As a former refugee, I am lucky to live in Canada. That’s also why I feel guilty

This first-person article is the experience of Pauline Nasri, a Syrian-Armenian-Canadian journalist living in Toronto. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

It’s my turn at passport control and I hand my Canadian passport to the agent. He asks me my origin.

« What do you mean? I’m Canadian. »

But he insists further, noting that my surname is Nasri, and asks where my father is from. I say anxiously: “Syrian”.

I’m afraid he sees me as one of 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape the civil war and are now undesirable in this country. But he seems satisfied and stamps my Canadian passport. As I step out of Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, the doors open and I smell the familiar breath of warm, humid June air.

I carry Beirut in my heart all the time and I can write poetry about this dynamic city. As you wander through the cosmopolitan mix of old and new buildings, you’ll see unfazed people choosing to live life to the fullest. But there’s also that other Beirut — beggars, mostly Syrian refugees, on the streets trying to sell you flowers or shine your shoes. Electricity lasts no more than two hours a day in most neighborhoods as there are power cuts on a rotating basis across Lebanon. People can barely afford food, medicine or other basic needs.

Almost ten years ago, my family was one of those refugees. I was 13 when we first crossed the border into Lebanon. At that time, entering the country was not as difficult as obtaining permanent residence.

Pauline Nasri, 9, performing at a summer camp in Sednayah, Syria. (Submitted by Pauline Nasri)

Officially, the country’s policy has been to welcome refugees until the end of the civil war in Syria. In reality, the Lebanese government has does little to lessen the difficulty life for refugees. It hosts the highest number of refugees per capita per square kilometer in the world, between the recent arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees and nearly 14,000 of other nationalities. Between the pandemic, the collapse of the Lebanese economy and the overwhelming number of refugees, resentment against the Syrian population was mounting.

As a Syrian refugee, my life in Beirut has never been stable. Obtaining permanent residency was expensive and was not guaranteed for refugees. My father did not have a work permit. Schools were expensive and difficult to access. Fortunately, my parents managed to pay my school fees and I continued my studies.

Despite these challenges, my friends in Syria often made me feel that Lebanon was a paradise. After all, I was no longer living in war and under attacks and explosions. I was going to school safely and regularly, unlike my friends in Syria whose schools were closed. I had my family with me and in a relatively safe environment. I was kind of creating a normal life, but the war never left me. I constantly lived in fear and mourned the physical separation and death of my close friends and loved ones. I used to be embarrassed in front of my classmates in Lebanon because I was quick to cry and frightened by the innocent slamming of doors, which reminded me of the sound of gunshots and shells.

LISTEN | Pauline Nasri shares a diary entry from when she lived in Syria

Radio-Canada News1:35Pauline Nasri reads her childhood diary about an explosion outside her house

As a child, Pauline Nasri wrote about her feelings about the war and the displacement of her family from Syria.

These two years in Lebanon were hard for my family. So when Canada stepped up its program for Syrian refugees, my family and I became one of the 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived between 2015 and 2016.

A woman wearing a shirt with the name
Pauline Nasri at the Toronto Blue Jays game in 2017 (Submitted by Pauline Nasri)

I remembered the day we landed in Toronto: a cold New Year’s Eve in 2015, and I was ready to start a new life. Life here has been a combination of freedom, simplicity but also challenges. I realized that my parents needed me to be strong and I wanted them to know they could count on me. I graduated from high school with top marks and entered the journalism program at Metropolitan University of Toronto, winning several scholarships for my academic achievements.

It has been six years since I returned to Lebanon. This time, I held a Canadian passport and worked as a freelance journalist. And that made all the difference: it seems that my new passport gave me some protection even though I am still the same person of Syrian origin entering Lebanon.

A smiling woman on a path overlooking the ocean at sunset.
Pauline Nasri returned to Lebanon after six years. (Submitted by Pauline Nasri)
The damaged remains of the Port of Beirut with graffiti in Arabic saying
In 2022, Pauline Nasri went to see the site of the port of Beirut where an explosion had taken place two years before. (Pauline Nasri)

I was in Beirut for an internship in a non-profit organization to create content for their newsletter and support their communication initiative. I interviewed Syrian refugee families in Lebanon who have lived in the same refugee neighborhood for 11 years. A family of eight lives in a room with no kitchen or bedroom. Most of these families depend on nonprofit organizations to connect them with food banks or other forms of assistance.

I felt a deep connection with these refugees – they know from my dialect that I am a Syrian like them and we share a smile, which for me is recognition of a common pain that Syrians share. Somehow I usually got the same response from people after learning that I am Canadian. They asked, « Who would come to Lebanon today? » followed by « Please take us to Canada with you. »

I try to silence my thoughts comparing my life in Canada to that of Syrians in Lebanon today. I said to myself, these people dream of traveling, and here I am living this dream. We are both Syrians; yet I have a place to go back to and they don’t. I wondered how unfair life could get. I wanted to promise these refugees a better future, but I couldn’t.

A woman closes her eyes and smiles while holding a Canadian flag.
Pauline Nasri became a Canadian citizen in 2021. (Pauline Nasri)

I feel like I’ve been carrying this guilt for quite some time – the guilt of leaving my friends behind in war-torn Syria for a chance at a better life in Lebanon, and then the guilt of fleeing Beirut for an even better life in Canada. There were nights where I felt helpless as my friends lived through the horror of the Port of Beirut explosion in August 2020.

Maybe, it’s true, it’s a privilege that I live where I live. Canada has given me a space to accept all of my identities – Syrian, Canadian, journalist, refugee – and this guilt I feel is slowly turning into gratitude for belonging to Canada.

But it’s a privilege that has driven me to be a better human and to amplify the voices of others. It means I have to honor that privilege and travel and write about families like mine. From guilt comes gratitude; from helplessness comes hope and from war, so many words of a writer.

Radio-Canada News3:51One woman’s quest to become a journalist after her family fled war in Syria

Pauline Nasri’s family fled war-torn Syria for Lebanon, then came to Canada for a better life. Now she amplifies the voices of those less fortunate.

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