With everything going on at the moment, it has become easier than ever to lose hope. The coronavirus pandemic, the battle against systemic racism embedded in the “Kafala” system, the fight against corruption and total economic collapse… The list goes on and we don’t know how much longer we can go on ourselves. Our quarantined minds have had time to think over the past few months, and many of our thoughts regrettably lie outside Lebanon’s borders; some who once vowed to never leave Lebanon feel like they have been left with no choice. In fact, my own mother told me just this morning that all she wants from this world is for my young brother and I to get out of here, and for once, I didn’t argue back.
There is no doubt that these are difficult times for everyone, and so, the topic of patriotism becomes less of a shining armor to be worn with pride and more of a fog that clouds one’s vision.
Towards the end of last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yasmine Ayoub, a 2019 AUB graduate, on two separate occasions. She shared with me some of her struggles, insights, and wisdom. I believe that we can all benefit from what she had to say, even if we do not necessarily agree.
For months, the protests that broke out on the 17th of October had been dormant in light of the pandemic. It seems, however, that something was brewing.
On the 20th of May, the lockdown had been in effect for a couple of months. The government had set a 7:00 PM curfew with an odd-even traffic system. Public spots such as restaurants were operating at 50% capacity after being raised from 30% the week before.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Yasmine Ayoub. I graduated from AUB in 2019 and I’ve been unemployed for 11 months. I’ve been active in civil society since I was sixteen (Helem, Beirut Madinati, Lade) and I’m still emotionally connected to the revolution [of October 17] that happened here in Lebanon.
Are you still hitting the streets?
Not since Corona, but that’s going to change in two weeks maximum. It doesn’t seem fair that I’m living my life normally and people are out there dying on the street.
That’s very brave of you. What drives you? What is your motivation? Why does Lebanon mean so much to you?
I don’t wanna leave this country because I think that it has a great community and I think that there’s a lot of potential for it. I feel like, if given the opportunity to culturally restructure people, we can lead on a life without sectarianism getting in the way. Why do I wanna stay here? I have no idea. Maybe I’m dumb. All I know is, I have the privilege of surviving here for now. If I ever get cornered and I can’t breathe anymore, with nothing left to do, then I’ll leave.
So as long as you have food on your table and a roof over your head, you’re staying here.
Exactly. We just have to deal with this country step by step. I don’t know where I get my hope from. I just really like my country; I really like the people. We have a great sharing culture. You know there’s like eight degrees between everyone in the world? We probably have one. If we have a conversation right now about the people we know, it is likely that we’ll end up having ten people that we know in common. I like that I can go anywhere, I like that we’re naturally a little extroverted. I like the fact that you can travel all around Lebanon in ten hours, I did that once.
Tell me about the trip. How was it?
So, we went to Sour first, me and my friends. We didn’t rent a tent because lol*. We just got a small cooler and spent the day by the beach till around 3:00 PM. We then went back to Beirut, showered, and then we went to Faraya to stargaze.
*What Yasmine implied here is that you don’t have to spend money to have fun with your friends..
This sounds incredible. Did your parents ever get concerned?
My parents trust me – they know I’m responsible. They’re not too overprotective. You know, they educated me and know me well enough.
Do they support your decision of staying in Lebanon and participating in the protests?
Okay about the protests, definitely. We are a very revolutionary household. My aunts have closed roads themselves. One of them has a bunch of tires in her van, always ready. Staying here? No. No one has ever pushed me into staying here. My older siblings live outside Lebanon, I’m kind of on my own in this. There are others outside my family who are like me, though. We exist.
Does it get difficult?
A lot of times, but we always laugh about it together. We get drunk and we laugh about how dumb we are. The country is really just like “I don’t want you here, please leave”. As a queer woman, I don’t feel like I fit in any frame that the Lebanese society has built. But we are people who persevere, it’s just our style.
What would you tell the people who want to leave? Imagine you are chasing them down an airport terminal, trying to convince them to stay.
I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say anything. It’s suicidal to stay here. Everything here is terrible, there are no jobs. Everything we have is each other.
People like me give people like them a reason to come back some day.
So, you would let them go?
I would tell them this, but, I have long accepted that everyone I love will someday leave this country. My twin sister is planning on leaving already. It’s not logical to stay, it’s a feeling. I’ve traveled often, and every time I do, I always feel homesick within the last three days of my travel. All I would want is to go back.
How do you feel about people who want to study abroad and come back here?
Well I actually truly appreciate them, and they actually give me more reason to stay in Lebanon. All we have is each other, right? People like me give people like them a reason to come back some day.
By the 5th of June, the curfew had been extended to 12:00 AM. Black Lives Matter protests were taking place in the United States, and in parallel, protests against the Kafala system began to unfold in Lebanon. The Ethiopian government had announced repatriation flights would be available to all their citizens living in Lebanon, but tickets cost $1450 – an unrealistic amount for a frequent many who are not even paid minimum wage. Unwilling to pay their salaries or the cost of repatriation, employers abandoned Ethiopian domestic workers and left them, helpless, in front of the Ethiopian embassy.
Meanwhile, the exchange rate of U.S. Dollar to Lebanese Pound went upwards of 4,000 LBP, reigniting anti-government protests. Both Lebanese and non-Lebanese citizens with low incomes are at risk of starvation, with prices of essential commodities going through the roof.
Tell me what you are protesting about, now that two weeks have passed.
Okay so last week there was a protest in front of the Ministry of Interior, we were like 20 people. Well, that was until the ISF made us leave.
Did you get hurt?
They hit us a few times but it’s all cool. They hit you but you forget about it in two days. It happens. Plus, they don’t really hit women, so at least I have that going for me. It’s a double edged sword.
So, many people have had conflicting views on what this country needs. What is your stance on the current political system?
We have to eliminate this class of politicians, but it must be done in a systematic way. We cannot expect our problems to be solved by just making everyone resign. There has to be a plan and we must all be organized. Realistically speaking, we won’t be able to have a perfectly secular society any time soon but we shouldn’t let this stop us from protesting against the violation of our rights and building for a better government. We need to change the electoral law before we are able to outvote anyone. But at the end of the day, whether you are sectarian or secular, we all want the same things. We want security and shelter and food. We want job opportunities. And we have to be more cooperative, less polarizing. Some people truly believe in their sects and we cannot erase their existence in Lebanon, but we can cooperate to find solutions that give equal representations to both. At least as a first step.
Do you have friends that are sectarian?
Frankly, I can’t be friends with people who are sectarians to the extreme, I can only be acquainted with them. I struggle being friends [with people] who are “neutral”, let alone those who support the oppressive regime. But I am ready to have conversations. I have talked people out of their extremism before. It gets tiring though. Speaking of which, you know what’s relevant to protest in the Lebanese context? The Kafala system.
Have you been going to protests about it, too?
Definitely. We have to wake up and stop being so westernized, tweeting #BlackLivesMatter but still exercising and accepting the monstrous slavery system still prevalent in Lebanon. We can’t keep doing this and it frustrates me that Lebanese citizens are putting in so much effort to show their support to the BLM movement in the States while being entirely racist here. Not just to foreign workers that come to Lebanon through Kafala. Syrians, Armenians, Palestinians… they’re racist to them as well. They don’t let foreign workers swim in resorts, can you believe this?
I feel so powerless about this. What can we do?
Saying something is better than saying nothing at all. We have to form a community who actively work against this. We can donate, we can protest, but the most important part is having conversations. I tried to donate some money to organizations, and I went to the protests at the Ethiopian embassies. I didn’t know what to do. The workers were so oppressed that they wouldn’t even tell us the name of their “kafeel” (sponsor). They said that God will get them eventually. It made me so angry that the workers couldn’t even say their names. We don’t deserve them, you know. We don’t deserve their kindness.
What did you see at the protests?
It was quite heartbreaking. There was a man who tried to drop off his worker at the embassy, but everyone shouted at him. They were very supportive of each other. There was this one woman who was guessing the tribe of every worker. You know they have tribes there, and there was such a turmoil in my heart, seeing them all like this. But we have to keep on supporting them and we have to stay strong. We have the ability and privilege to protest, to speak up. We should always do it and we should never stop communicating.
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Yasmine’s resilient spirit was ever so apparent when she was describing her experiences to me. She is genuine and brave, and while some may disagree with her on some points, we can all learn a thing or two from her lifestyle. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t leave the country – I know I will do my best to study abroad – but whether or not you choose to stay here in Lebanon, you can rely on people like Yasmine to always be there for you; to give you a reason to have hope.