The Palestinians of Lebanon…and the lost dream
Fadi Abu Saada
It was midday by the time my plane landed in Vienna’s international airport, a pit stop before taking another flight to the Czech capital Prague to attend a conference. My layover was only about 40 minutes.
I went into the airport lounge in search of the smokers’ section. I had endured a four hour flight from the Queen Alia International Airport to Vienna without smoking so I quickly found a spot and lit up.
Sitting in front of me was a man with very Arab features but a confused and frightened expression clouded his face and eyes. Still, he was smiling. So I casually smiled at him with my eyes and he cordially returned the gesture with a large grin. I felt him relax and my curiosity in this man was aroused – what was he thinking, what was his story?
He was also smoking. So at the moment he stood up to put out his cigarette, I knew this was my chance to strike up a conversation.
“Where are you from,” I asked him.
“I am Palestinian…a Palestinian from the Shatilla Refugee Camp in Lebanon,” he answered.
When I asked him where he was headed, he told me he was staying here at the airport. I didn’t understand. “I am here to seek asylum. There is nothing left for me to do in Lebanon,” he answered.
Before I could respond, he continued, “We are an excellent military power. No one can overcome us or attack us. Besides this, we are nothing. We do not have even the most basic human rights like others in this world.”
The man then bowed his head and repeated, “May God have mercy on you, old man, may God have mercy on you.” He was referring to late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. “May you live,” I told him, the traditional response to his entreaty. Still, I had to ask. “Why are you asking for his mercy?”
He looked me in the eye and said, “Because after the old man, there is not even a sliver of hope of returning to our homeland. The last option we ever considered was immigrating somewhere else and seeking asylum. This is what I am doing now. You must understand I had lost all hope of returning before making this move.”
This was the first time I had ever met a Palestinian from the refugee camps in the Diaspora and from Lebanon in particular. I felt confused and bitter after this conversation. I lit another cigarette. We stood side by side, an awful silence between us. He too lit another cigarette.
Moments later he spoke. “From your accent, I can tell you are Palestinian. But where are you from?”
“I am from the West Bank, from the occupied territories.” Seconds later he turned to me and fiercely embraced me. He started kissing my cheeks and I could see tears well up in his eyes.
At that point, I was overtaken by a terrible sensation. I could feel his longing for his people and his country. This was a dream that never once parted him until that awful moment when he decided to leave Lebanon and seek asylum somewhere else. That awful moment when he lost hope that this dream would ever become a reality.
I didn’t know what to do or how to respond. So I allowed him to express his overwhelming emotions with complete freedom. For myself, I felt completely immersed in all that had happened in those few minutes since we had met and spoken.
Moments later he released me and returned to his seat. He looked exhausted, as if he had been working all day. But this was the result of these few moments and the pain he had felt especially from the fact that he was seeking asylum in a foreign land. I could do nothing else but light my third cigarette and continue to watch him.
He suddenly got up and walked towards me again. This time he gave me a full box of pain killers. There was Arabic on the box and he said he did not want anyone to know where he came from. He then took out a pack of cigarettes which also had Arabic writing on it. He emptied the cigarettes and threw the pack in the trash. “Now no one will know who I am or where I come from,” he said.
I bid him farewell and wished him luck then went on my way. But our exchange stayed on my mind for the four days of my trip. On my way home, I had a layover in Vienna before flying to Amman. Immediately after we landed, I searched every corner of the airport to find the man and see what had happened to him. But my search was in vain. He was nowhere to be found and I do not know what became of him. All I have left to write are the sorrows that befell me from this encounter that lasted only a few minutes.
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