To Remain Captive For The Sake Of Freedom
Every morning I step out of my door in Beirut, I look around, take a deep breath, and think of that quote from Apocalypse Now. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Once you step out onto those mean streets, you engage yourself in the ultimate battle with the city. Between the traffic, the oppressive heat, the chaos, the stench of garbage, and the constant stream of Frenchie Arabic, Beirut feels pretty aggressive. It’s literally up in my grill, daring me on to a fight. And I do love me a good cat fight.
My first day back was a good reminder that life here is inconvenient at best, impossible at worst. No one remains unscathed by it. The heat brings more (if that’s possible) power and water cuts. Basic necessities come at a premium. While that might be more inconvenient for me, such as having to buy a gym membership to make sure I have water to shower, for others, basic needs become unattainable.
The economy in the Middle East is bad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Beirut in this economical state before. Natural resources are limited. The political situation is at a stalemate. The corruption of every single institution is rampant. There is a trash problem. People’s incomes have shrunk. Prices for food, water, housing, electricity have gone up. NGOs are not fully funded. People are desperate. People are angry.
There is a large disconnect between all of us around the world, isn’t there? Instead of focusing on seeing the pain of others, instead of concern or actual knowledge of someone else’s life, we tend to stereotype them or worse, demonize them. For some reason, depending on where someone is from or their religion, we think they deserve this kind of life.
My second day back in Beirut, I attended a play. It was a production from a local nonprofit working with Syrian women refugees. The play was true stories from these women’s lives reenacted by them. The stories were full of trauma and pain. The entire purpose was for these women to work through their trauma. After completing a program, they stood in front of an audience and spoke their truth, the audience was the witness, and this play was their graduation project. It was powerful.
One of the short acts was a woman acting out the story of a Syrian woman who learned of her children drowning in the sea. Remember in 2014, the boats carrying refugees from the Middle East to Greece? Remember how many died? Remember the media coverage? As we approached the door to sit down, a woman started screaming at the top of her lungs about her babies dying. The interactive part of the play had started. She screamed, she lamented, she walked through the crowd shoving her phone with pictures of the children into faces of the stunned audience members, including mine. It was uncomfortable. It was shocking.
The entire act was only 3 minutes long, but it left a lasting impression on me. In so many ways, we can choose to look away from someone’s suffering, we can numb ourselves by judging it as a way we protect ourselves. In those three minutes, there was no choice but to see the pain and not to look away. We were captive.
Maybe that’s the key, to be captive to others. How can you expect others to understand you or even see you if you refuse to see them?
My first day back in a refugee camp was filled with a lot of talk and worry about the Lebanese government reenacting a law to require a work permit for foreign workers to work legally in the country. This includes the most menial and low-wage jobs – construction, the restaurant industry, and even day laborers. Lebanon is classifying Palestinian refugees as foreign workers, even though they are registered as refugees, even though they have been in the country for 71 years, even though they are already forbidden by law to work in 70 different professions.
That day, I saw the pain and confusion and fear and anger. I saw how injustice and a lack of basic human rights for decades snowballs to legal oppression. The problem is I have been in Beirut (off and on) for 15 years. I have seen things disintegrate to this point. I kept saying to myself, how can life for the Palestinians in Lebanon be worse when they were already the worst.
How can Palestinians afford to buy a work permit if they can’t work? How will they find fair wages? How will Lebanese employers hire them when they face penalties for doing so? If UNRWA collapses because my country pulled funds, where will food subsidies come from?
Tell me, how will they support their families? How will they eat?
It’s at this point I want to scream from the rooftops at the complacency of the world with as much anger and passion I can muster. I want to shove pictures in your face. I want you to see the injustice of 71 years of stateless status. I want you to see these refugees as people and I want you to see their pain. I don’t want you to have the option to look away. I don’t want you to have the option to put blame with others. I want you to be moved to action.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that the key to my own freedom is to fight for others’ freedom…not my own. As an American, to use whatever rights and talents and privilege and education and money I have to improve the lives of others. As a Christian, I believe it’s biblical to lay down my rights for others, even my very life. Isn’t that what Jesus did? It’s not about keeping myself safe and prioritizing my rights over others.
No one remains unscathed here whether it’s Lebanon or on this planet. The question in my mind for the past few weeks is, is someone being oppressed because of/or for my so-called freedom?
The bigger question, how can we be equally freed… all together?