In the opening verses to his “Divine Comedy,” which he wrote in exile, Dante famously laments finding himself “in a forest dark” after “the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
When, earlier this year, I realized that I can no longer bear to report on Syria — the only thing that I had experience in doing — I was stepping into a dark forest of my own.
My exile journey had begun a few years before, when I had to abruptly leave Syria to flee reprisals by the regime of Bashar al-Assad for my work in journalism. I then lived in Beirut for three years as one of many undocumented Syrian immigrants and under the looming possibility of deportation. Then, in early 2020, I managed to move to France, where I was granted political asylum.
It was not easy to arrive in my new country of residence just five weeks before the first day of a series of strict lockdowns, which were a necessary attempt to establish a grip on the frightening spread of the COVID-19. Like millions of people around the world, I was not particularly excited about the prospect of being confined to a narrow space for an indefinite period of time, away from everyone I love.
But the pandemic and the measures taken to counter it were hardly the only cause, or even the main cause, that made me find myself in that dark forest, so to speak, at the last place and time I would have imagined — had not everything been fixed when I finally moved here?
Less than a week after I arrived in Paris, a Syrian refugee — who had also made it here a few years after fleeing from Syria to Lebanon — congratulated me on finally carving my way out of the region safely, but he suddenly warned me that my biggest mental health challenges were yet ahead of me.
“Even if everything goes well here?” I asked, slightly dismissively. “Especially if everything goes well,” he answered.
I did not make much of his comment at the time, but I would soon discover that he was right.
I never intentionally downplayed how necessary it is to take care of one’s mental health, but I was also under the misapprehension that I had somehow been spared the worst of it, thinking that everything that I endured in Syria and Lebanon, without an immediately visible toll, had rendered me invincible, tantamount to being dipped in the River Styx.
To start with, I grew up surrounded by people who have never experienced the joy of peaceful tranquility, the insouciance of a summer holiday or the option of disconnecting for a few hours a day to indulge in a variety of pastimes; I thought that this was normal.
I would hear the stories of family members who died fighting in wars or in the dungeons of Syria’s secret service and, much like any other Syrian, I grew up trying to avoid the same destiny; I thought that this was also normal.
When the war broke out in 2011 and many of us quickly grew accustomed to its horrors, programming my days around the possibility of rockets or mortar shells falling around me became increasingly ordinary, like picking clothes appropriate for the weather.
And when I had to escape, it was just another thing that I had to do. The night before I left, I went to the bar, raised a glass to the good old days with the two friends who had not yet left the country and then embarked on a journey with neither a guarantee of a safe exit nor a clear ultimate destination in mind. It was not practical or ideal, yet hardly extraordinary or unheard of.
I stayed for two months in Sudan, with little money and no work, then decided to move to Lebanon, where I would get stuck with no asylum rights, no residency permit, no work authorization, no job security, no social security and no medical insurance. But I heeded the words of the song I had learned as a child and counted my blessings, which included being around close friends and being able to work for prestigious international news outlets.
Yet, every time I stepped out of my apartment, I risked being swept back to an untimely demise in Syria. On top of the threats that any undocumented Syrian in Lebanon faces, my work in journalism continued to put me in danger. After moving to Lebanon, which is under the control of allies of the Syrian regime, I forwent the secrecy that I had maintained in Syria and started using my name when writing or contributing to articles.
On reflection, it is hardly surprising that when I finally found myself in a safe and secure environment, all my emotions bubbled up to the surface.
This was what the Syrian refugee that I met in Paris was talking about. When my challenges went from trying to keep myself alive by hiding who I am and what I do, and trying to avoid deportation or arrest, to trying to find an open bakery or coffee shop in mid-August because all Parisians were on holiday, I suddenly was hit with how much damage I had sustained all those years before my asylum in France.
Moving to Europe gave me a necessary distance from the region, but only in geographic terms. Following and reporting on Syrian news for over 12 hours per day left me with no time or capacity to immerse myself sufficiently in my new country and society, and it expanded the gap between the lives I wrote about and the one I was leading.
Then I broke down. I started to randomly and uncontrollably sob like I never used to before, uncharacteristically failed to meet deadlines and produced the lowest-quality work of my career. I went from being the reliable, productive journalist and researcher my colleagues knew to becoming a mere shadow of myself.
However, the constant state of immersion in news and analysis relating to Syria was only part of the reason I became desperate to stop reporting on the country; the other part had to do with the conditions of my employment.
While getting a job at a renowned international news outlet was a long-held dream and should have confirmed my professional qualifications, the tide of joy and satisfaction that I felt was quick to recede.
Being one of few foolish young Syrians who was ready to risk their lives to do anything, even for free, for a chance to work for an international media outlet probably gave my career a head start. My willingness to take such risks caught the attention of respected journalists and influential editors, and paved the way for the jobs that I would, somewhat easily, be able to get later on.
But as I found out later, I had not “made it” by securing one unstable position after the other in those companies, and a distinction between me and other reporters in those companies was always made clear.
I realized I had fallen into a trap: My background and experiences in Syria, my network of contacts on all sides and my ability to speak and write in more than one language made me a highly desired addition to bureaus of news organizations covering Syria, but only in a supplementary capacity to others. At the same time, being Syrian did not encourage editors to promote me to a Syria correspondent role, perhaps thinking that I would be too biased for it.
I played that supplementary role for five years, mostly as a “news assistant,” an underwhelming position with little pay and recognition, given to local journalists to function as a bridge between foreign reporters who come and go to the places and people they cover in the news.
During those five years, I had to be the bank of information that colleagues could withdraw helpful data from at any given time. My job was to know everything, to be able to find out anything, to remain abreast of any relevant updates on the stories we were following and to have the contact details of everyone on all sides.
I had to know the names of all the villages and cities that were or could be in the news, how far they were from the nearest big city, what the demographics of their populations were and what facts we had to keep in mind when reporting on them.
I had to establish and maintain relationships with hundreds of sources, the vast majority of whom I never met in person because they live in areas that are inaccessible. Those sources vary from senior commanders of extremist opposition groups to corrupt business people doing their part to keep the Syrian regime afloat to schoolteachers and carpenters fleeing a Turkish incursion into the northeast of the country, where the de facto autonomous administration would have hitherto been in control.
I did not think it burdensome to be remarkably knowledgeable about Syria or worry about finding work, because there will always be someone who is interested in benefiting from my knowledge and experience of Syria. But I found it frustrating that the space for me to grow as a journalist was extremely limited.
I had trouble proving my identity to sources because I had to use my personal email address when the organization I worked for refused to give me a professional one. I felt left out when the company I worked for did not allow me access to the Slack channels relevant to my work.
Of course, I was not going to get a staff job, I was not going to be called “correspondent,” and I was not going to be relocated anywhere. Quite the contrary, when I had to flee Syria with only a few hundred dollars in my pocket, I was immediately let go from a job for which I risked my life daily by doing it in secret. A few years later, I lost another job because I had to move to another country, once again for security reasons.
Almost every day during those five years, I was painfully reminded that, no matter how hard I tried, I would not be regarded in the same way as foreign colleagues on the ground, notwithstanding their skills and experience, for they were not at fault for the structural flaws that stalled my professional development.
I did not have decades of experience as a reporter and I was no roving correspondent signing off from wherever the world is looking, but I believe I was good at my job.
The conditions under which I had to work in journalism made me resent this career. I should be sorry if this continues to be the case. I began making sacrifices for this career path when I was 16. It took me two years to convince my family that studying journalism at university was an appropriate path to choose. Some people did not even believe me.
“You know, if you don’t want to tell me what you are applying to study at university, just say it! You don’t have to make stuff up in order to avoid answering,” said one of my friends, who remained skeptical for months that studying journalism was truly my earnest decision.
I have now come to realize that I did not need to rest; I needed to convalesce, to heal, and this process may take a long time.
Part of me is sorry to leave the Syria story behind. Over the years, I developed knowledge and skills to tell the stories of a people abandoned and dying at the hands of a tyrant clinging to his throne. These are stories that few others have been willing or able to tell. A few years after having to leave the country behind me, I found myself having to leave its story behind.
At times, I share with Dante the painful wounds caused by the arrows of exile and lament with Ovid the fact that while the words that I write can make their way into my country, I may never be able to. Still, I cannot deny the sense of relief I have felt in the span of a few months. Nor can I ignore the contentment I have had since settling into a new home where I feel welcome, away from menacing forces and enjoying the rights I was long deprived of.
I think that I have lost my professional ambitions, or perhaps, as C.P. Cavafy put it, I may have overcome them, and maybe I will get a second wind. Who is to tell?