Beirut, an exile city in my heart
It seemed strange to write about leaving as I was just about to return. It was one of those unplanned trips that I had not anticipated when first starting to write this piece. I am now confused as to what term I should use: Am I departing for Lebanon or am I returning to it?
On that day, I lost everything that I had before.
I had first arrived in Lebanon through a sudden and forced displacement at the end of 2013. Some dates stay forever engraved in our minds. It was November 17, 7.30 in the morning, when I reached Lebanon with my family. That date and time might not mean anything to you, but it was the day that my story began, a story that I share with many others.
On that day, I lost everything that I had before. I had graduated from university in Damascus a few months before, and had almost no one left in Syria, except for my grandmothers, a few relatives and the last couple of friends who were also leaving the country one after the other.
When I left Syria, it was with ten keys to different houses, all with broken doors.
The losses we had in Syria were many. With them, all our memories disappeared. The hustle and bustle of the Hamadiyeh market in Damascus, the coldness of the tiles in the city’s Umayyad Mosque, the cypress tree in front of our house, the heavenly space from which I looked into the universe.
When I left Syria, it was with ten keys to different houses, all with broken doors. I can never go back again.
Am I leaving?
One day in July 2019, I received an email telling me that I was accepted to join a training course in Germany, and had to start the visa application process as soon as possible. As much as I was thrilled about the news, it weighed on me. I was well aware of how difficult it is to obtain a visa to Europe. If I would be lucky to get one, should I take the decision to try and stay there as a refugee?
The only other option I had was to return to Lebanon again, as a “tourist” for the sixth year in a row. In 2015, the Lebanese authorities started requiring all Syrians to either enter on tourist visas or get work permits, which is too expensive for most Syrians in Lebanon. And so, many stay in the country undocumented, and work without legal papers. When taking that decision, Lebanon also stopped registering any new refugees in the country.
That is how I ended up applying for the visa three times – and getting rejected three times.
At that time, I was working as a field coordinator with an organisation providing medical services to people in the refugee camps, something that was new to me, except for doing translation for doctors and volunteers coming from abroad. I started working with them by pure coincidence, after I had broken my leg and lost my previous job.
It turned out to be the best thing that happened to me that year.
While preparing my papers for the trip to Germany, I had in mind from previous experiences that the embassy would likely reject my application. My residency permit in Lebanon was about to end, and they would not accept that. Therefore, to give better chances for my application to succeed, I decided to renew my residency early, despite the relatively high fees. This, I learned, was impossible: permits could not be renewed before their end.
That is how I ended up applying for the visa three times – and getting rejected three times – before my application was finally approved, only a few days before the trip.
Ever since I arrived in Lebanon with my family, my mother had refused the idea that I would travel alone – or that any of my siblings would, for that matter. A woman like her, who loved to spend time in the company of her close ones, had no one but us in this new and unfamiliar country. She was at the same time upset and surprised by how we could even entertain the idea of giving up the rest of the family and leaving on our own.
Lebanon may not be a strange place for me, but it was for my mother. We were there alone, just the family, trying to find safety and security after having left a country filled with fear. We had abandoned our house and close ones, without the prospect of return.
She knew that this time, I had to leave.
After a long day of working on the paperwork for my visa, I joined my mother on the balcony of our house in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley, where she was sitting under the hot summer sun.
As usual, I started to chat with her about my long day, and prepared to ask her thoughts of me deciding to stay “there”. I was so lost over all the eventualities, possibilities and decisions that awaited me. My mother was not. She knew that this time, I had to leave.
The past six years had been an ongoing failure for me and my siblings to go anywhere further than Lebanon together. So each of us had to embark on their own journey. And I, it turned out, was the first to leave.
This did not prevent me from feeling completely at a loss. I did not know the best way to try and stay in Germany. Was it through work, studying or applying for asylum? The answer, I soon learned, was the last option: trying to get asylum. This was my only chance as a Syrian to remain in Germany. Yet it was an option that scared me, because I had heard a lot from others who went through the process. What if I ended up living there for years undocumented? What if I was sent to a remote village in the countryside? What if I would feel endlessly lonely on top of it all?
My happy place
The summer of 2019 was the best summer I had ever had. Or at least that was what my memory, dulled by the details of war and displacement, told me. You might think that someone’s best summer is lying on the beach, travelling with friends, listening to music and dancing. That might be the perfect summer for many, but it was definitely not how my summer of 2019 was!
I had spent the summer months working with the medical organisation in 14 Syrian camps in the Lebanese countryside, providing healthcare and medicines to the people living there. To me, it did not feel like a job at any point. I enjoyed every bit of what we were doing.
Our days typically started with a trip to the camps in El-Marj or Saadnayel, small towns in the Bekaa Valley. We never knew how our days would end, but I often returned home late, after having eaten a lot of food and laughed all day with new and old friends.
We never knew how our days would end, but I often returned home late, after having eaten a lot of food and laughed all day with new and old friends.
To this day, I still revisit memories of that summer whenever I lose focus or feel a bit down. I still remember the scorching sun on my face as I crammed along with the rest of the team in the van we used as a mobile health clinic, playing songs and making jokes as we went from camp to camp, driving through the wide-stretching wheat fields.
At the beginning of the year, a strong storm had hit the area, causing the Litani river to overflow and flood the camps completely. The recovery process was slow and the camp residents lived in hard conditions for a long time. Lots of diseases spread, which meant that we had a lot of work to do.
The work we did was hard and rewarding at the same time. But everything was real. The singing, the pain, the smells, the smiles, the chapped hands, the children’s faces, the summer heat, the wounds, the stories, the cow dung, the worried mothers and the indifferent parents, the kindness and lack of temper, the tears and happiness. Everything was real.
How could I let go of all this? Why would I want to leave? Why would I want to go to a new, cold country and leave all this warmth behind?
The impossible visa
By the end of my visa application process, I felt that I had become an expert in dealing with the bitterness of the routine. It was the second time that I applied through the German embassy and my third attempt at obtaining a visa to Europe. I called the embassy almost daily, and sent emails to follow up. My trip was now scheduled in less than a week, and I still did not know whether I was going to really leave or not. Did I have to say goodbye to my friends or not? Did I have to pack my things – my entire life – and prepare for a long departure?
Did I have to pack my things – my entire life – and prepare for a long departure?
As the days went by, my flight was in only two days and I had still not received a word from the embassy. I was struggling to keep sane and burst into tears every day. I went to work as usual, and tried to make one last desperate attempt: to ask a friend to call the embassy. She did, and they said they would call me back!
“Hello. Yes, I am Fatima Alhaji.”
“If you want your visa, you must come and collect it in Beirut today, before 2pm.”
“But… I am not in Beirut and it’s 11am now. Ok, ok… I am on my way.”
I was running to catch my visa. “Oh my god, that means I am really leaving! So what now?” I thought to myself.
I arrived in Germany with a ten-day travel visa and a big decision to make. All my friends were already asking me about my next steps. I tried to figure out what my alternatives were: in which city should I apply for asylum, and when would be the best time to do so?
There was no clear answer, but rather more confusion. Every person I asked had a different answer – it was clear that nothing was certain! At that moment I felt that everything I wanted was to go back to Lebanon, wake up in the morning and jump in our van, ready to start the day.
There was no clear answer, but rather more confusion.
Still, I knew deep down that the stressful and uncertain life in Lebanon eventually would strip me of my soul. I would not be able to keep going with the same energy. It was therefore time to throw myself on this new journey, which I would allow myself to call exile.
The last one to arrive in Berlin
I was fortunate in a lot of things that happened to me upon arrival in Germany. First, I was lucky enough to get to stay in Berlin, and not be sent to an unknown part of the country. Second, and most importantly, there were many friends in the city whom I knew even before arriving.
It was not my first time in Berlin. The last time I had been there, I had arrived at night. The city then seemed like a frightening, vast space to me. Its imposing and sharp-edged buildings were a far cry from the familiar chaotic concrete of cities in Lebanon and Syria.
I carried a great deal of love for the places that I had left behind – Beirut, Damascus, the Bekaa Valley.
On this second visit, I arrived in the company of my own anxiety. I tried to get to really know the city this time, in a bid to search for some familiarity in the great unknown.
In one sense I was prepared for what awaited me. I carried a great deal of love for the places that I had left behind – Beirut, Damascus, the Bekaa Valley. This love would materialise at times in the form of chats with people; me describing some of the beautiful and unforgettable experiences that were now behind me. At other times, it materialised in the form of sudden bursts of tears in the wide streets of Berlin.
Arriving in Berlin was an opportunity to exchange stories with other Syrians that I met. I heard friends talk about their early days of being new to the city: the hardships they went through, the dilapidated houses they had to live in, the long hours of waiting that sometimes translated into days, the harsh Berlin winters, the struggle with the language, the new everyday life and memories from the past.
Ironically, it was in Berlin that I had a crash with my own Syrian identity.
Listening to people’s stories made me feel like I was late to the party, the last one to arrive in Berlin. I was the newcomer, arriving five years after the Syrians who took the Mediterranean sea route came to the city.
I started to memorise the arrival dates, histories and details of all the other Syrians I met in the city, trying to figure out where I fit in and what we had in common. After five years in Germany, many of these relationships had taken root, despite our differences. A community has been formed, with all of us and our different identities, problems and backgrounds.
Ironically, it was in Berlin that I had a crash with my own Syrian identity. Because borders, even invisible, materialise when people meet and form new communities, bringing with them old affiliations from their countries of exile.
Images of the sea is what came to mind immediately when learning about the explosion in Beirut.
During my last three years in Lebanon, I had been part of a diverse community made up of people from different countries and backgrounds. Many were Lebanese, not Syrian. I felt that nationality and identity mattered little at that time. This was not the case in Berlin.
I still do not know where I belong. Maybe I just belong in all of this diversity.
What is certain is that a part of me belongs to the city of Beirut and its sea. Images of the sea is what came to mind immediately when learning about the explosion in Beirut. I panicked and began calling everyone I knew in a frenzy. Suddenly, it all came back to me. I was once again back in Syria, waiting for the shelling to stop in order to make sure that the people I knew were alright. Once again, I was forced to think of the possibility of losing the people that I love.
I felt pain for Beirut, for everyone living there. Our countries never cease to inflict pain upon us, our losses are never-ending.
I spent six years in Lebanon and sometimes I feel that this is all I have. When I moved there from Damascus, it felt like I lost who I was and had to discover that again. I discovered a new world of friends and new meanings of love, and found a space for debate, politics and theater.
I carried with me a wide, inner space, large enough to fit the sea of Beirut.
Today, I can only go back there as a tourist on a two-week stay. Lebanon, through its rules and regulations, does not accept the part of me that belongs innately to it.
I took a trip to Lebanon at the end of last year. It was a swift visit, I had to snatch myself away when the day of departure came. It was too short and too little, but it built a bridge between myself, Beirut and Berlin.
When I returned to Berlin, the welcome was as cold as it always is. But I carried with me a wide, inner space, large enough to fit the sea of Beirut. Many moments of warmth and laughter were hidden inside too.
I still allow myself to call Berlin my exile – the exile where I share all these warm stories of left-behind countries; lands that hurt us with their continued pain and suffering But this is something we can never be cured from.
Inner migration was produced as part of the 2020-2021 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Aude Nasr. This story was translated from Arabic to English by Sahar Ghoussoub.