Photo: Damascus by Jan Smith, Creative Commons, Flickr
After having to leave Libya for Syria during the turmoil of 2011, Intissar Rajabany reflects on her experiences, the support she had from British Council colleagues and how it felt not knowing if, or when, she would be able to return home.
As the Damascus-bound airplane left Tripoli International Airport in March 2011, I looked through the window at the receding ground and thought of the chaos, fear, death and destruction I was leaving behind.
I did not feel any relief; on the contrary I was heartbroken at leaving my loved ones and at not knowing if this was going to be the last time I saw Libya. I did not realise that I was crying until the passenger sitting next to me remarked: “God willing, you will be back again”.
Not wanting other people to notice, I furtively attempted to wipe the tears away.
The next few hours, as we hung between sky and land, were the only moment of weakness I allowed myself. Once we stepped on Syrian soil I banished this feeling forever and concentrated on surviving in the best way possible until my eventual return home.
Being half Syrian, I felt luckier than many of the wretched souls in the refugee camps on the Libyan–Tunisian border, after all I had somewhere to go and a house to live in.
On arrival, my mum and I were still in shock from the epic airport journey but also because we had forgotten what ‘normal’ felt like. It had been a month since the Libyan uprising had started and we were sure that if the no-fly zone was not implemented soon, the situation was hopeless – the looming slaughter of Benghazi, the spectre of vengeance awaiting anyone and their family who had dared stand up to Gaddafi, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding inside and outside the country’s border.
It was frightening to realise that my country was actually at war, yet it was exciting somehow, to feel that this time we may have a chance at freedom even though the writing was already on the wall that it was going to be a bloody, costly fight.
My arrival in Damascus on March 15 coincided with the ides of the Arab Spring. I was warmly embraced by my native country; its beauty worked its magic on the shocking memories of tanks in Tripoli, the images of military personnel stationed at various intersections in the city and the strangely aloof tall, masked soldiers standing guard at the airport. At times I would have believed that it had been a nightmare if it were not for the fact that the news was bringing disturbing images from home, or that phone calls to relatives and friends were kept very brief for fear of reprisals.
Everywhere I turned I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Syrian people. Everyone wanted to know how it was in Libya, and I had to use discretion and personal judgement on what to divulge just in case the Gaddafi regime survived this crisis. Everyone I spoke to in Syria understood the limitations on my freedom of speech and accepted it graciously.
The very first person to ask about me when the crisis began in February was my colleague Vanda Hamarneh from the British Council in Syria.
Her email, which I still keep preciously, came almost out of the blue, because I had left the British Council back in September. Yet this should not have come as a surprise, because you never really leave the British Council – not only because your colleagues become more than friends as a result of poring over projects, brainstorming at workshops, reviewing budgets, chatting in hotel lobbies till the wee hours or relaxing over dinner, but also because of the values you have shared and which remain forever wherever you go.
Following Vanda’s message, my Facebook account quickly filled with worried questions, my inbox overflowed with emails and my cell phone never stopped ringing until the day all telecommunications in Libya was abruptly cut off.
And so it is that I knew that I was not alone in Syria, and that in addition to blood relations, and the gallant Syrian people, I had a huge family at the British Council, not only in Damascus but all over the world, and I felt the richer for it.
I was proven right when I picked up the phone to speak to Country Director, Elizabeth White.
When I walked in the office the next day it felt like being home. I did not need to ask a lot of question because I knew how everything worked and could start with my assignment immediately.
As a result of sanctions, I left Tripoli with no cash and few belongings. My goal had been to get Mum to a safe haven for medical treatment. I did not know what would happen to my career or even if I had job back in Libya. I left Libya knowing that as long as the Gaddafi regime was there I would not be able to return; I left knowing that everything I had worked towards for the last 25 years could disappear; I left not knowing when I would see my father again; but most of all I left not knowing if there would even be a Libya in the future.
However, less than two months after I left Libya I had a job, great friends and even a car thanks to Elizabeth’s generosity.
I spent seven and a half months in Syria and though I missed Libya every single day, never once did I feel a stranger, either to the country or to the organisation. I was adopted by the Syria team wholeheartedly, I enjoyed the all staff meetings and the various foods and other goods placed on the ‘fatayer’ desk.
When I started working for the British Council in 2006 Carl Reuter, at that time the British Council Country Director Libya, used to tell me: ‘Think of Cultural Relations as simply people to people diplomacy, Intissar.’
The British Council, always avant-garde in its thinking and values, had adopted the best objective and I witnessed that in practice in the Syria office. There was cultural relations with Syrians, British people, Palestinians, Yemenis and even a Libyan…
My colleagues helped allay my fears and heal the pain, they gave me hope even though Syria too was experiencing disturbing events which resulted in great uncertainty not only for the locals but also for UK-appointed staff. The support never wavered through the darkest hours of the Libyan war and my faith in humanity was restored.
It’s been a month and half since my return to Libya and sometimes I wake up and wonder where 2011 went. The war is over, but the hardest part has just begun.
Despite the country being awash in weapons, I’m still happy at the possibilities for Libya. The only thing marring my happiness now is that I miss Syria and my British Council colleagues every single day. It’s the other way round for me, having forged those relations I know that even if I don’t ask about them every single day they will understand.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all the Syria team without exclusion for healing my heart and my mind when I needed it the most. It is thanks to you that I coped so well and have no traumatic sequel.
Well done for keeping with your work and doing such a tremendous job under immense duress, and I pray that the situation in Syria gets resolved for the best as soon as possible.