“You feel like you’re in a cage. You want to get out of it, but you can’t. Like we’re stuck…”
Farrah Khatib and Rola Soboh lead us on an exploration of how the residents of the Ain el Helwe Refugee Camp see the checkpoint that separates them from the rest of Lebanon. (Voice actors include Myra Shaaban, Rana Baghdadi, Nour Al Halabi, Dima Akel, Elias Demardjian and Charles Semaan.)
Tanya Shehab gives us a personal look at what it means to have anxiety in Lebanon.
[theme music starts]
We are the ones who live here.
[various voices repeat the title in different languages]
I’m Tanya Shehab, and we are proud to share with you these stories of life in Lebanon.
[theme music fades out]
This episode contains discussions of mental health and anxiety. We know that some people may find stories on this topic difficult to hear. If it feels like this might be you, take care of yourself first.
There is a place within our country that’s surrounded by walls, with checkpoints at every exit… and it’s not a prison. Farrah Khatib and Rola Soboh bring us this story about the people who live there.
Most Lebanese people think that this camp of three generations of displaced people is really just full of terrorists and gangsters. That’s what people who never go into Ain el Helwe think. This is Rola Soboh, who lives there.
There are about 120,000 people who live in the camp.
That’s 120,000 people living in just over half a square kilometer.
At the most, maybe, I don’t know, like, 10% of them are involved with gangs or terrorism. That means there are over 100,000 people here who are peaceful and have nothing to do with those things.
So those very few people give the rest of the country a very bad picture of who we are in the camp.
For fourteen years of my life, between the ages of four and eighteen, I went to a school that was just five hundred meters away from the major checkpoint in the walled border of Ain el Helwe. My friends and I – and really almost everyone I knew – we were all deeply scared of the camp. Anything that had anything to do with it was inherently dangerous for us or untrustworthy. I remember, at one point, there was this girl at school, and she was nice and friendly, but we tried to keep a distance from her, because we knew that she lived a little closer to the camp than where the school was. I was afraid to even glance at the checkpoint, because I was afraid that I might see something behind the gate, something that was so terrifying, so awful that it would forever change me.
But Rola invited me to meet her in the camp and see it for myself. She specifically wanted to talk about the checkpoint. When I told my mom about it, she was like, “Shou baddik b’hal shaghle? Like, why would you even want to get into this?” I said I’d just be in the camp for a couple of hours, and she decided that would be more than enough time for a terrible clash to break out. She was sure that they’d shut the gates and I’d be stuck inside, and who knows what would happen to me then?
But, then I went there… and for me, the checkpoint was just a regular booth with two guys inside. They looked at me, they checked my ID, and they let me pass, but Rola was waiting for me just inside the gate.
Rola:into the Ain el Helwe camp in:
To Rola, the checkpoint that I was always too afraid to even glance at is the checkpoint that she always must go through. She must pass through it if she wants to leave the camp to go to school or to visit friends or relatives, and she must pass through it when she wants to go home. To her, she said, that checkpoint represents how insulting and absurd life in the camp can be.
Walking with her away from the checkpoint, I felt alert more than tense. I looked around and saw just another neighborhood. There were narrow streets filled with parked cars in front of storefronts with apartments above… just like in any other neighborhood in Lebanon. I was there just after Ramadan ended, when people like to sleep in, and I’d arrived early, as Rola told me, so that’s why the streets seemed fairly empty.
Soon though the sidewalks began to fill with people running errands and buying groceries, and then the coffee man walked by. He carries a canteen of hot coffee strapped across his back, and he clinks his coffee cups against each other with his fingers…
[we hear the coffee man calling out and clinking his cups]
As people walked by, Rola asked them to stop for a moment and talk. Several did, and they chatted with us briefly until we asked about the checkpoint. Then they’d just swiftly exit the conversation and walk away.
One woman and her grown son stopped to talk to us, and they were happy to talk about the checkpoint… at first:
It’s fine. Our relationship with the checkpoint is good. It’s great – they always let us pass by easily.
Like I just passed by right now, they didn’t even let me show my ID. “No, hajje (ma’am),” they’d say. “Don’t worry about it, come on in.” Yeah they respect me a lot, it’s a good relationship.
Not for everyone, though… They’re not like that with everybody.
I don’t know about everybody else, but that’s the case with me. Nothing ever happens to us with them. Maybe it’s different with other people, but in our case – alhamdulillah – they respect me, and they respect my brother – el hajj. They let him by, and they let me in too. What else do you want me to say?
They used to search cars before. But these days they don’t do that anymore.
I asked him to tell me more. He looked at his mother before he said:
No, I can’t talk about that…
I don’t know anything. As you can see, I’m an old lady. I don’t come in and out very often, so I don’t know much.
So Rola and I thought we might have more luck talking with someone younger, who might be less deferential to power and might be more willing to speak frankly with us. We asked this young woman who was walking by about the checkpoint.
Girl who pointed to NGO:
Well, they always ask for my ID. They don’t cause any hassle to me personally. They mostly do it to the young men.
I know this happens to the guys who work with us in the NGO here inside the camp.
The girl just happened to be on her way to work at the NGO, so she walked us there. We went inside, and it was just a rundown building with several rooms with fluorescent lights. We walked by one room where there were a bunch of kids training for scouts. We walked by some offices. And then she introduced us to a few young men who said that they’d love to talk to us, and they seemed at ease, until, once again, we asked about the checkpoint. And then there was a pause, until one of them teased another for being too scared to answer.
Boys (in Arabic):
– “Are you shy?”
– “No, why would I be shy? I’m just a citizen who goes in and out of the camp..”
But after that little jab, one of them did answer…
Like for us, Palestinians and Syrians, they’re very strict. They search us all the time. We might have to stay for an hour or two until they decide that we’re safe to cross. This is the regular treatment we face…. Meanwhile, we definitely need to go out and cross the checkpoint anyway – we need to look for jobs. If the clearance is off, we’d have to wait for too long; we might even have to sleep at the checkpoint, while we wait for them to check it out. Or maybe they’d fake something, they would mess with us, and then they’ll send us on our way.
Or maybe they’d make you wait for hours, claiming you did something illegal, then it turns out that it was only because someone else had a name similar to mine, and I’m not the one who actually did that. They’d let us go after all the bad treatment we endured without a real purpose or an apology. People from outside don’t endure that, no matter the cause.
This has happened to me a lot. They’d stop me for like an hour just to keep checking and double and triple checking my ID in case they suddenly magically find something. Although it’s all meaningless, we know that. And what can we do about it?
It sometimes also depends on their moods. If they’re feeling like they want to do a certain thing, they will do it.
Then we were introduced to the Manager of the NGO, and she really had some things to say…
I pass through the checkpoint every day. And something that catches my attention is the fact that we’re practically conditioned. We fetch our IDs and get them ready before we even reach the checkpoint. It’s not actually normal to be showing your ID at a regular checkpoint, when you’re still inside the same country. As if you’re crossing the borders or something.
Something else worth mentioning is when there were clashes inside the camp and they closed the gates on us. Do you know what this means? It means that whoever is stuck inside is possibly left for dead, and whoever is outside is stuck outside.
Another thing worth mentioning is that, during those clashes when the houses and places are practically in ruins from the bombings and the shootings, the guards on the checkpoints do not react. As if this is not a part of the country they’ve sworn to protect. Like, this is your land, at least do something about the war raging inside! Even when we need to cross the checkpoint to run outside, they’d ask you, “What’s going on inside? Who’s fighting who?” And this is the Army, they’re the ones who are supposed to know what’s happening inside their land…. We don’t know in whose favor things are happening, or even who’s fighting who – we never understand how those people work.
In one of the rooms of the NGO, there was a workshop going on about how to plant a vegetable garden. They had just started a coffee break. There were about 25 women and men moving about the room. And one woman was very eager to talk with us about the checkpoint. As she spoke, more and more women gathered around to listen:
Woman in workshop in camp:
It’s insulting. And it’s even mentally harmful, especially for the young kids. Like you’re making them feel like they live in a country where they’re convicted, they’re caged inside the camp, they can’t go out, they can’t breathe… Can you imagine a worse feeling than a kid feeling imprisoned within the walls of this camp? Not being able to breathe. Not being able to play freely. And on top of all of that, you add the checkpoints to suffocate us more, to imprison us more.. These things happen to my children too!
You are already burdened inside the camp, you have absolutely no rights, you’re caged inside like a bird. Do you see how you imprison a bird in a cage? It’s the same here. They can’t wait to be free! They talk about how hard traveling in a drowning ship is… When 50 people die, one might survive, and it could be my son. Isn’t it better than what we are living?... I have sent my children. Do I wait for a stray bullet to hit them from inside the camp? *chuckles* No, they have a better chance at succeeding outside!
They say it’s a democracy, but what it really is is terrorism. Not terrorism from inside the camp. No, not our people. They are the ones who are making us as terrorists. When they won’t allow us proper education, or allow us to go out properly, when you don’t have the right to own your own home, or even have the right to provide proper mental care to the child. You think there’s a place for a child here to play in front of their house? No.
Apply to a job? We’re rejected for being Palestinians. Why?! Your country hosted us, why did they do that? At least give us our rights. We are always degraded, always. If you even bring up being Palestinian, you’re shut down. I can’t understand why, we’re not asking for much. Just basic security. Give us that.
If you’re prosecuting me for a terrorist that I don’t even know about, you can just come in and arrest him from inside the camp, right? Instead of stopping an innocent woman for 10 hours on the checkpoint because of her ID, what is it gonna do? You’re interrogating me? What would I do? You’re the one who has the power, don’t you? You only let it out in front of women and children?
This is our law, trust me it is. Because, trust me, our life is very hard. It's hard. If I say more, I’d cry.
They’ve exhausted us. They honestly just want us to seem like terrorists. It’s a sad country.
When she stopped, we asked the women who’d been listening intently if any of them wanted to add anything. They said that she’d just spoken for all of them.
The coffee break was over by then, and as we walked out, I realized that we had heard from all these people about the checkpoint, but Rola still hadn’t told me what she thought. So we went somewhere quiet to talk.
Some of the guards at the checkpoint think they are better people than we are, and they have power over us.
I’m going to school, and they look at me like I’m carrying guns and weapons.
This pushes many of us to study harder and to prove what we can do. We will show them that we are good people who can do things that they can’t achieve. I see the checkpoint, and it makes me even more determined to become a lawyer to advocate for my people and show them that they deserve better. I will show the checkpoint that they can’t treat us like that.
I am deeply connected to the camp - much of my life is here - but when I see the checkpoint, I want to leave and never come back.
The camp represents to me, every day, that to be Palestinian is to suffer, but we support each other, and this gives me hope.
I always think that one day I will move, even if the rest of my family doesn’t, but when I do that, I will be cut in half. One of my sides will always be in the camp, and I will never be full again. All of my memories will be there, in that prison, and I will be outside the prison. I’ll be happy to be out, but I will miss my memories.
The people in the camp are real, but their pieces were read in English by Myra Shaaban, Rana Baghdadi, Nour Al Halabi, Dima Akel, Elias Demardjian and Charles Semaan.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to be born in the camp and, through no fault of your own, to have your life controlled like that… to be born into a cage. Their lives are very different from mine, but there is an element of their stories that hits particularly close to home for me, even though I come from relative privilege and safety, even though it might seem that I have a perfect life… In my own way, I know what it’s like to feel trapped and to feel powerless – even though there are no walls or checkpoints holding me in, even though people tell me it’s all in my head…
It’s a taboo in Lebanon to speak about anxiety. But I’m going to tell you what anxiety means to me. I will speak to my own experience, and hope to hell you don’t feel the same.
Anxiety to me is stronger than fear.
I feel trapped, walking the streets at night, knowing there are eyes on me but, for the life of me, I can not find them. I mean this both literally and as a metaphor. I feel people watching me, and I feel the intoxicating fear of everything and nothing at once. It takes control of my mind and soul, pinning my feet to the ground, banging the drums of my heart until all I hear is the beat of death approaching.
I know what the healthy coping mechanisms are. And yet, I use the unhealthy ones. I would ignore the unmistakable understanding that this is wrong for the minute chance that my brain stops thinking and my blood keeps flowing.
Anxiety is stronger than reality. One moment, I’m hanging out with my friends, laughing, and nothing in particular is happening, and all of a sudden, I cannot breathe, feeling like I’m falling apart, but I never know why.
Anxiety is being my own therapist against my will. I know exactly what’s happening to me, I know what’s causing it, and I know what I should do about it. And yet, I feel powerless to do it. This drains me to the point of isolation and desperation, and the pressure builds until I scream at my brain to shut up and shut down and give me some peace.
I was often too anxious to speak with other people. Or even myself. So I had to learn how to observe everyone and comprehend the different roles they play, as soon as I entered a room. I could figure out how to fit in and get involved without drawing too much attention.
So, you know, I am also grateful for my anxiety. As I grew, it grew with me, taking over my life. But I am able to take care of others. I am able to ensure my friends do not fall down the same black hole as me. It taught me to spot the signs of a mind being plagued by anxious thoughts, to pick up the indications of an oncoming panic attack, and to know how to distract and calm someone else’s mind. Not mine, though.
But I am now able to take care of strangers. I can walk into a bathroom, and see a person hyperventilating, trying to hide it, and I know what to do to assist them. I’m able to be the friendly neighborhood therapist. I’m able to know exactly what options I have to ensure the attack loses the fight.
I am grateful for my anxiety. But I do not know who I am. I have been so focused on not losing myself, I never found myself. Anxiety is living every day for other people. Taking every opportunity to prioritize everyone over myself, until I don’t know who I am anymore, until I can’t spare a single ounce of my energy on anything else, realizing that I have never known who I am.
I am grateful for my anxiety. But when my friends tell me they are not permitted to go to therapy, when I, myself, face barriers in my journey to therapy, when I have to take the role of therapist, when I lose my friends to mental illness, when I no longer know how to be a friend, so focused on their mental well-being, I hate my anxiety.
And when therapy is not even a discussion in Lebanon, when people are looked at as less-than for even broaching the subject, when cultural barriers surpass the intellectual, and reputation matters more than surviving life, I hate my anxiety.
When it takes an explosion ricocheting through the buildings of neighboring cities to get a nation to even consider therapy, I hate my country.
Even if, on the off chance, the barriers to therapy were suddenly lifted, there is no trust. There is no insurance. There is no way to take care of yourself without bankrupting yourself in the process.
But, when my friends are in touch with my thoughts, when they veer me to safety, distract me before I even know what is happening, I am grateful.
This podcast was produced by Ben Moorad and Farrah Khatib. “We Are The Ones Who Live Here” is a production of Hand2Mouth Theatre and New Room Studios.
Our editorial team is: Rola Soboh, Roya Maliky, Fatema Rezaie, Dunia Fakih, Nasrin Azizy, Cole McCann-Phillips and Laetithia Harb.
Our sound producer is Wilson Vediner.
Our music was made by Raffi Feghali (a.k.a. TsaTsa).
This podcast was made by a large community of incredible people, including Jonathan Walters, Andrea Stolowitz, Hermila Yifter, Julie Mourad, Nour Al-Halabi, May Adra, Rana Baghdadi, Sahar Assaf, Robert Myers, Rami Khouri and the spirit of Anthony Shadid.
We want to hear your stories of life in Lebanon. Reach out to us on Instagram at welebanonpod. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for listening.