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How Moving Abroad To Work With Refugees Changed My Concept Of Happiness

There are so many different ways I could begin my story.

I could talk about how even after living almost a year and a half abroad, I’m still not sure what compelled me to buy a one-way ticket to Istanbul after being laid off from my job in Manhattan. I could talk about how I had no plans, how I couch-surfed through Turkey and took buses at night to save money on $4 hostels.

I could tell you how I spent three months working night shifts at a refugee camp in Lesvos, a Greek Island off Turkey’s coast. How in the early hours when the effects of sleep deprivation hits, our camp would be flooded with soaked Iraqis and Syrians who had just taken the deadly five-kilometer journey across the Aegean Sea to Europe.

I could tell you how dark humor saved our souls during those months. How after setting up a tent for a family on a night where it was -3 degrees Celsius and the wind chill made it feel so much colder, a grandpa looked at me and laughed, “I made it all the way to Europe only to fly back to Syria in this wind.”

I could tell you about how for almost nine months now, I’ve been a bartender in Lebanon, at one of Beirut’s most prestigious cocktail bars, and how I work at an 18+ club on weekends when money is tight.

I could tell you how in the early mornings, I leave these clubs, and in the day, eyes bloodshot with exhaustion, I volunteer in a boy’s protection center for Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian street children.

I’m no saint — rather, I’m an overwhelmingly conflicted individual who lives two lives. When your life has taken on such extremes, where you serve Mai Thais and Macallan neat at night, and then teach English to kids who ran away from Daesh, there is no balance. There is simply confusion over how two realities can exist in such close proximity.

And the more polar my life becomes, split into two binaries, I understand just how easy it becomes to ignore the disrupted lives of those around us. When we ourselves struggle to find peace, it often becomes daunting to care about others.

In early December, just a few days after my 24th birthday, I woke up to my phone ringing at 9 am. My shift at the bar had ended only four hours before, and when I saw it was a call from a Syrian girl who teaches with me at the refugee camp, I silenced my phone, digging my head deep into my pillow.

Then came the follow-up vibration, a text. “Natrenek — we’re waiting for you.”

Reluctantly, with a pounding headache, I took the two buses it takes for me to reach Shatila from my flat on the other side of Beirut. Shatila is the Palestinian ghetto where I have been volunteering for almost a year now.

Originally set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949, it has now swollen in size since the eruption of the Syrian Civil War. My students are predominately Syrian, most of them having fled Aleppo and the surrounding cities several years ago.

And as so many times before, I arrived in the rainy cold, water seeping into my socks, my hands searching my bag for Panadol to cure the dull headache that seems to have taken permanent residence in my head these days. Reaching the entrance of the center, I opened the door to the squeals of my students, “Heyye hon — she’s here!”

When I walked into my classroom, I was greeted with balloons, signs, Fanta Soda, cups filled with nuts, and pastries.

15 of my students popped up from their desks, shrieking words that resembled “Happy Birthday,” rushing to hug me. Like a collapsing Jenga, we fell into one another’s arms.

I was deeply humbled. They called me not because they wanted something from me, but because they wanted to give me something. It is then that I realized: Our relationship is symbiotic, an ever-evolving relationship where we must give and take and ultimately lean on one another.

I could tell you about the pain that sometimes comes with living a life abroad, of the loneliness I am forced to lean into, of the unpredictability of living in a foreign country.

I could tell you how sometimes, unexplainably, I wake up in a paralysis and am afraid to go to the store below my building to buy water. I could tell you of my fears and of my victories and of the fears that become my victories; and yet both have become so intertwined and so integral into who I have become.

But the point is we need each other; to be the collapsing Jenga and the constructed Jenga. It is in our moments of vulnerability that we should seek out others who are also vulnerable.

It was in my most difficult moments in Lebanon the children broke the clouds. It was during the bleakest moments in the refugee camps that families invited me into their tents for dinner. And it was at the bar where I work that I’ve formed lasting and perfervid friendships with Lebanese; where regulars have become my family and my co-workers have become my brothers.

A few months ago, I visited Ghent, Belgium to reunite with Mazen and Oday, two Palestinian brothers who had fled from Gaza to Europe. I had first met them in spring 2016, when I was working in a refugee camp in Idomeni, a town filled with stranded refugees on the Macedonian-Greek border.

Arriving just days after the borders had been closed, the brothers, with their perfect English, were serving as translators in this no man’s land. We had bonded quickly, spending nights drinking beers and laughing over their dismal reality, and then spending the days living their dismal reality together.

When I saw them again, the joy of our reunion was almost unbearable. Here they were, having come from one of the most dangerous places in the world. Not in the walls of the refugee camp, not under the threat of gas bombs or the unrelenting Israeli checkpoints, but waiting in a cobblestoned city in Belgium’s north for their asylum papers to be granted.

We sat on a grassy field that day, the sun sending waves through our bodies as we ate McDonald’s. Only five months before we had spent our days in assembly line fashion, making hummus and vegetable wraps in bulk to feed refugees stuck in camps. The nature of our reunion was a stark contrast to where they had been, but we knew they had been the lucky ones.

In a world of extremes, we must chose to live simply. To love others and to be loved. To support and be supported. To help and be helped.

A few months ago, I sat in my bar, drunk and crying to my boss. “I can’t always be strong, I’m exhausted.”

Yesterday at work, he sat me down in the middle of my shift and said, “I never told you, but you don’t have to be strong all the time.” He hugged me, “It’s OK to feel weak sometimes. That’s why we all need each other.”

My boss is Syrian, married to a Cypriote and living in Lebanon. I’m an American, of Chinese, Hawaiian and Dutch descent, and yet he tells everyone I’m his daughter. His Lebanese daughter.

In this age of globalization and of diasporas, it’s true: We all just need each other.


You can read more of Mallory’s writing here.


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Mallory Lee

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