“When the war started, I did not return to Syria for the next eight years, until my grandfather passed away in 2018. I have not been since.”
These are the words of John Chakkour, a proud Syrian man and a third-year U of T student. As an adult, Chakkour left the Middle East to avoid being enlisted in the Syrian Civil War, an ongoing conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dynastic regime and pro-democratic insurgents. In his search for tranquility, Chakkour headed to Canada and eventually ended up at UTSG.
As of September 2022, U of T is home to 27,130 international students who represent more than 130 countries; as such, the university creates a sense of home for diasporic people unable to return home. Some leave their countries to escape war, conflict, and instability. Some don’t return for decades, or even for generations. Many lose their heritage and grasp their culture as tight as they can, too afraid to let go.
People who are part of diasporas play a vital role in helping their people back home. For many, this help takes the shape of hard-earned money sent to family back home. For others, help comes in the form of clothes, supplies, and medicine sent back home and distributed amongst orphanages. For Chakkour, helping feels like a moral obligation driven by the guilt he feels for living a safer and more stable life than at home.
Diaspora guilt refers to a culpability that expatriates feel when living away from their country. When their nation trudges through periods of crisis and instability, expatriates witnessing their nation suffer, unable to help, suffer in solidarity with their countrymen; while some feel helpless, others are empowered to cause change.
A better life abroad
Chakkour’s story is tragic, but not unique. In Syria, men between the ages of 18 and 42 are obligated by law to serve in the Syrian military. Exemption from this service is on a case-by-case basis, and is unlikely to be granted for healthy men such as Chakkour. As of 2019, this mandatory military service had fuelled the departure of more than 5.6 million citizens, many of whom plan to never return to the country.
“My parents don’t want me to go back, because there is a risk that I [will] be drafted,” Chakkour expressed.
In late 2010, successful protests and uprisings, which later became known as the Arab Spring, overthrew Egypt and Tunisia’s presidents, which gave hope to pro-democratic activists in Syria. Soon afterwards, the Syrian government, led by President al-Assad, reacted to the protests by killing hundreds of protestors, and imprisoning many more. By July 2011, military defectors formed the Free Syrian Army, a group of rebels aiming to overthrow the Syrian government. This announcement triggered the beginning of the war. Since then, the war has claimed the lives of nearly 600,000 Syrians and displaced nearly 13.3 million Syrians.
Since 2020, Syria’s humanitarian crisis has been aggravated by an unprecedented economic downturn, which was caused by a Lebanese economic crisis, U.S. sanctions, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Syrian currency’s value depleted by 80 per cent in 2021, while the country’s hyperinflation hit 140 per cent in 2022; paired together, both factors caused Syria’s poverty rate to have reached 90 per cent as of March 2022.
“Every time I speak to my grandmother on the phone, she tells me there’s no water, there’s no electricity, no gas for cars,” Chakkour described. “The people are starving.”
Many countries in the Levant, the eastern shore land of the Mediterranean Sea, are perceived as unstable and dangerous. Currently, the situation in Lebanon, a country of 5.6 million, ranks “among the most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century,” according to the World Bank, because of its civil war, political instability, and ongoing economic crisis. These days, there are nearly 14 million Lebanese people who live in the diaspora outside of Lebanon, a number that triples Lebanon’s current population.
Of those 14 million, Adam Aboul Hosn, a 19-year-old Lebanese expat and UTM student, craving change like so many others, was forced to leave his home behind during the 2006 Lebanese Civil War, moving to Dubai instead.
“I don’t personally like calling it leaving Lebanon, because, for me, I never left,” Aboul Hosn described. “You wouldn’t call me a resident of Lebanon, but Lebanon is my heart. I haven’t gone one summer without going back.”
Aboul Hosn is a part of Lebanon’s Druze community, adherents to an esoteric faith originating from the villages of Mount Lebanon and Jabal al Druze. He explained that he’s noticed that people living outside of Lebanon, especially Druze people, associate themselves with different names and religions to preserve their safety.
This yearning to belong and to express oneself freely inevitably leads to a longing for home.
A longing for home
A feeling shared by every expatriate is the longing for home, the craving to walk the streets they’ve walked as children, holding a grandparent’s hand as they toured through villages. They yearn to share meals with their cousins, aunts, and uncles, and to dance Dabke until their legs can no longer sustain them. But many Lebanese expats have a romanticized image of Lebanon, a fantasy no longer representative of the current state of the nation.
“My beliefs of going back and living in Lebanon are very pessimistic… [Due] to the economic situation in Lebanon, it’s just not feasible for someone so young to live in Lebanon, [where] opportunities are very rare,” Aboul Hosn said.
And in a country devoid of stability or opportunities, families and youth such as Aboul Hosn are forced to pursue opportunities for growth abroad.
“All these minds, all these people that could have built the country are now building somewhere else,” said Lamees Al Ethari, an Iraqi-born writer who immigrated to Canada with her two boys in 2008. Al Ethari currently researches the narratives of the lives of Iraqi women living in North America.
“All of that is a loss for your country,” Al Ethari believes. “But some people are starting to go back, they’re starting to work there, and they’re starting to teach there.”
Aboul Hosn added: “My dream is to go back to Lebanon… but I don’t think [I] could live there, if it is in the state that it is.”
A home lost to the ages
Chakkour feels a rather similar yearning for home, although he is not as confident that the Syria of today will ever resemble the Syria he cherishes in his dearest memories.
“Syria before 2011 might never return, [at least not] for a decade. It’s not going to be an easy path towards reconstruction… and there’s very little that the average Syrian can do,” Chakkour expressed.
For many expatriates, the home they grew up in, the home that characterizes their memories, was lost to the ages. The memories, however, sustain an uncompromising yearning for their culture and a longing for home. Chakkour recalled that one of his family’s Christmas traditions was to host a Christmas dinner for their neighbourhood, a celebration he described as “Syrians together enjoying the moment.” This memory, however, characterizes a cultural unity that Chakkour believes can no longer exist: “[Now] there is such a huge religious component to the war [that] Syrians who were once friends… now avoid each other.”
Aboul Hosn feels the same frustrations towards these beliefs, which he describes as ‘cultish’: “The population of Lebanon is very ingrained into a certain mindset… Everyone views themselves as a minority, and we like to maximize our differences rather than embrace diversity.”
This cultural unity is a dream amongst many expatriates. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that is unlikely to come true in this generation or the next, when the Levantine people stand divided.
Diasporic guilt and its sentiments
The term “transgenerational trauma” refers to the usually subconscious transmission of traumatic experiences to subsequent generations, who demonstrate the symptoms of trauma without having experienced it themselves. The violence and displacement that refugees face often can create lifelong trauma that manifests within themselves, their families, and communities.
“[Diaspora guilt] is the most common feeling I’ve felt throughout my whole life,” Chakkour recalled. He remembered that, as a child, he and his brother would visit Toys R Us with their mother. Whenever they asked for a toy, their mother would remind them that toys were items most Syrian children could not afford.
This mentality extended into other areas of Chakkour’s life, such as academics: “Whenever I’d complain about anything in school, or I would get a bad grade, she’d tell me about all the kids in Syria who don’t have parents, who are suffering, who are dying,” Chakkour said.
“In one way, I sort of resented my mom for saying this because it made me feel like I was not allowed to enjoy anything, but on the other hand, it really does contextualize the privilege that I grew up with relative to other Syrians,” Chakkour said.
For Chakkour, this guilt persisted beyond childhood and adolescence. “Nowadays, in general, I guess that I do feel guilt that I am able to go to a good university, live in Canada, and have a good life… There are kids my age in Syria, and younger, who are suffering, who are orphaned, who are homeless, starving, and dying.”
For some, this guilt was a reminder to strive for a successful life, to take advantage of opportunities people back home had no access to. “[Guilt] was always in the back of my mind,” Chakkour confessed. “If I let someone down, it was as if I was letting my country down.”
For Aboul Hosn, diaspora guilt influences the way he lives today. “I look back, I have family in Lebanon, they’re suffering from severe economic crisis, and I’m over here in Canada, and I’m studying in one of the best institutions in the world, and learning from the most amount of books I can.”
“In a way, I do feel guilty that I owe something back to the country I care so much about,” Aboul Hosn said. “But not in the sense that I shouldn’t be there.”
For Abdullah Hamasni, a third-year student at UTM, this guilt is motivation for meaningful change, that urges him to help his fellow Lebanese who suffer from the nation’s instability.
“I see that the [health] system has a lot of problems, and I know a lot of family members who struggle with their health,” Hamasni said. “I want to go back to Lebanon and start my own practice there.”
This prophesied return of many hopeful diasporic people may stem from a feeling of culpability, from not being able to support one’s country in its time of need.
For many, this yearning to help back home stems from the culpability of not having been able to help before, including Hamasni. “Maybe I’m just trying to compensate for the years that I couldn’t be there,” Hamasni said.
For Al Ethari, this guilt can never be alleviated. She believes that, instead, this guilt manifests itself in aspects of one’s life and character. “You can never get rid of [diaspora guilt], you can only make it better for certain amounts of time.”
Al Ethari’s solution, however, is to use this guilt as a basis for change. “I think that [diaspora guilt] can create a basis for starting something,” she began. “I think longing allows us to build platforms that can help back home.”
And therein lies the challenge: metamorphosing guilt into something productive, like hope, until this hope leads to a desire for change.
A yearning to change
Diasporic efforts for change tend to resemble grassroots initiatives that bring together the diaspora community, uniting expatriates with a common goal. Recently, these initiatives have taken the form of donation drives and fundraisers.
Early this February, UTM’s Lebanese Students’ Association (LSA) brought the Levant diasporas together in efforts to collect hygiene items, school supplies, and clothes to send to orphanages across Lebanon in an attempt to help alleviate the strain of Lebanon’s economic crisis and supply shortages, which leave inhabitants unable to afford essential supplies.
Following February’s earthquakes in northern and western Syria, UTM’s LSA and Syrian Students’ Association mobilized to send sleeping bags, blankets and jackets, and organized fundraisers to garner funds for charities working to help displaced peoples.
For Chakkour, fundraisers aren’t enough: “There are a lot of sanctions imposed on Syria… helping directly through monetary aid is not exactly the easiest way.”
For Aboul Hosn, the path toward substantial meaningful change is through educating the next generation. “Yes, there is a human desire for instant change… I think that the way I would be able to change Lebanon is to write about it, to talk about it, [and] to let people know about it,” he said.
This concept of hope in the next generation is common amongst many diasporic people, who when forced to leave their home nation, hope that their children can one day return, and bring their lineage back to their home country. For the diaspora, exile is only temporary.
Al Ethari agrees that hope lies within educating the future generations: “You do whatever you can to instill in the new generation [not only] an idea of home but also the idea that they have the ability to change things, [and] we do this through education.”
Despite the war, and despite the conflict, Chakkour sees himself returning to Syria one day to raise his children so that they too can grow up as Syrians, although he is apprehensive as to whether his country is safe to rear a child.
“I’m 19 years old now. Assuming I get married at 29, that would be in 10 years. Do I think Syria in 10 years will be a fit place to raise a family and have children? I’m not sure,” he said.
For those unable to physically return to their home countries, Al Ethari suggests an alternative in the form of local diasporic communities which can mimic a sense of return. These diasporic communities can provide a sense of belonging and community through culture, language and religion.
However, Chakkour does not believe that the compromise of a diasporic community abroad is sufficient. “I thanked my parents every day that they took me to Syria when I was a kid, every summer and every winter,” Chakkour recalled. “I have memories of [Syria], I know what it looks like, I remember the smells, the sights, and the sounds… There’s no shortcut, there’s no turnaround to getting that type of cultural experience.”
Chakkour is adamant that he wants his children to experience everything that Syria has to offer: “My children will visit Syria, and I will try to make them go and see as much as they can, because that’s an invaluable part of their identity.”