In exile, identity is all about moments in our memories and how some of these moments can change our lives, how some stories touch us, some events can shape our identities, and some choices stay with us forever.
Since March 2011, many Syrian activists have been forced into exile out of fear, and thus fled from Syria to different countries all over the world. The majority of exiled Syrian activists cited fear of violence as their main reason for leaving; some fled after being attacked and others fled from threats of prison and judicial harassment. Many Syrian activists have left Syria voluntarily, either being refused permission to return or being threatened with imprisonment or death. They face an unknown destiny in exile.
Questioning the self
M.SH was born in 1986 in Syria, of Syrian parents. M.SH is a doctor, musician, and actor. He speaks three languages fluently, Arabic as his mother tongue, English and French. He is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Doctors Coordination of Damascus in Syria and later with the Doctors Without Borders Organization in France during the Syrian revolution - his journey of exile. He says, “I was a doctor in one of those field hospitals in Qaboon in Syria and it was an extremely cruel and painful experience.”
M.SH left Syria for France in January 2012 because of his involvement in Doctors Coordination of Damascus, where they were cooperating with Doctors Without Borders:
“ I was working with doctors without borders (the famous worldwide NGO) and this put my life in danger, since most NGOs are banned in Syria, especially those who help in the humanitarian domain and show sympathy with the protestors.” He continues, “I still remember having to jump over dead bodies in order to reach the next wounded person coming around. I saw the exposed bone of a human being with skin sagging off his foot. But what felt really the worst was when I was trying to examine the injury of a young guy (hardly 20 years of age) and my index finger just slipped 2cm into his brain.”
M.SH continued his work, but he was arrested and tortured, as it turned out, by his cousin; he explains:
“We had to stand there with our hands handcuffed behind us, facing a wall while the officers started hitting us with cables. Recognizing my last name, an officer who had the same last name as mine, was called over by his colleagues. In fact, he was a relative unknown to me till that time. That was when the special treatment began. I had to kneel down with the officers hitting, punching, insulting and kicking me all over my body. One of them kicked me in the genitals so hard that I nearly fainted. I remember being unable to raise my back due to a kick in the lower part of it. I was literally swinging. My relative then took me to a room where he started hitting my back and left shoulder with an electrical cable. I was so hurt that the skin of some parts of my shoulder was taken off. Finally he released me, threatening me that if I so much as uttered any further protest, he was going to kill me. After this incident, I was known as the person who was tortured at the hands of his cousin”.
M.SH lived in France for almost 6 months before he decided to leave for the United States on June 25, 2012. In retrospect he was sorry that he left France:
“When I was there I really hated it but now I look back on this decision with regret, since it was fine compared to the rejection that I initially suffered in the US. At least I had some friends in France, while, in the US, everybody is first and foremost an alien, so to speak. In France, I did not feel much of an alien: the reason I believe is that European people are geographically and historically much closer to where I originally come from. They are more open to other cultures than Americans despite the US melting pot. I think French people knew more about my country and that is why they were more able to accept me, I guess.”
M.SH had his own fears that if he returned to Syria, he would be arrested, tortured and perhaps killed at the hands of the Syrian security and military forces.
But he thought he would only be gone a short while, nevertheless:
“When I left Syria I never imagined that I would stay away for this long. My calculation was really that far out. Three months in France or four at the very worst, was what I expected and then I assumed that there would be a no-fly zone or buffer zones imposed by the international community. At that point I resolved that I would go to Turkey or Jordan to try to help the wounded”. But when the situation in Syria became really bad and dangerous with no prospect of a dramatic change on the horizon, I had no choice but to consider political asylum as an option, especially when it came to the point that my French visa was soon going to expire.”
So another chapter of his journey started in the United States where he was arrested immediately on arrival at the airport for, as he describes it, just telling the truth:
“In George Bush intercontinental airport in Houston on June 25, after an 11-hour flight and 12 more hours of interrogation, I made only one mistake. I told the truth!! I told the officers that I could go back neither to Syria nor to France. For them I was ineligible to step into the US territory and I had to ask for asylum in the airport. Cuffed as a Guantanamo prisoner, I was taken to the CCA detention center in Houston. I will never forget the humiliation I felt that day and thenceforth.”
M.SH took a long pause as he relived those terrible moments spent in a US prison. As an alien in a strange land, he was deprived even of sleep, as the only thing that he had left were his memories of a past gone by, nightmares of a terrifying present, and fear of an uncertain future. He was in detention for 48 days, with questions spinning in his head every single hour: “How is the situation back in Syria? How is my family doing? What crime have I committed to be put in this place?”
On July 12, 2012, he decided to write to his deportation officer a letter asking him to accelerate procedures, because he was not able to stand it any more. Caught between two worlds, he could no longer survive in either.
I have already been arrested and also tortured back in Syria. Although it’s really different being here from being in any of the Syrian prisons, the feeling that is being deprived of one’s freedom is pretty much the same. I came to the US in order to alleviate my suffering, not to incur another punishment.
In the light of the aforementioned, I wish to ask you to arrange the ‘credible fear’ interview for me as soon as possible.
Many thanks officer.”
In reply, his case was referred to the Houston asylum office, and he was released after that in just a few days. He kept waiting for his two hearings; hoping that things would be OK after that. On the day of his first hearing, he was fully prepared. He had thought about every single word he would say, as well as how he should look. He thought about shaving and putting on some aftershave. Indeed, he was expecting anything to happen but not what did happen!!
The minute he entered the courtroom the judge immediately decided to abandon the person who smelled of perfume because the judge was allergic to it. As a result, they postponed his hearing for another year! M.SH is still awaiting some decision on his destiny, remaining without a job, or legal status. He was eligible to receive a state ID and driver license, yet he still cannot apply to universities to continue his studies or find a job since his fingerprint records have him down as a criminal.
Despite all these difficulties, M.SH managed off his own bat to pass six exams, five of them medical exams and one for a driving license in the space of one year and three months. M.SH has been physically released from Syrian and later American prisons, yet he is still trapped in this unfamiliar world without an identity, a home, a family and nobody to realize that all he wants is to return to the world that is familiar to him.
His final statement concludes:
“Just talking about this is extremely exhausting. I have had to relive cruel events and revive the same painful feelings I had during the past two years. I remember the many times I had to sleep with all my clothes on, anxious about how I might have to jump from the bedroom window of my family’s fifth floor apartment to the two-meter-high nearby building if the security forces gained entry. I remember the hopes I had in France that I would soon go back to Syria and then the fear when I realized the reality and that the destiny waiting for me was actually unknown. I remember the fear and the rejection I encountered in the US. I remember most of all my mother’s tears when she saw my back after the arrest. These memories are a part of my core being now, and they will never be forgotten.”
This article is part of Looking inside the uprising; a joint project between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy.
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