I taught in a refugee camp in Beirut for 14 months total, and got stuck trying to formulate a reflection. Searching for inspiration, I came across a letter I wrote to a former professor a few days before I left. Reading it back almost exactly one year later, it seems a rather sickeningly poetic and melodramatic way to describe very real and truly tragic regional circumstances. Still, I figured I’d share part of it—as a place to begin if nothing else:
“This is a country of incredible paradoxes: where four million ideologically conflicting Lebanese and more than one million Syrian and Palestinian refugees now live uncomfortably alongside each other in the bounds of a tiny nation in the midst of what seems like perpetual turmoil and tension, with only small and blessed breaks between the violence.
A country where war and its devastating effects are a basic part of the peoples’ consciousness; where young Beirutis go out almost nightly to spend their parents’ oil money on vodka redbulls and counter crippling anxiety with alcohol-induced adrenaline rushes.
A country where women, remade by plastic surgery, masked by layers of make-up and perfume trot down streets in their designers heels, clutching their designer purses as they pass rows of Syrian refugees holding children quieted by injected drugs and layered in dirt and abuse.
There is so much beauty here, but so much misfortune beyond it. And while a part of me feels ashamed to be leaving—like I will be abandoning some of the most resilient and incredible humans I’ve ever met—the other part of me knows that I do not have a battle to fight here and I am not in a position to prevent or fix whatever might happen next.
I will definitely come out of Lebanon a changed person, and can only hope that I’m able to transform my experience into something that will motivate me to engage with the world more responsibly rather than something that makes me sour and doubtful about humanity.”
Since leaving Lebanon, I’ve learned not to talk too much about it. It’s hard to hear the praises and the platitudes: the ‘oohs,’ ‘ahhs,’ and the ‘you must be braves.’ It’s hard to dumb-down the politics and to footnote personal relationships knowing that few people care to listen to the intricacies and human dimensions of such a distant conflict. But more than anything, it’s hard to acknowledge that I saw what I saw there, and then was able to fill a bag with souvenirs and spices, flash my passport at airport customs, and walk away; to move to Australia, instruct yoga, and study Liberal Arts.
I don’t mean to trot my High Horse down White Savior Road here. I know that teaching SAT vocabulary words to students who lacked basic foundations in English grammar was largely unhelpful. I don’t think that my finger snapping to anti-government slam poetry had any effect on Assad’s decision making. And I won’t say that studying Arts in Australia is any less productive than working as a 22 year old in a refugee camp. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m never going to be the one to Free Palestine or bring Peace to the Middle East.
And yet, looking back on Beirut one year later, with a bottle of wine beside me, and midterms ahead, the sour taste of doubt continues to sit in my mouth, and I still can’t seem to shake the incessant feelings of abandonment and shame. Lebanon did change me and, one year later, I still feel lost trying to find a way to transform those changes into something useful.