“… and then he didn’t pay me the money he owed me, $900 for over a month’s work. He said if I didn’t like it, I’m free to leave and work on my own. But I can’t work on my own, you know? Because people here look down on me for being Syrian, even though all I’m trying to do is do whatever honest work I can, so I don’t have to beg like some others do. I can’t beg. I work all day, sometimes for 12 hours, but they look down on me. It feels as if no one understands me. It feels as if just because I’m a foreigner I automatically become a stranger, and no one opens their hearts and minds enough to let me be part of this society.”
She listened to the 18 year old telling her about the woes of her everyday life, which echoed her own struggles over 20 years ago. It was cruel, no doubt. She did everything she could to help her, but what could one person really do? The strong girl cleaned houses, hers included, for over 10 hours, day in and day out, while her employer refused to pay and threatened to evict her out of the $300 a month tent he so generously rented out to her and her parents and siblings—a family of 7, feeling unwelcome and unwanted.
She remembered what it was like when she got into this country. How alien everything and everyone seemed. She couldn’t speak or understand the language; she wasn’t used to the food; she had no friends, no knowledge of the town; her only family was her husband and her toddler.
This is neither the story of the refugee crisis, nor of a particular refugee.
This is the story of my mother.
My father was studying, like many Lebanese in the 80’s, in the Ukrainian SSR. That is where he met my mother; they fell in love, got married, and produced the most amazing gift (debatable) to this planet—myself. But let’s not make it about me (not yet, anyways).
In the early 90’s, when I was not even three years of age, they came to Lebanon, permanently. It was not their first time; they had visited for two months two years prior to that. She knew what it was like. My father told her a lot of stories about his home country and home town, that country that had been through many wars, but where the people are hospitable and nice; the country whose food he always missed, whose mountains he missed, whose sea he missed; the country that he calls home. She was looking forward to starting the rest of their lives there, to building her own home and calling his country hers.
Upon arrival, they had to stay in a small town in the north at my grandparents’ house, with my grandfather, my step-grandmother, and my aunt. She, my father and I had to stay in one room until my dad got his house ready to move into, which was hard to do considering he had just moved back as a fresh graduate from another country and had to establish his business and finances, so that took some time. Have you ever been in a room full of strangers talking Klingon, or high Valyrian, and felt they were all judging you, discussing you, and waiting for you to slip just so that they could laugh? Now imagine that happening to you every single day. That’s what it was like when she had arrived.
The cultural clash was astounding. She went from eating with a fork and knife out of her own plate, to watching them miraculously use a piece of bread to grab food from shared plates. She went from a life of using public transportation to having none. She went from her home city where she’d lived all her life, where she could go wherever she pleased, whenever she pleased, to being tied down in a town she didn’t know, relying on my father for transportation. She went from the security of her home with full amenities to discovering there is something called electricity cuts. She went from a society where people don’t really stick their noses in other people’s business to being somewhere where all they ever discussed was other people’s business. She went from having friends and a job and a social circle to being home with her sister-in-law all day.
Until this day, no one knows how they communicated. But they understood each other. My aunt, who was 18 at the time, was her only companion (apart from myself) when my father wasn’t home. She was nice and friendly; she slowly introduced her to the local foods, the music and the movies, which my mother didn’t understand or particularly like. She would gossip to her about neighbors that my mother did not know or care about, and helped her slowly see and analyze the culture.
It was— I quote my mother—savage. She learned they marry their cousins, the Russian word for which translates into “second degree brother/sister”; she learned how much they fear a god that my mother never really believed in; she learned that women rely on their fathers, or later their husbands, from whom they need permission for most things they want to do; she learned they ridicule, for lack of a better term, reading unless it was the Quran, while my mum was an avid reader.
But she tried to fit in, not by conforming, but by being respectful of the culture she was now a part of. During the first period of her being here, my father’s family would talk to him about her wearing the hijab. My father then did something that probably shaped our lives until today. He made it clear to his family and everyone else (because, being in a village, obviously everyone has a say in everything) that this was HIS family. Not a single person was allowed to address those issues with his wife and subsequently his children. It was no one’s business how they dressed, no one’s business what they ate, no one’s business how they lived. That undoubtedly helped my mother in the sense that she was in no way pressured into converting her religion. My father helped in whatever way he could. He would spend any free time he had from work with her; he would introduce her to family, friends, and neighbors.
She very slowly acquired the language; she didn’t take classes, it was through communication with my aunt, watching TV, and songs that she had started learning. It took a lot of effort. A few months in, I started school; and shortly after, we started learning letters in kindergarten, which I would come home and proudly recite to her. We studied together; she helped me find my way of learning while she simultaneously learned with me, starting with the letters and moving on to the syllables, then to the words— words that are written in the wrong direction, with all the dots and the lines and the other little lines above and below them that somehow completely changed the way they were pronounced. It was baffling to her, yet she fought on, eager to learn. In parallel, during electricity cuts, and when my studies were done, she would read Russian books to me, both as an entertainment and a learning tool, as she didn’t want me to lose the language I then spoke, or ever have to talk to me in a language that wasn’t her own. Yet she wanted to fit in. She wanted to speak their language. She wanted to be part of that society. It’s just that, for some reason, she couldn’t.
What made it worse was that when she would travel back to her homeland, years later, it was Ukraine post the USSR and things were different. She had nothing in common with her old friends from school who she gradually lost touch with. The city was changing every day; people she once knew were no longer there; shops she visited had closed down; restaurants she loved were long gone. She felt like a stranger there. It no longer felt like home; yet somehow, she felt like a stranger here as well, as she still didn’t have much in common with the society she was now a part of.
She radically disagreed with some major ideas in their way of thinking; she slightly altered her wardrobe out of respect to their culture, but their dress code simply didn’t align with her faith or lack of. She got used to the food, and while the famous Lebanese raw meats never appealed to her, she found pleasure in many national dishes. She eventually got the language, but the foreign accent never left her. It would have all been easy had the people themselves been more accepting. She was supportive and honest with the family members; she followed their social protocols; she elbowed her way in and settled there and was accepted as part of the family. She even affected them and made a small positive impact on some of their ways, albeit minor; it was still a win.
However, the major issue with my mother fitting in was the people—not my father’s family, but the society itself, which proved much harder to fit in into. They criticized her when she spoke a language she worked so hard to learn, which made her self-conscious upon meeting new people, even after nearly 30 years. They judged her for some things she said; they judged her for having different beliefs; they judged her for the way she was raising her children; they judged the fact she read books; they judged the fact she got a cat in the house (oh the blasphemy!).
This is why my mother feels so strongly about the mistreated Syrian girl who helps her clean the apartment; though their situations and the circumstances that led them to meet and live in the same town are radically different and incomparable, she knows what it must be like to be facing all this discrimination, to be unfairly treated and judged by your appearance, occupation or nationality. This goes beyond one individual, as refugees in general are met with disdain and bigotry. But that is a story for another time.
How can one fit in and feel at home in a society that shuns you for just being who you are? A society that loves gossip over any other topic of conversation? A society that doesn’t accept “different”? A society that judges without considering circumstances, points and whispers expecting you to conform to their exact ways?
What my mother raised us on was what she believes in. She believes that you have to respect your society; you respect where you came from, you respect their ways even when you don’t fully agree with them, you respect them as individuals as long as they treat you with the same respect, but you do not need to conform or fully fit in to be a part of the society. You don’t change your ideals, your beliefs, or your way of thinking because it is different. You embrace the difference, and that helps you embrace others for the differences they have, and, due to facing discrimination, you learn to be tolerant.
You might wonder why you’re reading this here, and why such a personal story is on Freethoughtlebanon. I’m not merely telling the story of my mother’s struggles; I am using this palpable story that I’ve been a part of my entire life to tell a million stories—stories that could be your mother’s or father’s; stories that could be yours, your sibling’s or your neighbor’s; the million stories of discrimination that happen every single day. I might not fully agree with my mother’s views on respect, but I am an advocate of self-acceptance, self-love, and above all, tolerance. While my mother’s struggle was related to her being from a different country or culture, the main components of others’ stories are incredibly diverse: race, color, sexual orientation, beliefs (or lack thereof), disabilities, physical deformities, mental health issues or economic class, just to name a few. These stories should be a thing from the past. That can only happen when we drop prejudices and fight discrimination through tolerance, which is, first and foremost, a personal initiative.
… So start with just a few acts of tolerance; one of them will undoubtedly be paid forward.
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