Hamid El-Darwich | 13-01-2016
This is my third year in civil engineering at Lebanese American University, and it feels like I have run a marathon. It is very difficult for a Palestinian to be accepted into such a good school; for me, it was possible only through the good fortune of a full scholarship provided by UNRWA to a very few students. But every step seemed to be a struggle.
Struggling to find peace
During the first year, I lived in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. It is very expensive to live in Beirut, compared to my hometown in southern Lebanon, so I tried to find the most affordable apartment. After a few arrangements fell through, I finally managed to secure a place with several Syrian refugees. Each had been well educated in Syria: One was a professional civil engineer like I am studying to be, and was almost 40 years old; he had left his family in Syria and was desperately searching for work in Lebanon.
The second one was a lawyer, newly graduated, who wanted to attend graduate school. However, English proficiency is required in Lebanon and is not in Syria, so he was facing a hard task. A third roommate was a pharmacist and the fourth, my roommate, had been working in the university cafeteria for the past three years. All of his family was in Syria, and he sent them money.
During that first semester, I needed to be up at 7 a.m. for my classes, and I went to sleep late because of the load of daily studying. I never got enough sleep; my roommate would set his alarm for 5 a.m., press "snooze," go back to sleep, then repeat the cycle every 10 minutes.
Then one day, some guys broke into our apartment with guns and threatened the refugees, ordering them to leave immediately. We didn’t want to take any risks, so we left, each searching for another affordable shared apartment in Beirut.
I finally found one, again with Syrian refugees. I lived in the same room with the elderly Lebanese owner, who smoked, watched TV constantly and talked in his sleep. But the worst thing was that a whole family lived in the room next door, and they debated their problems loudly. The walls were made out of a thin layer of cheap, old wood instead of masonry, and I could hear every single word they said. They would not all fall asleep until about 5 a.m. and I could not fall asleep before they did. I once had a chemistry exam the next day and slept for only three hours due to their loud voices. As a result, I did not do well.
I left and finally found an affordable single room near the campus. But the doors were made of rusty iron and every single slam rang throughout the building. When that didn’t keep me awake, the sounds of construction outside woke me up at 6 a.m., anyway. So, I often would sleep in the LAU library, where at least there were no cockroaches and it wasn’t freezing. The room also had no bed, no hot water, no refrigerator. All it had was a cheap lamp and a faucet connected to a cracked pipe that leaked. The water was so salty it was impossible to get soap to lather. To top it off, there was no door on the bathroom, so there was an utter lack of privacy if anyone visited. “Dogs can’t even live this life," my mother shouted after I spent two months in that room. I did not even return home on weekends, since I was working so hard on my theorems.
Once I visited a friend, Ibrahim, in his dorm at American University of Beirut. He had air conditioning in his room; a TV; a comfortable bed; fresh, hot water in the faucet; and many other basic things I craved. I could not afford that.
I was miserable every single minute I lived in Beirut. I cried the time after the iftar (breaking the fast) during Ramadan, when I had to light a candle and eat alone, alone in the big, loud city.
At home at last
During my second year, I went to the LAU campus in Byblos. It was the place I wanted to be. The on-campus dorms are cheaper than those in Beirut and offer better services. Finally, I could feel at home, although there is little room in my life except for my studies and gym. This last fall, I earned a GPA of 4.0.
What I need now is a rest. I have been in college for two and a half years without a vacation. I knew what I wanted to do. My uncle Hamid from Germany had visited my family a few months ago, but unfortunately, he left before I could manage to leave Byblos. I told him I wanted to travel to Germany to see him and take a break. He promised to show me a lot of places in Germany: green parks that we lack in Lebanon, streets without potholes every few inches, a store that contains all sort of fruits, big libraries where you can find every book or article you want, and a statue of Carl Friedrich Gauss, my third-favorite mathematician.
Dreaming of escape
My cousin Yasmin sent me an invitation to come to Germany and my dad prepared all of the needed documents and paid the $100 visa fee. Finally, I went to the German embassy on December 12. I saw Syrian refugees of all ages, all applying to travel to Germany—many with letters of invitation from members of their families already there. I waited a long time. Then a man from security asked me to come in, with the steel door slamming behind me. It reminded me of the prisons I have seen on YouTube.
The security men took my phone and made me pass through a detector of some sort. A man’s voice echoing through a speaker told me they will not accept $100 bills. So I went out and got change and waited again. Finally, I was in. They asked me if I had traveled before to Europe, and I told them " never." I was given a number and I waited for it to appear on the screen in front. I was surrounded by Syrian families.
Once my number appeared, I went to the counter, where a blonde woman spoke to me from behind glass. I smiled, but she did not smile back. She told me I needed to photocopy my documents, so I left the embassy and drove to a printing shop. When I returned, I waited again. When I was back in front of the blonde woman, she informed me, “don't expect us to call you before one month." I was shocked, telling her, "But my travel day is on December 30! Are you saying I won’t be able to go?"
She nodded. “Why is this?" I asked. I knew it was hopeless, but I pled to her, “I really need to travel, I really need to breathe some new air.” She answered simply: "Because you are Palestinian, living in Lebanon.”
I always have a Plan B in my life. I didn’t go to Germany as I longed to do. But I am with my family at home, reading a fracture mechanics book my professor gave to me when he discovered my passion for this field. I am happy with my high grades, I am happy with my family and I will spend my time writing, to tell those who have forgotten us what it is like to be a Palestinian in Lebanon.
Postscript: I finally received a final decision from the German embassy on my visa application in February. The answer: Denied.
Mentor: Pam Bailey
First posted: January 12, 2016