Rumooz is a 68-year-old Syrian woman. Her husband was just 46 when he passed away, leaving her to raise one daughter and two sons on her own. She was a teacher at a public school in Talkalakh, a small village that is to the west of Homs, in northern Syria. Rumooz is very close to her children, and the four of them have always been a tight-knit family.
In 2012, her eldest daughter, Talah, graduated from university in Homs. Dubbed "the capital of the revolution," Homs was under siege by government forces from May 2011 to May 2014. Despite the war, her two sons continued to study there, commuting to school almost every day. Her youngest son, Shahir, developed kidney problems a couple of months before the war broke out in Syria. The hospital they visited for treatment was based in Homs. Amir, her second son, was kidnapped in Homs. He is one of the thousands of Syrians that has disappeared since the onset of the war. Rumooz hasn’t heard anything from him, or about him, for over two years.This interview was conducted in Arabic, and then translated by the author into English.
Rumooz and I sit facing one another on a dark green couch in her small apartment in Tripoli. “
In 2011, the problems started in Talkalakh. At the time, I cared less about the political problems than about taking my sick son to the hospital. You see, my son has horrible problems with his kidneys, and needs to get them cleaned three times a week,” she says.
Just outside Rumooz's balcony, there are countless small yellow flowers scattered on the overgrown grasses by the road. The weather is warm, with a slight breeze coming in from the open windows. Rumooz sits poised, with her back straight and her palms placed on top of her knees. Her 26-year-old son, Shahir, sits cross-legged on the floor to her left. “
Every couple of days, I had to leave Talkalakh, despite the gunshots and protests, to Homs. There are no proper hospitals in Talkalakh, so we had to take a taxi and be on the road for thirty minutes. Eventually, we had to rent an apartment in Homs, because the journey had become very difficult and I didn’t want to risk the lives of my children. At some point, the political situation became much worse and we were stuck in the hospital for nine days.
“Nine days!” she repeats in a low whisper. “There were only two bread packages in the hospital. And the hospital had nine floors. We had to eat bread with turkey meat for nine days.”
Talah, Rumooz's daughter, comes in with a small tray of water-filled glasses.
“After this incident, I started to think about leaving Syria. The one thing stopping me was that my children went to university, and only had a semester, or a course, to graduate. Talah had graduated by then, though, so I was waiting on my Amir and my Shahir.
“He had only one course left. Amir only had one course left for his Civil Engineering degree, and Shahir a semester left at a vocational school. But I was worried about Shahir’s health, and Talah’s future, and our lives. I have to calculate everything, you see, it’s me who does the planning and the securing and the organizing. I sent Shahir and Talah to Lebanon first, where a lot of my family members were refugees. I stayed with Amir, so that he could take his exam and pass that one course.”
She pauses again, slightly, and her gaze lingers to the open window. The snow-capped Arz Mountains are slightly visible, above the mismatched red, white, and yellow buildings. The precious quiet of Tripoli’s Abi Samra neighborhood on Sundays is interrupted every now and then by the sound of pick-up trucks and taxis.
“It meant a lot to my family that Amir graduates, you see, he was the promised one in my family. He was going to save us, and take us out of this hole. Ever since he was a young child, he would always tell me, ‘Mama, you just wait, you just wait until I grow up and become an engineer. You won’t need anyone’s help, because I’ll make you feel like a queen.’”
She chuckles, a short and quiet sound that diffuses through the room.
“He left and never returned. And we don’t know who took him. He just left. And after that, I had no choice but to come to Lebanon to be with my two other children. At first, I stayed in a small village called Andaket, with my sister and her husband, who also fled Syria. Afterwards, I had to take an apartment in Tripoli because I had to rent to the hospital for Shahir’s weekly appointments.
“The United Nations didn’t help us out, at all. I told them, you know, I am almost 70 years old. I have a sick son, an unemployed daughter, and a son who has disappeared. Does that not merit help? They used to give me twenty dollars a month. As if that helps in any way. And would you believe they stopped giving the twenty dollars?
“Ah, it is Kuwait’s Red Cross that saved us. They completely sponsor Shahir’s sessions at the hospital. I am so thankful for them, and so thankful for what they have done. The United Nations has done nothing, absolutely nothing. Aren’t they meant to help refugees? Look at me, I am a refugee — I am as refugee as refugee gets.”
Her voice is soft and sweet, but there is a fleeting coarseness to it that I can’t seem to put my finger on. It comes and goes with her conversation, and keeps me even more alert to each and every word she says.
“As for a residence permit,” she continues, “it has been so difficult being here in Lebanon. This whole residence permit issue makes me and my family feel so unwanted. Now, the Lebanese government wants a kafeel.A Lebanese citizen that claims legal responsibility over a refugee Where am I supposed to get one from? I am a stranger here, and I have no one willing to sponsor me. Well, I have one or two, but they are already taken by other Syrian refugees.
“I am so thankful that our landlord agreed to sponsor us. But when we went to the government, they told us that since Shahir is above 18, he needs to have a separate kafeel. So, basically, he wants Shahir to live in his own house and for me and my daughter to live in our own place.”
Another soft smile.
“Does he think we live in Europe? Does he think we’re Europeans? The way it is in my culture, our children stay with us until they’re married. Besides, my son is sick, how on earth can I leave him alone? What can I do? My landlord is now my son’s kafeel, and my daughter and I do not have residence permits. We are illegal here. This has been the case for almost a year.
“My children stay with me. This is how it is. We are not Europeans. We are Arabs.
“No, no, no. The United Nations didn’t help and the Lebanese government didn’t help. We, Syrians, we have no one anymore. We are stateless and human rights do not apply to us. I understand that the Lebanese government can’t help us in any way. I do, I really do. I don’t expect them to. But at least don’t make residence permits so difficult. Don’t make Syrians feel unwanted. We are one, you know.
“I wonder, what do people think the solution to our problem as a people is? I don’t see a solution. Do you? I might have to do surgery for my back soon. This surgery costs 20,000 dollars. Who will pay?”
Rumooz stops for a couple seconds, and stands up to stretch. When she sits back down, she seems uncomfortable with what she is about to say next.
“I am not a poor woman, you know. Maybe I don’t have enough money right now, but I am not a poor woman. My children are educated, and we lived in dignity in Syria. I brought them up on values of ambition and courage. Outsiders think refugees are all poor, you see. The United Nations asked me if I eat meat, and based on my answer, they would give me donations. They also asked me how many times I change my oven gas. To such questions, I can only laugh. Do they mean that only a person that doesn’t eat meat will get help?
Shahir, who has moved to sit on a plastic chair by the window, says, “They don’t realize that refugees are simply people who had to leave everything behind because of a situation. Why do people think refugees are nameless and faceless people?”
These are the first words Shahir has spoken since his mother had started talking. He continues, “Wlik akh.” Across from him, his mother nods.
“Wlik akh,” she repeats. “If only I could go back. If only I could go back home, and sit on my balcony, with my three children sprawled around me. If only I could go back home, go back to my house, go back to my land.”
I look at Rumooz, trying to draw out all the details of her face. She has broad cheeks, with thin eyebrows and puckered lips.
“They ask me why I don’t leave to Europe, as if leaving to Europe were that easy. As if I don’t have a sick son, and as if I don’t have a son that I might no longer see. What if someone calls me and tells me they found Amir? I cannot see him from Europe. How do I leave? Lebanon is the closest place to home. At least here, I don’t need to learn new values of living, new languages, a new religion. Syria and Lebanon are very similar, you see. Sometimes, I feel like the air I breathe here is the same air I breathed in Syria.”
I think of her and my grandmother sitting and smoking Marlboro cigarettes on Rumooz’s balcony during my humid childhood summers in Talkalakh.
“No, I never felt othered here. Perhaps, I am an other, but I refuse to feel like one. A lot of people even think I am Lebanese, until I speak with my Syrian accent. I haven’t faced racism — at least not anything direct. On the contrary, I feel like I have been welcomed by the Lebanese people, and I am very grateful. In the hospital, the doctors treat Shahir so well. One of the doctors cries whenever Shahir is in pain; I can see teardrops in his beard.”
“Perhaps we are treated with indifference. No one says hi; but, then again, no one says hi to anyone here. I think people go with the mentality that if they’re not treated badly, they won’t treat anyone badly.”
“I don’t have any Lebanese friends, no, and it’s been difficult to integrate here. Although my daughter has a degree, she has found it impossible to find a job. My children don’t fit in well, I guess. Besides, it is very expensive here.”
To my left, Talah chimes in, “I can’t buy books to read here. In Syria, they used to be a dollar, but here, books are so expensive. And finding a job? Forget about it. No one wants to employ a Syrian.”
She continues, “I feel like I have no identity anymore. I gave so much to Syria, and look at me right now, with close to nothing. What did I spend four years in university for? To be jobless and homeless and country-less and brother-less?”
There is another uncomfortable silence. Talah lets out a sob.
“He just had one more exam, and then we would all be in Lebanon. He had all his books, his new ones and his old ones. And so many clothes, all packed, in case of anything. He had his shoes packed, too, maybe about four or five. And his towels were also packed. He sold his laptop, too.”
“I wish I could go back to my son. They say my son is a weapons dealer. Ha!” she exclaims. “Ha! There is no reason whatsoever why they would take him. But this is what war does; it takes things from you for no reason. Innocent people go, and cowards stay. Yes, war displaces you, and makes you a mockery. No one wants to be a mockery, my dear.”