Expat Guilt- On Leaving Lebanon

I’ve known I wanted to leave my home-country ever since I was 12- probably even younger. I remember being in high school and daydreaming of the day I was going to apply and get accepted into a university abroad somewhere… anywhere.

Let me lay down the reasons why: Lebanon is… a mess, one that often gets romanticized and as a result, its flaws become “justifiable”, even necessary to the rose-tinted image some people may have of it. Lebanon’s history still infuses the everyday life of its citizens. We all live in a white noise effect of the societal and cultural trauma that got passed down from generation to generation as a result of the civil war, political mismanagement, corruption, a feeling of hopelessness and a lack of safety.

Excuse the borderline vulgar oversimplification here, but I’m just laying down the groundwork. The best way I can describe the Lebanese political system is by comparing it to a poorly written high school drama show where no one likes anyone, where he said/she saids are commonly misinterpreted, misquoted and misused, where everybody has to work together but they don’t know how. The difference here is that the bullies don’t usually have a backstory that make us sympathize with them. I’m not going to give you a rundown of the Lebanese civil war, there’s a Wikipedia page for that. Word of advice if you do decide to read it: maybe have some Advil in case you start getting a headache. Maybe also a glass of wine.

Beirut During the Civil War

During the civil war, the Lebanese currency was devalued by a thousand.
That’s not one, not two, but three zeros after the one. 1000.
People lost their money, their savings, their hopes to invest in their future. It was also during the civil war where the Lebanese diaspora became much more widespread.
The ones who could leave- did and the ones who couldn’t leave stayed and hoped that their children would someday.

My parents oddly enough fall under both categories. My father moved to Saudi Arabia for a decade, my mother and newborn older brother joined him afterwards and they lived there for a few years as a family. When my brother was old enough to go to school, my parents decided to move back to Lebanon for the foreseeable future in order to give my brother a better education.

I was born when my brother was 8 years old and went to a school in Lebanon where a good number of my classmates had parents who had left the country during the war and then came back, some of them even getting a second passport.

I never understood what that entailed until I realized the absolute hell that is visa applications. And I’m not talking student visas, I’m talking “I feel like going to Cyprus which is a 40 minute plane ride for weekend” visa. What I did understand however is that leaving Lebanon and making a life elsewhere is the right thing to do, and that these people had the chance to leave if they decided to- whereas I didn’t yet.

Whenever people talk about family members who left the country, there’s always a sense of praise, a tone of support, followed by “good on them! What’s left in this country anyway?”. My brother left Lebanon in 2011, and everyone would praise him in front of me “Bravo a’aleh. There’s nothing here for him any way”. The general consensus is: if you can leave, do.

And then I did just that. At the age of 24 and with the support (or should I say encouragement) of my family, I got an immigration visa to Canada and booked a one-way ticket to Toronto. At the airport, my mother wished me the best, my father- who dealt with my anxiety over paperwork- told me that this is the best decision I could have taken. And, unfortunately, he was right. I had become the Lebanese cliché I was trying to avoid- but I didn’t care at that point. I didn’t have many friends in Lebanon anymore — almost everyone I cared about had left or was at least planning on leaving.

Isn’t it sad to say that the best decision any Lebanese can take at the moment is to go elsewhere?
Here’s where it gets a little (a lottle actually) sadder. I left Lebanon indefinitely (I still have trouble saying permanently) back in 2018- things weren’t great, but they were manageable (ish). I quickly got settled in Canada, found a job, and moved into my apartment. In October of 2019, the Lebanese revolution started, and I spent hours glued to my screen at work, at home, on public transport, just trying to stay up to date with what’s happening. What did this politician say? What did that politician say? When will people be allowed to get their money out of the bank? (It’s August 2020 and they still can’t) How can I help? Why do I have to be all the way in freezing cold Canada when my home-country is FINALLY taking things into its own hands, when my friends are out there in the streets fighting for a better future?

I felt guilty that I couldn’t be there cheering on with everybody. I videocalled a few friends during the protests to get as close as possible to the action. It consumed me.

Fast forward to the present moment, it’s now August 2020..
Quick Lebanese economy lesson: our currency is pegged to the dollar. Is that dumb? Yes. Does it get better? Nope. A few months ago, 1 USD= 1500 LBP. Today? I’m not sure. No one is, really. I call my parents and friends on a regular basis and I get updated on its current value:

“Today the dollar is 5000 LBP, yesterday it was 8000 LPB. Everything is so expensive. They’re cutting out the electricity 22 hours a day now. No one is even thinking of buying meat anymore. Everything has doubled/tripled/quadrupled in price. Today an armed man went to the pharmacy and held the pharmacist at gunpoint because he didn’t have money to pay for diapers”.

The currency is getting devalued AGAIN, for the second time in my parents’ life. Everyone who had gone through the civil and through the currency devaluation once is seeing their purchase power grow weaker and weaker by the day yet again.

This is what I unknowingly got away from in August 2018. And the feeling that comes with that is unsettling. One on hand, I am so grateful that I left when I did, before things got horrible, before the immigration system gets flooded with people urging to leave, before I wouldn’t be able to get some money out of the country. On the other hand, I feel guilty that I left and that my parents and some of my best friends are still there, that I’m just an observer, that I’m emotionally disconnected from a place that is/was (?) so dear to me.

Being away from what used to be home isn’t easy. It’s laced with nostalgia, guilt (if you hadn’t guessed yet) and “what ifs”.

The August 4th Explosion “Beirut Blast”

Yesterday and this morning, Beirut made headlines on every major newspaper around the world “Beirut Blast” “Bomb in Beirut”. My phone pinged for the better part of 16 hours. “are your parents okay? Did you check on this person or that person?”. I texted, called, obsessed over social media yet again. I have footage of every angle of the explosion.

Screenshots from conversations with friends after the explosion in Lebanon.

The guilt that arose was unbearable, the “why did I make it out of Lebanon but not my parents, or this friend or that friend”. And it was just dumb luck. Dumb luck that made me apply for Canadian immigration just when things were about to go into freefall.

At the end of the day, that’s what my friends and family tell me they’re experiencing: it just so happens that they were born in Lebanon, it just so happens that they have to carry a burden that they never asked for or experienced its predecessor. It just so happens that some people left the country at the “right” time. It just so happens that some people were at the wrong place at the wrong time. It just so happens; it just so happens….

The phone calls and texts that emerged in the last two days can be divided into two categories.

My expat friends feel guilty, at a loss for words, confused, angry, frustrated that this is happening and also almost every single one of them is planning to get their loved ones out.

“I’ve come to a point where I don’t have it in me to care about Lebanon anymore, I just want my friends and family close to me. The country can fall apart for all I care as long they’re safe. I’ve had enough of this emotional torture.”

My friends in Lebanon are also in shock, but a different kind of shock. One that made them question their decision to stay- if that was a decision at all (more on that later). One that shattered those rose-tinted glasses in one blast.

“Thank God we’re safe. But why do I live somewhere where I have to be grateful that my parents didn’t die of a massive explosion?”

“I’m tired and I want to leave and worry about my next job application, not the fate of the country and how it’s going to affect my life on a regular basis.”

“I think it’s time for me to build something for myself that lasts longer than Lebanon, and I hate that I have that thought”

I am lucky enough to say that none of my loved ones were hurt, but my country, or at least what used to be my country is. And this disconnect is exhausting.

This made me wonder if I had actually decided to leave or if I was pushed by circumstance to.

Now more than ever, I believe it’s the latter. It wasn’t a decision as much as it was an acceptance of reality: Lebanon wasn’t the place where I could grow, where I could live freely and not worry about when the electricity was going to cut out tomorrow, if we were going to have running water this week, or be 100 % positive that the sound from outside is just fireworks and not an explosion. I had to accept that what happened on August 4th 2020 and what happened in 2008 and 2006 and 1975 all the way up to 1991 was controlling and tainting my life on a regular basis. Admitting that to myself was a hard pill to swallow.

We wouldn’t leave if we thought we had a better choice- which is horrible to say out loud. We are not always subject to free will, but we are subject to survival.

So, for now, I watch Lebanon from a distance, unsure of how I feel towards it anymore, guilty but grateful that I left.

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Razane is a UX and Innovation designer with experience in architecture and public art. She also dabbles in photography and feels very strongly about ice cream.

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