of refugees who are seeking a pack of bread and have no future, and a past that is surrounded with death and destruction.

This pack of bread has almost become the axis of the lives of Syrian refugees living in the "Shawk" neighbourhood in the "Abi-Samra" district of Tripoli.

After you enter the neighbourhood, you will start to see the signs of poverty and refuge standing strong amidst everything.

Poverty-stricken fugitives escaping from death in their country and later destined to end up in places already overflowing with the poverty and misery of its own people.

As cars pass by through the neighbourhood, children "recklessly" jump out of front-doors; those cars leave behind a swarm of dust that finds its way easily into houses and cover families inside.

Houses here lack windows and doors, so people try to cover those holes with whatever sheets or torn cloths they may own.

As the narrow alleyways of the neighbourhood give you the impression that it would be impossible for a car to pass through, you will see Syrian women, with their colourful outfits, dangling from their balconies as they hung the laundry out to dry.

******

4 year old Ahmad sits inside the small kitchen sink as he rinses his hair with plenty of soap, quickly becoming wet, drenching his shirt and his legs, as he fell into a spell of laughter; so does his mother "Om Ahmad" who shares his laugh.

Ahmad sits in the kitchen, while his sister rests on the couch in the living room -which is another name for their kitchen-. "Om Ahmad" carefully holds the white cloth that separates their apartment into a bedroom and a kitchen/living room so that everyone could pass through easily. Their Grandmother "Om Fawwaz" covers her head with a white prayer cloth (which she carried along with her from Homs) and walks from the bedroom - where 4 thin mattresses lay on the floor - to the living room, and then goes back again.

The grandmother spontaneously kept reciting her stories, two of which always brought tears to her eyes; the house that was leveled to the ground by shelling, and the story of her 3 daughters who remain stuck in Homs. She goes back and forth between these stories, and keeps repeating this: "We don't know how, when or why we ended up in this place".

She's been living in Tripoli with her son's family for two years and a half so far. She laughs as she remembers their previous residence for two entire years in a one-room storage house: "The smell of feces was lingering all over the place my dear". Her daughter-in-law laughs once she hears the word “storage-house"; she who does nothing other than smiling and picking her son up from the kitchen sink.

"Om Fawaz" points to their two rooms and says: "this place is as wide as a sea; I swear this is a sea".

They've experienced living underground, in a single room that has a door-less bathroom. They didn't speak, eat or sleep like normal human beings.

Once you ask them what they call themselves, they instantly refuse being called refugees, neither exiled, nor are they temporary residents.

They are nothing, they do not even exist. Yet despite it all, they still thank god for what they have.

In the Beirut-bound bus station in Tripoli; you see a bus-banner bearing these words written in green: "Downsize Your Luggage And Achieve Your Dreams!", right next to it you see a stack of balloons and joy; this scene embodies the horror of contradictions, the misery of all misery.

*****

-Haidar: In Syria we don't call it a Van!

-What do you call it then?

-Haidar: Well, we definitely don't use your word for it "Booooosta" (in an attempt to imitate a Lebanese accent). We call it a Bus or a Microbus.

-So?

-Haidar: Here you shout and scream too much; “Nabatieh, Tyreeee, Tripoliiii!”, whereas in Syria we simply wrote the names of the destinations on a large billboard, rather than shouting them out like you do.

*****

"I have to get humiliated in order to get an aid-box".

"The Sheikh is a liar himself. I begged, telling him that I have 7 children. But still, it was as if I hadn't said a word."

"Each aid-box contains supply for a month and a half; plenty of tuna cans, lentils and sugar."

"I stayed in line for 3 hours, yet I returned as I left, empty handed."

"I feel suffocated, so suffocated".

"Lebanon is an indescribable place, so indescribable."

*****

"Om Khaled" gets paid 15,000 Lebanese Liras (~$10) per a full-time work day, from 7 AM to 2 PM. She works at a vegetable store; her duties include cleaning Okras, zucchinis and such things... Today she brought along two enormous containers of carrots, she asks me if it was ok for her to bring them to our interview to peel them.

She had just come back home, only to continue working from there. She has 7 children, the youngest of which is 1 year old boy who has a hole in his heart; she laughs and says: "I am miserable, I am so miserable".

There's no cold water to drink in this heat. No electricity and no water to wash clothes. Things get tough; we face maltreatment wherever we go; even children get their share of beating and verbal slurs; "You animals, you savages".

One of her friends unsuccessfully attempts to stop her from speaking further on the issue.

"After everything we’ve been through; running away, becoming refugees and living this miserable life, you still want me to remain silent?. Let everyone knows.”

So then, her friend reminds her of what they always face, and how they were once told: "You're taking our jobs, you're taking our tax money, and at the end of the day; you are nothing but refugees in our country. If you want to work in Lebanon then you will work for us under our terms".

My husband's eyes are always tearful. He becomes lost for words, except for saying: "How am I supposed to get money to provide all of my family's needs, how am I going to find work?"

"Om Khaled" said: "My daughter wants chocolate.. I can't get her chocolate, I swear I can't". "Om Wael" joins in: "Chocolate!? She wants chocolate? Does she think this is an appropriate time for such things? Let us provide basics first, so that they could at least eat".

*****

-Haidar: My mom made "Shakrieh" today. I'm so excited; I'm having "Shakrieh" for dinner.

-What did you eat yesterday?

-Haidar: "Shakrieh" as well.

-Then what are you so excited about?

-Haidar: I’m excited about “Shakrieh"!

[Shakrieh; a famous Syrian food made with meat or chicken with Arabic yogurt, eaten with a side of rice].

*****

Using pseudonyms is inevitable here. They are refugees, but still; these people are living in an exile filled with eyes watching wide-open. Therefore, I had to do my best to change their names and the names of the areas they hail from; out of fear for their lives- although blurring their real identities will only add to their isolation and exile.

"Basmah" Says that no one in “Nabatieh” leaves them alone. No one believes them and everyone wants to blame them for everything that has been happening; "I feel like I live in a jungle".

"I am that Syrian woman who came from Dara’a - cradle of the revolution. I am the woman who is going to join DAESH and "Al-Nusra" Front. I am the Syrian woman who has destroyed her own country and has come here to wreak havoc in their country." These phrases float around inside my head; I can sense their accusations without even hearing them.

What's the utmost of my dreams you ask? That my 13 year old son "Marwan" would learn how to write his own name.

Last month the city council’s president in the village where they live visited them and asked that, as a Syrian family, not to leave their home after 8 PM. "He basically wished that we remain imprisoned".

Basmah didn't tell me that story to blame the city council's president, but rather to explain why 4 Syrian men were detained by Hezbollah militants at1 AM, only a few days after they were informed of the curfew. Basmah raises one of her hands and says:" These 4 guys are causing entire families to be prosecuted; we were asked not to go out after 8 PM, then, we just won't go out; why do they have to be so stubborn?”

All they want is to maintain a low-profile, and to push death and horror away, push them with all their strength -using their arms and legs, using anything.

"Sometimes I just want to let everything out, and just tell everyone: enough, just enough -no more injustice.", but; "Exile suffocates people, it is just like a prison, the only difference is that we have neighbours".

That's why silence dominates their lives; they are silently suffocating.

-What is the most horrifying thing that could happen in your Opinion, Basmah?

She told me that getting the news that a Lebanese guy had died in an area close to her hometown in Syria. If this happens, it would mean becoming homeless -becoming a refugee again, it would mean displacement, and it could also mean fear and never leaving the house. It would mean that many surprises and unexpected events could occur. It would mean shielding her children with her own body. But perhaps, it may not mean a thing; solely thinking about possibilities and chances, which only makes the situation more difficult and hard to live with.

*****

6 year old Yara, a Syrian child, plays with children at their neighbourhood, as they were playing, their neighbor comes out and yells at her daughter saying: "Take this little ISIS girl back to her mother, and come back inside.”, referring to Yara.

Yara's mother cries and wonders while tears flow down her cheeks, why would they call her daughter that.

That neighbour comes to their house in the evening to apologize.

She apologizes as Yara's mother weeps.

*****

I love my neighbours here, so do they. But I fear them, I fear them when they come carrying a new martyr into their village, carrying their son inside a coffin. I know what losing a loved one feels like; I've dealt with the aftermath of airstrikes, barrel bombs and... Death.

Eventually I ran away, ending up with a mentally-ill son; he gets petrified by the slightest sound, so he spends most of his time hiding underneath a blanket, and I spend most of my time picking him up, I pick him up from the bottom of his hide-out, and from the bottom of my misery.

The flames of the Syrian war spread quickly from one place to another and caused a huge fire that spared no one. My two aunts, my mother and my brother-in-law have all died. I don't know how to express my feelings, do you understand me? Can anyone understand me?

I decided to live in southern Lebanon because I simply cannot bear the urban lifestyle, adding to that; Beirut is one large exile, that's what I've heard. Yet still, I feel surrounded by beasts and monsters, I understand what's happening, but no one seems to want to understand that my children and I have nothing to do with it all.

I am not Azrael. (The angel of death)

I sometimes enjoy discussing politics, but I only know so little about it.

I like my neighbours; none of them leaves us to starve or in-need of anything.

I am just terrified by how people may react to certain events.

*****

-Haidar: no one fasts in Ramadan here, while in Syria everyone used to fast.

-Are you sure it was everyone?

-Haidar: Except for the men, because they smoke, so they have to break their fast.

-What about here?

- Haidar: none of your women fasts!

*****

Hereby I am the messiah, who drags his cross in exile.

Bader Shakir Al-Sayyab (From the poem "A Stranger To The Gulf" - 1953) [Bader Shakir Al-Sayyab; a highly renowned Iraqi poet.]

The pregnant woman and her husband rushed to the hospital after her water broke and she started bleeding. They traveled all the way from "Faqra" to “Rafik Al-Hariri” Hospital in Beirut.

Once she arrived she was dismissed with these words: "We're on Strike, we're closed". So they went back to their home after delaying her labor.

As night fell, their neighbour told the husband that his wife is only hours away from death. She woke up to find herself laying in the "Al-Rasool Al-A'atham" hospital; located in Beirut’s southern district of "Al-Dahieh".

“I was in the hands of Shiites; I only knew when I was being discharged. They all treated me so well; I didn't leave until I kissed every single nurse on the cheek."

My baby boy is now 1 year old. Time passes so slowly, however there's still no time to get anything done. "Have you ever seen the children of Somalia? That’s how my son is like these days".

Hunger. Hunger is the exile.

In a government owned hospital in Tripoli, my sister was asked to wipe her own vomit off the floor because she had apparently "thrown-up" at the wrong time. She says that exile is humiliating, she repeats; exile is humiliating, and once you become exiled, you will forever remain exiled.

*****

After "Om Khaled" sent a photo of herself from her home in Homs to her sister-in-law, the following conversation was conducted via Whatsapp:

-You look so pretty, Om Khaled. - I can see that you still like to dress up!

After his brother sent him a photo of their home in Dara'a, along with another of their uncle in Turkey through Whatsapp:

-Why has our home been destroyed daddy? Where are we going to live? And why is uncle Omar in Turkey while his children are in Jordan?

It is the sadness in photos, mixed with the flavor of refuge.

*****

I went to the "Islah" mosque in Tripoli, it was the first time that I leave the room since I fled Homs two years ago. I'm 80 years old and I am already incapable of moving much. I heard that they give aid to widows there, so I thought I would give it a try, perhaps I could bring home something for my son and me.

I arrived at the mosque, I was greeted by a woman wearing the Niqab, and she led me to a sheikh with a long black beard, who wore a long white Abaya. [Niqab; an attire that some muslim women wear, which covers the entire body, including the face.] - [Abaya; a long dress-like attire, worn by Muslim men, usually in white color.]

As I finished telling my story, the sheikh yelled to the woman who initially greeted me to come and take a close look at me, and then he said to her: "Do you see this woman? Look closely at her. I'm certain that she has already begged at every single charity and now she comes here to repeat her lies".

I didn't want to respond. I left the place, but then I returned to say a couple of things: "I never took anything from anyone, I only heard that they were giving out aid at the "Islah" mosque so I came here, but never again, I'd be damned if I ever come here again".

I will not leave Tripoli, I will not return to Syria either, as long as the situation there is the same, I swear that by my life. What I saw two years ago there, will continue to terrorize me for many years to come, if I even happened to live that long.

*****

Suha was supposed to be a freshman studying law at The Lebanese University at "Al-Hadath", but this was not made possible after a member of the student union approached her approximately 1 week after she applied, telling her that it is impossible to enroll her. Why is that? That’s due to an error in her application. What's the error? She attached a copy of her diploma rather than attaching the original one.

Suha began her journey as an employee. She worked for 2 and a half months (during which she only had 2 days off) at a pastries store for $450 a month; all in return for 12 hours of daily work.

-How would you describe your situation in Beirut?

-Messy.

-Why?

-Nothing is stable in Beirut, it's all upside down.

-What are the issues of Beirut?

-Salaries, the bad words said to Syrians by many locals. Beirut kills all dreams. It is a place where you die slowly. In Beirut, I no longer dream of anything.

-Are you a refugee or are you exiled?

-I am a Passerby.

-Does the fact that your residency permit has expired and you have become an illegal resident intimidate you?

Not at all, that will probably make me "banned from entering Lebanon" in the future, and I simply love that idea. How pleasant does that sentence sound; "banned from entering Lebanon", how pleasant would that situation be, in fact how pleasant if everything is not connected to this country.

-Where do you want to go?

-Anywhere but Beirut.

-What do you feel being in such a situation?

-Well I have recently lost the ability to feel anything.

-Have you ever faced disturbing situations here?

-Of course.

-Such as?

-I used to live in a girl's dormitory in "Al-Achrafieh", one of the Lebanese girls used to go out to search for a job every day, only to return at night and curse all Syrians: "Fuck you all, you have overwhelmed our country, and took all of our jobs, just leave already."

-Why do you hate Beirut?

-Well, over a period of 8 months I have moved 7 times. Everything in Beirut is always changing, except for me; I am the only constant thing in Beirut.