The border guard at Rafic Harari International Airport in Beirut stamped my passport and handed it back to me. I slipped it into into my jacket pocket and could finally relax. I wasn’t worried when he took Christina’s passport and flipped through it. We had been to Israel together two years ago—a fact that technically forbade us from entering Lebanon—but I was the one who had traveled to there three times, and I was Jewish, with Israeli relatives and a Jewish-sounding name. So if I made it, I reasoned that she would, too.
The official had asked me twice if I’d been to Israel, and I lied. He didn’t ask anything about my plans in Lebanon, which were to work with Syrian refugees, and which I’d been told to lie about, too. Nor did he ask any other questions at all. But after carefully inspecting each page, stamp, and visa in my passport, tapping on his keyboard, and double checking each page, stamp, and visa to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, he finally stamped my passport. In a few more seconds, he would stamp Christina’s, too.
Neither of our passports have Israeli stamps in them. I had triple checked. Our passports do both have a number of stickers on the back of them, put there by security at various international airports. I know they have no official status, but I keep them on my passport for the stupid reason that they make me look impressively well-traveled. A few have identifying markers (“MUC” for Munich and “Schiphol” for Schiphol). The largest one is just a barcode. I couldn’t even remember where it came from.
Christina had the barcode on her passport, too. This wasn’t surprising, as we often travel internationally together. But hers caught the Lebanese guard’s eye. He asked her if she’d been to Israel. She lied. He flipped through her passport again, looked carefully at the back of it, fingering the stickers, and tapped on his keyboard some more. Then he turned back to me and asked me for my passport back. Shit.
Once he had confirmed that there was an identical barcode on the back of my passport, he took both our passports to his supervisor’s office. By the time he’d returned, we were the only ones who remained from our flight. He flipped through our passports some more and tapped on his keyboard. After a long pause, he began peeling off the stickers. “No stickers in Lebanon,” he said, which almost made me laugh, but then he lowered his voice and said, “You’ve been to Israel.” It was more a statement than a question, but still I replied, “No.” He picked up his ballpoint pen—a cheap, Bic number—removed the inner tube of ink, so that the outer tube offered a plastic edge that he used to scrape off the last traces of the sticky goo where the sticker had been. Then he did the same thing to Christina’s. It looked like he’d done this before. “No stickers in Lebanon,” he repeated.
I would guess that he hated the lie we we were all playing out. He probably hated Israel, too, and, given his likely life experience, I couldn’t blame him. But he didn’t want to kick the American tourists out. Tourism is Lebanon’s number one industry and the lifeblood of the economy. Plus, it’d probably be a real pain in the ass, for him and us. It was late at night. By that time, we were the last ones there. He let us in.
In retrospect, I worry whether I should have had greater pangs of conscience about lying, but at the time, all I felt was stupid. I knew I should have taken off that damn sticker. Impressing others with things like that is pathetic. In my defense, the sticker-non-grata in Lebanon was just a barcode. It could have been on a box of pasta at the supermarket. If I had thought it was the least bit identifying, I would have taken it off. Before we’d left, I even used a magnifying glass to inspect some of the other stickers to make sure there was no Hebrew on them. What meaning could possibly be gleaned from a barcode? I could legitimately say that I had no memory of where it was from. He had known, though. He knew that it was a Zionist sticker, an enemy state’s barcode.
I don’t know why, but I was never really scared. My comfort probably came from the experience of being a privileged American who is used to things working out. I regarded the prohibition on Israeli travel as a don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing, a mutually agreed upon fiction. But I was to learn that in Lebanon there were certain fictions that you didn’t mess with. In fact, beyond the Israeli-travel fiction, there is a much bigger fiction about who enters and leaves Lebanon. Worse still, this fiction affects the freedom of movement of hundreds of thousands of people, not just those with stickers from Ben Gurion Airport. Ironically, though, it also comes down to a barcode.
Lebanon is a confessional democracy, meaning that one’s citizenship is bound up with one’s religion. For the purposes of political rights like voting and judicial due process, as well as lifecycle events like marriages, births, and deaths, one’s civic life occurs only inasmuch as one belongs to one of three groups: Shiite, Sunni, and Maronite Christian. Minority groups like Druze and other Christian sects make an uneasy peace with their inclusion in one of the larger categories. Whatever tense balance of power these three populations have managed, they cling to for dear life. No one wants to return to the bad old days. It’s a awkward balance enforced by memories of civil war, still fresh, with wounds unhealed.
Indeed, one of the things that had previously disturbed the equilibrium and descended Lebanon into 15 years of hell had been the nationalist awakening of the large population of Palestinian refugees who had settled there after the 1948 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors (call it the War for Independence or call it the Nakba—let’s say it’s a both/and kind of thing). This is one of the factors that made Lebanon particularly twitchy about Syrian refugees (another is that, during the civil war, Syrian troops occupied parts of Lebanon, so that some Syrians were returning as refugees to areas where they’d previously been combatants). Unlike Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon hasn’t erected camps for Syrian refugees, as camps could be seen to suggest the sort of permanence of their Palestinian camps, which persist after 70 years and show no signs of ever going away.
At a certain point (after about 900,000 Syrians had crossed the border as refugees), the Lebanese government felt like its fragile democracy could accept no more and announced that there would be no more Syrian refugees in Lebanon. But this announcement has proven entirely ineffectual in the face of the war raging across the border. In fact, since the announcement, it’s estimated that another 650,000 Syrians have fled into Lebanon. The Lebanese government’s solution has been simple: there are only 900,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, because none of the additional 650,000 Syrians are refugees. And how do they know? Because they’ve forbidden the UNHCR—the ultimate arbiter of who is and isn’t a refugee—from designating any new refugees in Lebanon after the first 900,000. Instead, the UNHCR can only “register” these Syrians, offering them the basic services and assistance that they offer the official refugees, but without giving them the official designation of “refugee.” While they can get small cash payments, a few services, and maybe blankets from UNHCR, the Lebanese government deprives them the only meaningful legal status that’s available to them: that of refugee. It’s the designation that could give them a trace of what Hannah Arendt famously called, “the right to have rights.” Instead, though, the recent arrivals are registered and given—you guessed it—a barcode.
I was in Beirut with an American non-profit, IRAP, that calls itself a “virtual public interest law firm…not impeded by geographic boundaries.” IRAP has offices with lawyers and staff in Beirut and Amman, as well as its headquarters in New York and chapters at dozens of law schools. It uses technology to connect its distributed network and “deliver free high-quality representation to people living in, and fleeing from, war, persecution, and political upheaval around the world.” Moreover, their international footprint and diverse experience has made them expert at “creating solutions to overcoming the legal and bureaucratic impediments in the resettlement process, and developing an enforceable system of legal and procedural rights for refugees and displaced persons worldwide… [Their] unique model utilizes lessons learned in individual casework to advocate for systemic changes that benefit broader refugee populations.” In other words, they work to give people—many with nothing but barcodes—standing in the rule of law and a team of lawyers, many virtual, to advocate for them.
If we’re to appreciate the genius of a virtual law firm, it’s important to appreciate how legal constructs like citizenship and procedural rights present a unique set of opportunities and challenges. Unlike the hands-on, in-harms-way services of other NGO’s, identifying refugees’ resettlement needs and advocating for them through the resettlement process, in contrast, can be done by a combination of on-the-ground staff and remote volunteer layers and law students. A handful of these law students made spring break trips to IRAP’s Beirut office, and Christina and I were traveling as a guest on one of these trips.
If I hadn’t made it through passport control at Rafic Harari International airport, I know who I’d have called first. I had the number of the American embassy ready on my phone. This seemed like a good idea because I’m an American citizen, a legal construct that would—I hope—have had the real consequence of keeping me and my physical body protected from harm by virtue of a symbolic body of law and rights that citizenship entitles me to.
But what if I’d been stateless—the citizen of a state in chaos, or an enemy of a state, or a minority group from which the state had revoked citizenship? Less than fifty miles south of Rafic Harari International Airport, in northern Israel, were relatives of mine who, over seventy years ago, had arrived, stateless, in British Palestine. They had had their citizenship revoked years before, and subsequently survived Nazi death camps, languished in Allied DP camps, and finally made it to the only state that would have them, if only it had existed. They fought in the War for Independence/Nakba and ceased to be stateless (though in Lebanon, their state is itself seen as an occupation, a violent fiction denying the existence of the real Palestine and rendering real Palestinians stateless).
My relatives had been pioneers in the experience of the stateless and the refugee (as had, in their own way, the displaced Palestinians). Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, summarizing Hannah Arendt in the Wilson Quarterly, writes,
Bystanders were shocked when Hitler denationalized the Jews, shocked when the Jews became refugees, shocked when they could not get rid of them, and shocked when these stateless and unwanted minorities got rounded up for the slaughter. Had these bystanders been more aware of the perils of deriving rights from national sovereignty, Arendt concluded angrily, they should not have been nearly so shocked. The modern story of the Jews became a chapter in world history because “the arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion” that nationality served human rights.
“Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings,” she wrote, “the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”
In Lebanon, Palestinians were put in camps by their friends and granted a unique refugee status, with their own UN agency (UNRWA). But today, the Syrians aren’t granted any status, and they aren’t put in camps. They are granted barcodes; their data put in the cloud. Beyond the minimal services that the UNHCR can deliver at scale, they improvise a life in amongst the existing Lebanese population. They can be arrested any time. They lack the freedom of movement and can only work at gray market jobs in agriculture, sanitation, and construction. Their impossible options include a corrupt system of sponsorship, in which they indenture themselves to Lebanese citizens in exchange for temporary residency status. Stories of extortion, criminal gangs, shakedowns for protection money, labor that is never paid, inadequate shelter, unavailable medical care, and random crackdowns on their movement are all too common. And the most vulnerable—women and children, unaccompanied by other family members—face sexual abuse, child marriage, and recruitment into sex work or child labor.
What we heard over and over again was that to be stateless was to be hopeless. The refugees we spoke with complained little about the difficulties of their current reality (perhaps they found it difficult to complain, given what they had left behind), but they were desperate for a sense that things could get better and that they could have some agency in their own future. They had no idea what a virtual public interest law firm was, but they arrived at the office grateful that someone would talk with them. Most had taken great care to be well-prepared, with all their papers and documentation, as well as stories, both heart-wrenching and implausible. Some were undeniably heroic, others cagey, but whatever story they told was informed by a desperate sense that this might be their last, best chance for something—anything—to give them a road to hope.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We didn’t hear these stories until the penultimate day of our visit. We spent our first three days learning about all aspects of the refugee experience in Lebanon from IRAP and other NGO’s. We visited a center for survivors of torture where the director projected her powerpoint over a medical examination table, so that even the visual jokes and bad puns that peppered her slides were framed by a table where doctors examined the traces of pain and suffering that one human had inflicted upon another.
We visited an LGBTQ+ advocacy center, where they explained how French colonial law had been appropriated by Islamic conservatives to persecute homosexuality under the category of “unnatural acts”—a category ironically absent from the pre-colonial Islamic law and culture.
At one point, a woman at one of the NGO’s asked our IRAP host whether “we had gone into the field yet.” Our host replied that “we’re bringing the field to them.” Ultimately, this captured something essential about our experience: we were mostly protected from witnessing the harshest realities of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I suspect this was because of security issues, and I felt both grateful and guilty for the safety and security of our trip. At the same time, what we were there for—to conduct interviews with refugees and to assess whether IRAP could help them—offered a depth of understanding and intimacy that could have been missing if we’d been working with a population instead of an individual. Moreover, what we were being trained to do can then be scaled across the army that IRAP was raising. It’s an army of virtual interviewers, assessors, report writers, advocates, and litigators who can work, unimpeded by geographical boundaries, for the individual refugee clients, as well as for larger changes. Ultimately, they seek to build a new system, one informed by the real experiences of humans uprooted from citizenship and nation, humans in need of rights—and the right to have rights—beyond the frameworks that already exist.
I looked around at the law students we were traveling with and wondered, could this be that virtual army? Was this the work that would birth a generation of lawyers who could finally tackle this problem, which had stymied existing legal frameworks for nearly eighty years? Was this why Becca Heller, IRAP’s founder, had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her work? Indeed, IRAP’s concluding paragraph in their strategy document suggests this: “Finally, a crucial prong of IRAP’s approach is to train the next generation of human rights advocates. These advocates are essential to ensuring fairness, decency, and adherence to the rule of law throughout the refugee resettlement process.”
But for all the lofty goals of systemic transformation, our work—like the work of lawyers everywhere—was to help one client at a time. Given the extremely limited numbers that countries open their borders to, resettlement isn’t an option to the vast majority of refugees. Instead, it’s a discretionary solution available to the “most vulnerable 1%.” The obvious problem is how—from a population of 1.5 million—can anyone justly and equitably identify and advocate for the most vulnerable 1%. This is where IRAP saw a gap in the services that UNHCR and other NGO’s offered, and adapted their local operations and virtual army to fill it. UNHCR is optimized to serve the millions of refugees, not the thousands who are uniquely vulnerable.
In their limited, personal contact with UNHCR personnel, most refugees don’t trigger consideration for resettlement, so IRAP takes as clients those who belong to the eligible categories and have been overlooked, mis-categorized, or previously rejected in the resettlement process. The categories IRAP mainly works with are 1. Those with legal and physical protection needs; 2. Survivors of violence and/or torture; 3. Women at risk; and 4. Those with medical needs. The trip we were on was basically boot camp for the IRAP army of law students who were learning how to assess resettlement needs and build resettlement cases for these refugees.
I conducted my interview with Tom, a 40-ish New Yorker, part-time law student, who’d done hundreds of asylum interviews while working for an immigration law firm. Our interviewee was university educated and spoke a little English, but we also had a translator. Our interview wasn’t as emotionally trying as I worried it would be, but it was ripped-from-the-headlines compelling and cut to the core of some of the most challenging aspects of this work (including assessing credibility, dealing with exclusions to resettlement, and differentiating targeted violence from random violence). Other interviews had exposed my fellow volunteers to more heart-wrenching stories, and the effort itself was long and taxing (almost all the interviews took 4 hours and even then were incomplete). There were tears at the group debrief immediately following the interviews, but also a sense that we could make a real difference in some of our cases.
The funny thing was how, in a nation of fictions and at a virtual law firm, things became so much more real. I handled Syrian passports and birth certificates. I learned the order of battle of the Syrian army. I saw the scar where the bullet had entered and the doctor’s report describing the medical procedures for removing it. All the while, Tom and I passed coloring books and crayons to the man’s daughter as she colored on the floor. He didn’t complain about the bullet; he just wished for a reason to hope. He asked what IRAP could do for him. We replied that we couldn’t know for sure without hearing his story.
So for four hours he told it, and for four hours we listened, and on our final day in Beirut we wrote up the report, handed it over to the full-time IRAP Beirut staff, and erased all traces of our work from our hard drives. Now I’m back in Philadelphia, and the stateless, rightness life of a man and his family in Beirut is distant, but not at all fictional. Real life isn’t as simple as fictions—the refugees aren’t a huddled mass yearning to breathe free, but individuals who I can picture, with their quirks and foibles, their hopes and dreams, and their ups-and-downs. It all feels very distant and so familiar.
Though we were in the role of public interest lawyers, I couldn’t completely put my training in counseling psychology aside. I’m trained to do brief therapy, and to help people frame their stories in ways to emphasize their resilience and agency, but my previous experience had been limited to survivors of floods and hurricanes. The IRAP staff often marveled that even people they couldn’t take on as clients were still grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories, and to feel heard and seen. There’s so much value in just talking to a human being who will listen.
Four hours seems like a long time for an interview, but we had to cover so much legal content that there was little time for concerns with well-being and resilience-building. It breaks my heart to think that we might have been able to give him a little bit more—hope? a sense that someone cared?—if only we had done something that we hadn’t. But perhaps the real heartbreak comes from how far he is from what he wants, which isn’t interview for resettlement, but “to create a normal life for my children,” he struggled to say in English, “To take them to the beach.”
The day after we finished at IRAP, we went on an “alternative Beirut” tour, which promised the straight dope about the city’s historical, political, and cultural realities. Our guide was a charismatic young Druze communist. In the US, she would be right at home at a campus women’s center or working on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, but instead she was fighting the power (and supporting herself at one of her four jobs) by giving the Lonely Planet-crowd tours of her home city. I appreciated how she took us far from the touristic and hip parts of the city and deep into the older, poorer, devout Muslim neighborhoods.
At one point, she explained a prominent mural to us. It featured religious leaders from Lebanon’s main religious and political factions smiling and offering a vision of unity—a common fate and shared peace. The text, she translated, promised revolution. “In Lebanon,” she said, “‘revolution’ only means one thing: the destruction of Israel and the birth of a Palestinian state.” Notably missing from the figures on the poster was a Palestinian leader. The Palestinians and Israelis (like the Jews who had co-existed with Muslims and Christians in Lebanon for millennia) were invisible figures, political fictions whose presence and absence were invoked to promote unity around a common cause and a shared enemy, so long as both remain nothing but convenient abstractions and not embodied realities.
The next day, as I passed through passport control at Rafic Harari International Airport on my way out of Lebanon, the guard asked me, “You’ve been to Israel?” “No,” I replied. He stamped my passport and I proceeded to my gate. I wondered what he would have done if I’d said yes, but I had learned that some fictions are better left untested.