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Notes from the Field: January Beirut Trip 2016 (Part III)

Below is the third of four blog posts written by Hassan Ahmad, one of IRAP’s law students from UC Berkeley who is currently attending the annual trip in Beirut, Lebanon. You can find Hassan’s first two blog posts linked in our January blog archives. Enjoy!

I’ve always been intrigued by sounds in the Middle East. The rush of car horns and tires racing along semi-paved roads, the voices of street vendors or even beggars pleading for the smallest indulgence from passersby sensitize me to the fact that I’m not in America. I love the sounds of the Arab world. The sounds of Beirut can confuse even the most experienced traveler. At one moment I hear the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) during the evening rush hour. In another instance, I’m listening to Fairuz while sipping on coffee in an outdoor villa. Only hours later I’m smoking a shisha while English speaking Lebanese try to guess the name of a Michael Jackson song playing in the background (it was Billy Jean). The everyday sounds of this city drown out the growing refugee crisis within its borders. Do people even know there’s a crisis? Do they care? It depends on who you encounter. People choose to hear the sounds they want.

The Syrian refugee crisis can make even the most level-headed of people lose their minds. As the poet said, “we live in a time of such extremes that the one not driven mad by them is not sane.” I feel this madness sometimes—a frustration that won’t subside. Our group today visited the offices of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), the US Government’s contracted third party that handles refugee resettlement claims. My frustration just about boiled over when learning that no US resettlement applications had been handled for Syrian refugees in Beirut since October 2014. Applications will only again be considered starting in February 2016, a lapse of almost one and a half years! Even then, fiscal year 2016 will see only around 2,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon resettled in the United States. I temper my frustration by remembering that the acceptance of refugees by any nation (Canada has agreed to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by mid 2016) is an act of kindness without any particular legal obligation. Nonetheless, the Aylan Kurdi’s of the world would beg to differ. The millions of Syrian and other refugees, although not oblivious to the fact that developed nations remain limited in the number of refugees they can accept, must wonder why doors haven’t opened wider. I think about Aylan almost every day. Just as the thought of first graders killed as a result of gun violence makes President Obama mad (and rightfully so!), the thought that Aylan’s family and others fleeing Syria have to take such drastic measures to reach a safe haven make me mad. No one puts their children on a boat to travel the high seas unless the sea is safer than the land.

In the afternoon, we visited the offices of Helem, a grassroots organization providing services to the increasing LGBT refugee population. The LGBT community includes the most vulnerable of Syrian refugees; they are often unable to procure basic services such as adequate housing and identification documents, and are often abused and shunned. While not explicitly stated, homosexuality remains illegal in Lebanon through the 534 Law. What struck me most from our visit to Helem was not so much that the LGBT community remains disenfranchised. This reality has been well-known in the Middle East as far back as the mind can ponder. Rather, I was struck by the quality of activism and organization being undertaken by Helem and, undoubtedly, other organizations like it. Helem started as an online community and now it occupies an office space in the Hamra district of Beirut.

The world is frustrating at times. Refugee work is likely always frustrating. But the work of people at organizations such as the ICMC and Helem remind me of a lecture I recently heard by a successful social entrepreneur. She said, “Do what makes you mad… What absolutely boils your blood.” Anger, frustration, and the like fuel passion. Let this fire light our way.