The Day I Immigrated: There Are Homes Better Than A Home in Lebanon, Which Is Why Lebanese Expats Are Expats

Today is the day I become a Lebanese expat and my country of residence, in all those forms that we have to fill, becomes something else than the home I’ve known for all of the 27 years I’ve existed so far.

On my possibly last drive to the airport as a Lebanese citizen permanently living in his home country, I was thinking about how sad my mother was next to me, as she prayed her rosary, probably for me to have safe travels and a beaming future in the United States, the country that’s offering me a home.

I was also wondering if, in the upcoming few months, I’ll be one of those Lebanese whose entire purpose in life is to sell the country they’ve left, hiding away all of the flaws that made them leave it. Then I realized, I’m probably already the target of those videos, such as that Byblos bank ad that went viral about two days ago, titled: There’s No Home Like a Home in Lebanon:

I will miss my grandma’s cooking, but most of all I will miss her and those sweet teary eyes that bid me farewell, in a hospital room this morning, as I said goodbye to my sick grandfather before heading to the airport.

I will miss that man’oushe, those Sunday lunches with my family, road trips to areas I haven’t yet discovered with friends who mean the most to me.

Yes, this is the country where I was born, where my family and friends live, where I’ve had my first kiss and my first heartbreak, and in whose airport I’m currently writing this post as I look on a whole bunch of other people like me leaving, in planes carrying my national symbol.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tearful and grateful for what I’ve been offered as I write this. But on that last drive to the airport, I realized once more that emotion and reason can’t mix in determining the future that we ought to demand for ourselves, starting with myself.

There comes a time when hummus and man’oushe over sensational music isn’t enough anymore to sell a country, no matter how many times the same disc is spun. I’m sorry to say, that disc is broken – nay, it’s shattered and there’s no coming back from it.

In this past week alone, a 24 year old named Roy Hamouche was killed in cold blood because some guy was angry. Another person was also attacked by a police officer because of road rage.

In this past week, a physician coerced the judicial system into helping him commence the cover up in a possible malpractice lawsuit, and we can’t but sit by and watch.

I’m leaving a country as a 27 year old citizen who was never allowed to vote, and whose voice has to always be self-censored as to not face the wrath of the multiple sensibilities we have to consider in saying what’s on our mind.

I’m leaving this country as a doctor who has to fight a mammoth of a system entirely geared at making me feel like I’m always a bug up the echelons of my career, no matter how much I try to thrive.

I’m leaving a country whose beaches are dirty, whose sea is toxic, whose forests are being dismantled, whose elderly are being turned down at hospital doors, whose mothers and their children are being evicted from houses and forced to live in construction sites even in the heart of Beirut, whose garbage can’t be sorted or addressed, and whose people – most of them at least – are still ready to offer their necks to the same politicians who have turned this country into what it is today, as they drool over any video or international article that says their country is a nice vacation site, and whose children are forced to beg in the streets to make ends meet.

A nice holiday destination doesn’t make a good index of life.

I’d love to say there’s no home like a home here. But the truth is that is far from the truth. There’s a reason why Lebanon has expats who visit every once in a while and return to countries they’ve chosen to turn into their homes.

It’s because in the republic of wasta, you can only make it as far as your strongest connection. It’s because in the republic of waste, you breathe cancer.

It’s because their children can die for angering the wrong person on the street, because this country ranks among the highest in corruption, the weakest in passport strength, and is on the lower side when it comes to international indices of life.

Remember this when you support sensational bank ads or articles or lists of why this country is the best ever. Remember that falling to delusions of grandeur will never advance this country, and that being content with what we have will never give us what we need.

Never forget where you’re from, but always remember why you left. I love it here. Correction: I loved it here. But today, I pack my life in 3 suitcases, and leave all of it behind because here is not where my future lies.

The Humiliation of Entering The United States As Arab

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he takes the stage for a campaign event in Dallas, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he takes the stage for a campaign event in Dallas, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

I was rejected the US visa for the first time when I was fifteen. I remember standing there, in front of the Embassy Consulate, unsure as to why I was being shut away, as just a young boy, from spending a summer abroad with his family. I was told I didn’t have an “extended enough travel history,” because as you know most 15 year olds have probably been around the world.

Ten years later, after months of back and forth with the Embassy and papers flowing in and out, I was finally given a visitor’s visa for 5 years on my third try, routine for Lebanese citizens who were granted the document as far as I know. A few months later, I visited the United States of America for the first time ever.

On my second visit, the border control officer said his system “couldn’t process” me, so I was taken into another room where, an hour and another interrogation later, I was permitted entry to come into the US to do my medical residency interviews. This happened again on my third entry, with longer waiting times. Entering the US has been the most invasive thing to my being, and I’ve survived medical school.

It’s also what has been happening to many of my colleagues and friends: doctors, scientists, researchers, humans. Just because they were unfortunate enough to be born in countries that are not worthy of enough of having their citizens treated with the minimum of human decency. I can tell you stories about physicians who were kept in those rooms for four hours, waiting for who knows what. It’s never easy to sit there and not know what’s going to happen to you, just because you dared seek entry of a foreign country that you’ve already been thoroughly vetted to be given a visa to.

This process that we go through every time we want to come here, that we know we have to willingly subject ourselves to in order for us to visit New York or some monument or even see some extended family is, apparently, not “rigorous” enough.

Today, on my third visit, with the news of president Donald Trump stopping visas and entries from countries he doesn’t like and even though my country isn’t on the list, I’m the most scared and the most unwelcome I’ve felt in a country whose history celebrates its diversity and its enabling of people from all kinds by giving them a chance at making it.

Not if your kind is Arab.

You’ll read plenty about illegal immigrants, but the fact of the matter is the United States scares me too much for me not to abide by its laws. It’s not about how it cracks down on illegals or how it’s managed to change the course of my region for centuries to come. It’s about how humiliated I’ve felt every single time I’ve applied for that visa.

Many of you wouldn’t think twice about the notion of a “tourist visa.” To most of you, the term is as foreign as that of the person demanding it, but every single time we apply for one – be it for the United States or any other country – we have to subject ourselves to the most rigorous of checks, be ready to provide every form of documentation imaginable. Just for a visit.

And this isn’t rigorous enough.

For a refugee to be granted entry to the United States, they must first apply through the UNHCR, which conducts its own interviews and documentation collection process. Those selected for re-settlement in the United States have their files referred to the State Department which puts the refugee through screening by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and DHS. More anti-fraud agencies come into play later as well as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services (USCIS), which interviews the refugees, fingerprints them, and runs those fingerprints through the FBI, DHS and Department of Defense.

If a refugee passes through all of that, they are given health screenings to make sure they’re not bringing in any diseases to the US, while being enrolled in cultural orientation classes as they wait, while their information is checked constantly against terrorist databases. On September 15th, 2016, the US House of Representatives also voted to add further screening steps that require the FBI director to sign off on every single refugee.

Over the past 15 years, the United States, also the world’s third largest country in size and population, has re-settled only around 780,000 refugees.

And this isn’t rigorous enough either.

The fact that my friends have to be told by their employers not to go home for fear of their visas not getting renewed, and have their families not be able to visit them because someone out there is so afraid of them existing is 2017’s reality for many. But we can’t say anything about it, because it’s their country and we’re just parasites in it.

Growing up, America was always a place of hope for me. It was from where, as a kid, my relatives visited with gifts. It was the place from which, growing up, my favorite musicians, series and movies emanated. It is the place, today, that I’m working diligently as a graduated physician to come train in. Today, that place gives me anxiety, just for coming from a certain country in a region whose entirety is on a blacklist, knowing that the most illegal thing I’ve done in my life was break speeding limits.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that selective targeting is never a good thing nor does it build better societies nor does it contribute to the betterment of countries. After all, isn’t one of the most shameful events in American history were the Japanese internment camps around World War II?

With every passing day of Trump’s presidency, and at this rate it is daily, America’s image is getting distorted. Perhaps that is what those who voted for him want: for it not to remain a country of inclusiveness, and become a walled – literally? – state. But it’s also my belief that no country can ever truly be great through hate, fear, the refusal of anything that is different and the denigration of a people. A few decades ago, Anne Frank and her family were denied American visas. How many Anne Franks will be refused away because of fear today?

When I Decided To Become a Lebanese Expat

“The last time I was this scared was 2006,” she told me this afternoon, moments after she crossed into the Northern part of a city ravaged with battles. I guess that’s saying something given that the person in question spent a good part of the war that year in a 3×2 ditch that her family calls a shelter.

The matter to immigrate out of Lebanon was always a matter of if with me. Today, becoming an expat is no longer a matter of if. It’s simply matter of when. And with each passing day, that “when” doesn’t seem to get here soon enough.

I tried as much as I can to disassociate myself from what was happening in my country lately. It was time not to be constantly negative, I said. I’m better off than most people in this country, I convinced myself. But then I realized that the standard of living in this country is just not good enough. And by the looks of it, it will never be.

“I always cried at the idea of you leaving here,” my best friend’s mom told him. Then, as she dried her eyes and looked him straight in the eyes she said: “Do your best to leave.” My best friend is currently unable to go back home because the roads leading back to his bedroom (and cat) are cut off due to gunfire and protests.

Welcome to the safety of the republic of Lebanon, post-parliament mandate extension. Weren’t things supposed to get better, theoretically?

Being in Lebanon today means being in the same country as people like Ahmad el Assir who, a few years ago would have never ever dreamed of catching a spotlight. Today, they enjoy modest popularity and incredible funding that enables them to launch full blown attacks against the Lebanese army and threaten cities that are dubbed the capital of their region.

Being in Lebanon today means living with the likes of Hezbollah who, proud as they are of being on terrorist lists everywhere, resort to arguments in the form of zionism and Israel whenever the going gets tough. And the argument works every time because it sure sounds beautiful to be fighting Israel all the way in God knows where.

Being in Lebanon today means being nothing more and nothing less than a number in a Christian game of empty slogans, fancy billboard wars, fiery television shoutouts and no tangible work whatsoever. It means members of the side you once supported thinking you’re switching allegiance and shutting you out while those on the other side thinking you’re as one-sided as they are. It means not fitting in within any of the rhetoric being spoken – and being accused that you are of the same mold anyway.

Being in Lebanon today also means being in the land of a Lebanese army that knows nothing but to call on moral support whenever its members get killed. “Support us against those who want to cause mayhem in this country” is the typical line of the same army which, in recent days, beat up peaceful protesters in one part of the country and stood by watching as the same militias killing it today passed by its members in their tanks.

Being in Lebanon today is living in a land where men of cloak have power that grows proportionally to their beard’s (sometimes mustache-less) length. It means feeling less and less empowered as the days move forward. It means feeling less and less safe. It’s become living in a place where there are so many red lines floating around you never know which red line you crossed when you’ve seemingly done nothing wrong: the red lines of religions, the red lines of religious militias, the red lines of politics, the red lines of sects, the red lines of bigots and the red lines of those living in their own version of Lebanese la-la land.

Being in Lebanon today means living with people who think there’s nothing wrong, whose reply to this is simply: “you go ahead and leave, stop bitching and spare us some breathing space,” who marvel at the beauty of some fireworks and somehow use them as an argument to convince themselves that tomorrow will be a better day. I know those people because I was one of them. And I tried as hard as I can to remain one of them. But it just didn’t work anymore – I can’t live in la-la land anymore.

“I just had the most demoralizing phone call of my life,” she told me as we snaked our way through the quiet streets of Beirut after midnight. “Did you know we are not allowed to be in the same research opportunities abroad as people who have any form of relation with you-know-where be it funding or otherwise? So here I am, working my ass off for years… Only to find out the research program of my dreams is out of the question.”

I tried to comfort my friend by telling her things will be okay. But the question begets itself: regardless of the politics of it, why do I have to be the one always ruining my future because I’m Lebanese? Why do I have to be the one putting the questionable morals of my country first when my country has given so little back to me? Why do I have to be the one constantly on the losing end just because I am in the possession of a navy blue passport emblazoned with a golden Cedar? Why do I have to be the one passing on opportunities in order not to disappoint a country that has never managed to impress me?

I am currently pursuing a medical degree and I thought I was getting the best medical education that money could buy and given my country’s standards, and at more than $20,000 a year, I sure am. I thought getting acquainted with hospitals around this country was exposing me to how things are done, strengthening me for a future in which I give the best standard of care for my patients while giving myself and my future family a decent living standard. What I learned, however, surpassed the pathology and the pharmacology of things: medicine in Lebanon is not patient oriented. It is pocket-oriented. And no, this isn’t about Lebanese hospitals. “If only you have any idea how many procedures being done are absolutely unnecessary,” a senior physician told my group. “They’re done because doctors get a cut off the money – not because it’s the best practice for your patients. Learn the textbook – and adapt what you learn the best way you can.”

What I also learned was that entering the workforce over here once I’m done with my degree is going as close to hell as possible. Instead of a specialty welcoming new blood and minds into its fold in order to progress, it shuts on itself and shuts you out in the process as you try to claw yourself in. The veterans divert patients away from you. They try to sabotage you. They ruin your reputation in order to keep the golden goose all for themselves. Good thing the $100,000 spent in your education was paid for by your parents.

“You are the future of the country,” he told me as we moved around Paris. “What future might that be?” I asked. That person highlighted a place of promise, a place that I would be proud to call home. “And do you intend to return?” I then asked again. He shook his head. Yes, our expats make us proud. Their accomplishments make us marvel at the beauty of having opportunities. Yet they infuriate me when they preach without living it, without getting it, without knowing how horrible it is to know you are living in a place of no opportunities, no future and no hope whatsoever – despite the opposite you try to convince yourself with everyday because there’s nothing better than denial to ease the medicine to be gulped down everyday.

“If you don’t handle Lebanon at its worst, you don’t deserve it at its best,” I was told as well. What best might that be, I wondered.How long do I have to handle a downward spiral of Lebanon’s worst until the clouds start clearing? Why do I have to be a masochist, forcing myself to live in times of war that seem to never know a way to end just because, in theory, my country needs people like me? But does my country even want me?

What about what I want?

I want a decent future for myself and my children. I want a second passport that doesn’t require me to knock at embassy doors and plead in order to go on vacations. And I want to transfer that second passport to my parents so they can get a better life, a life where they are valued and cherished for the amazing creatures that they are. I want a place that guarantees my liberties – that allows me to curse the president, insult Jesus and categorize a political party as a terrorist group. All in one sentence for the whole word to see. And live to tell the tale. I want a place where I can pursue a career in which my input is not only valued, it is sought out. I want a place where I don’t have to screw over my patients in order to become better off financially – and still be able to repay my parents all the hard-earned money they spent in my education. I want a place where I can drive without feeling like maneuvering cattle in a prairie. I want a place that knows rules and laws are there for a reason.

Lebanon is home. It’s a place I didn’t feel I fit but always felt I belonged. I belonged to the streets that enchanted, the people I called family and the faces that gave me reassurance that tomorrow might be better than today. Today, those streets feel desolate and foreign. The people I call family have become strangers. The faces that gave me reassurance in days past now get me worried.

Will I miss it when I leave here once I’m done with my medical degree? Perhaps so. It’s hard not to miss the place that built me. But I think I’ll take a pinch of trab el arz, some cedar grains, plant them wherever a visa and an opportunity take me and call it home all over again.