Syria Diary: Life in exile

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Damascus from a well-to-do family belonging to a Syrian minority. For security reasons, he prefers to stay anonymous. In this second diary entry, he describes the eight months he spent Lebanon after fleeing Damascus. I arrived in Lebanon in September 2012, thinking I would only spend a few days finalizing paperwork before heading to Spain to do a master’s degree. I had brought with me a handbag of essentials so as not to even have to open my suitcase.

The first day I went to the Spanish embassy, I was sent back for more stamps and seals. The second time I visited, the same thing happened. I began going to the embassy almost daily. There were lines and lines of Syrians applying for visas. In fact, there were more Syrians in the embassy than Lebanese. Over time, some faces became familiar, and some of them became waiting-room friends.

I spent two months waiting for the visa, living in a friend’s flat with three other people. I was shocked at how many old Syrian friends I ran into in Lebanon: guys I had known long ago, from school or the neighbourhood, all of whom had fled because they were wanted by either side of the conflict. Many of them never got their visas - they were denied for reasons often kept confidential - but couldn’t go back to Syria because of the war. They were engineers, accountants, doctors, musicians - people with great potential. Instead, they ended up settling for any job they could find in Beirut. I felt sorry for them, just as I would feel sorry for myself later on.

I had always wanted to study abroad, but most of the people waiting for visas were not leaving out of desire. They had jobs and lives in Syria and left unwillingly. I had a grotesque, cartoon-like vision of an entire generation being displaced and put in line in front of an embassy, waiting for a visa, waiting for a ticket with which to build a new life.

As my visa procedures dragged on, I was forced to open my suitcase, but I refused to unpack or get too comfortable in Lebanon. But after two months, when my application was finally complete, I was told I couldn’t obtain the visa anyway; the course in which I was registered had already started. I was too late. I put on a happy face when my parents came to bid me farewell, hiding my disappointment.

I spent almost all the savings I had on a small apartment downtown that I shared with a friend. Unpacking was psychologically exhausting; taking my things out of the suitcase felt like taking my dreams out of my head. I’d always dreamed of travelling the globe, and now here I was, stuck in an unwelcoming country, not very far from home, with nothing but 40kg worth of my things. How I wished I could put a person or a small Damascene coffee shop in that suitcase!

Despite my language skills and university degree, the only job I could find was as a cashier and supervisor in a fast-food shop. I tried to build a life in Beirut, but working everyday outside of your profession, without using your skills, makes you feel inferior in your own eyes, never mind the eyes of others. The wage was much lower than what I had earned in Syria, and the cost of living much higher.

But Lebanon’s economy was suffering as a result of the Syrian crisis, and within six months, the shop closed down. I had no energy left to look for a new job and no desire to spend more time aimlessly.

Instead, I decided to go home. I would go illegally, smuggled across the border outside of the watchful eyes of Syrian security. It was a risk, but I wanted - no, I needed - to smell Damascus again.

Previous entry:
Syria Diary: Leaving Damascus

Next entry:
Syria Diary: Going home