From Refugee Camp to Abu Dhabi... and Why I Decided to Return

Saturday 30 January 202112:10 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

رحلتي للعيش من مخيم اللاجئين إلى أبو ظبي… ولماذا قررت أن أعود إليه؟

Those days roll out like a black and white film – the days when I was living in the UAE between the years 2004 and 2019.

I left the refugee camp as a young man in my twenties, not knowing anything about travel or the world outside. I only knew the back alleys of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. I did not imagine that I would end up living in a modern city like Abu Dhabi, that I would leave the camp as a refugee to travel farther than Palestine.

I arrived there at night, looking up at the towering glass skyscrapers and asking myself: ‘What is this terrifying height? How will I live here? Me, a simple refugee camp resident that only longs for the simplest.’

I walk in the massive streets alone, watching synchronized traffic lights and herds of cars abiding by their assigned lanes as they wait for green and red lights. I find myself amazed by such a scene I have never seen before. As I get to know its busy streets, bridges and vast deserts that embrace the city from every direction, I barely feel the years pass by in the Emirates, I always take note of how this vast desert has turned into a modern city.

As I walk, I say: ‘Oh how long this street is, lined with palm trees and sand’. I became a desert resident for the first time, and I received my single room from my Filipino company manager, who told me, “Today you will live alone, but next week a young man from the Philippines will come and live with you.”

I stayed up all night thinking: ‘How will I live with a foreigner when I don't even speak English? How will I understand him and him me in this room/prison?’ A week later, the young Filipino man came, and said to me in English: “Hi.” So I answered him back with the same, “Hi.”

“What’s your name?” I asked him. He replied with, “Israel.” I told him, “Sorry? I didn’t catch that.” He said, “My name is Israel.” My boss interrupted me, “Israel will live with you in the room.” I then told him, “I am Palestinian. How will Israel and I live in one room?” He said, “And what’s the problem?” I said to him: “It’s nothing, there is no problem. You won’t understand me - the meaning of your name being Israel. Welcome, come in.” Israel and I stayed together in one room, until the day came when I left that room and Israel was left alone in it.

How will I live with a foreigner when I don't even speak English? A week later, a young man came, and said to me in English: “Hi.” So I answered, “Hi...What’s your name?” He said, “Israel.” I told him, “Sorry? I didn’t catch that.” He said, “My name is Israel.”

Abu Dhabi smells of oud and the sea, but it is a multi-faceted city, embracing the world in all its shapes, types, and languages. You cannot really know its true face. I went with some friends from the refugee camp – residing in the Emirates like me – to Oman once, and when we got to the border, the border guard asked us, “Where are you young men from?” We said we were from the UAE and headed to Muscat. He said, “Fine, passports.” We handed over the Lebanese travel documents given to Palestinian refugees when on Lebanese lands, and they are big and bulky in size. The Emirati border guard asked, “What is this?” We told him, “Our passports.” He said, “Uff, why are they so big?” The guard seemed afraid of the papers and took them to his officer inside.

We waited for more than half an hour outside, until the guard returned with the officer who asked us, “Who are you?” We said, “We are Palestinians from Lebanon.” He then said, “Unfortunately, you are 'without'.” We asked him: “Without’ how?” He said, “There are people in the Emirates who are until now without any citizenship or identity. Unfortunately, you are ‘without’.” We were perplexed, and my friend said to him, “We travel to every country in the world with these documents, and you tell us ‘without’. Look at how big these documents are, do they not look like tents?” The officer fell silent and allowed us to cross the border after he made sure of the document’s legitimacy. We crossed the border laughing at the “without”.

The orange sun sinks into the Abu Dhabi sea. I watch it while I hold on to the metal bars by the seashore. Today is not like any other day, full of questions. Will the Israeli Minister of Culture come to visit the Zayed Grand Mosque? Will I stay in the Emirates or leave? Will one thing die inside me in order for something else to be born? Is this the philosophy and wisdom of time which continues to speed up ever more? How will I leave this glass city to return to the camp? Nobody goes back, but I need to turn back once, because sometimes time speeds forward but forgets us and leaves us behind, turning a blind eye. I need to leave these high towers if they deny my presence or if they see me too low, and go back to the camp that still remembers me. The news says that the UAE has joined the latest Arab surge of Israeli normalization – My God, then where am I?

I call my mother, as I get off bus number 402, “Hello Mom? I decided to leave the Emirates and return to the refugee camp.”
“What, have you gone mad? You are in the Emirates, no one is as lucky. What do you want with the camp that has a hundred troubles and misfortunes?”
I call my mother, as I get off the bus.
“Hello Mom? I decided to leave the Emirates and return to the refugee camp”
“What, have you gone mad? You're in the Emirates! What do you want with a camp that has nothing but trouble and misfortune?”

I laugh. “Do you know, mom. While here in the Emirates I discovered that the refugee camp is the most loyal friend of sadness for us?” She laughs too and asks, “And who said that? The refugee camp?”

I tell her, yes, the camp is the most loyal friend after Palestine, because here in the Emirates I am just a number. This number is linked to a paper that is my temporary residence which will someday be torn and thrown.

I will become a Palestinian roaming the corners of airports looking for my camp, no recognition for us neither here nor there. So I cannot transfer my residency which is tied to my work which, in turn, has ended ever since the UAE quarreled with its neighbor Qatar, and the borders between them were closed. Where will I go? With Israeli normalization spreading like the Corona pandemic in these countries.

The employee asks me, “One Way?”, And I answer, “Yes”. Astonished she asks, “Excuse me for the curiosity, but where do you live in Lebanon?” I tell her, “In a refugee camp.” “Oh my God, you are leaving the UAE to live in a camp?” #Palestine #Refugees

As I walk on the sidewalk of an even and stable street with buildings arranged like books on the shelves of a library, I remember Mahmoud Darwish's verses of poetry: “Siege your besiege, it’s inevitable, no other choice / The mask has fallen, from over the mask / From over the mask.” The choice is no longer my choice, but I am obliged to go and book my return to Lebanon.

The Middle East Airlines employee asks me, “Will you return to Lebanon?” I reply, “Yes, I will return.” She asks, “One Way?”, and I answer, “Yes, departure without return.” She is astonished and asks, “You will stay in Lebanon? Excuse me for the curiosity, but where do you live in Lebanon?” I tell her, “In the refugee camp.”

“Oh my God, you are leaving the UAE to live in the camp?” she asks.

I answer, “We made it here. I might find a temporary home camp on my way to a homeland," and I walk away.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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