'I am no longer I': One Syrian's recollection of exile, displacement and separation
In quest of belonging
I have packed my bags again. I cannot remember how many times I moved homes in the UK since 2011 between my masters, PhD and work: between Manchester, Bath and London. It is time now to leave my sanctuary in Bloomsbury just a few buildings from where Virginia Woolf used to live.
I look outside of the window. As if I am saying goodbye to this view. As if it is the last time to see London. I saw the seasons come and go from this window. I took so many pictures and left.
Leaving is always painful. Each time I pack my bags, I remember the time when I left Homs on the 17th of November 2011. My father then wrote a list of items I should remember to pack. Together with my mother, they made sure I was ready for my journey to Manchester.
"To be exiled is to live the solitude and loneliness. To live in a land where no one would care about your last name"
I still remember leaving home in Homs. It was just after dawn. As I carried my bags with my father down the stairs, I wept as I left them in a city under shelling. The weeping continued throughout the journey from Homs to Damascus, then from Damascus to Manchester. It continues today.
It has been ten years now since I left, without being able to return.
In 2021, I unpack my two bags again in Manchester. This is everything I brought with me. The books I am proud to have, the few pieces of clothes I own. Several ink boxes I spread across my new residency. Few other boxes, which is everything I own, I stored in a self-storage in a basement in London.
My life seems fine from the outside. I live in the comfort of one of the richest and most diverse countries in the world. I am privileged. I had the chance to complete three degrees, becoming a doctor just at the age of thirty. But from inside, I remain to feel a sense of homelessness, a great sense of injury.
Homs is always in my mind
I walk between the streets of Manchester. I sit in its squares. As I live my life in Manchester, another life lives inside me. I didn’t only cross borders, but they also crossed me. It feels as if I am divided into two pieces living at the same time in different places; here and there.
A piece of me lives here in Manchester. But another piece of me lives thousands of miles away from here. In Syria.
As I walk in Manchester, I look at the faces of the people around me, the conversations they are having, the laughter, the smiles, the sadness, the walking groups, the clothes they are wearing. As I walk, images of the war flood my mind: I see the city in ruins and I hear the voices of bombs and shells walk into my ears. Children in tents in refugee camps dreaming of a better future; how much I wished this was just a nightmare.
Every time I pack my bags, I remember the millions of forcibly displaced people. Every time I see a suitcase, I remember them. How did their big lives fit in a suitcase? How did it fit when many have left with no suitcases?
I miss the faces of the people of Homs, their calmness, their kindness, their generosity, their simplicity, their trust in strangers, their hospitality.
As I walk in Manchester, I feel as if the voices of the people in Homs are talking to me. Sometimes they say why have you left, other times they say we wish we left.
Sometimes they say have we been forgotten, and other times they say our war is not over: it unfolds every day once we open our eyes, our war starts in every single way, even in our search for our daily bread.
I walk to my gym by the canal in Manchester, and the tears never stop from falling. The more I try to escape from the past, the more it pushes me back to it. The more I feel I am trying to build a sense of home in the UK, the more I feel a sense of homelessness. The pain of forced displacement is unbearable.
"But in my exile, I have made another family. A second one. And found myself belonging to many places and many networks. I relied in the darkest times on the kindness of strangers"
I am no longer I
To be exiled is to live the solitude and loneliness. To live in a land where no one would care about your last name. Not as in Homs, when the last name is linked with families, spaces, reputation, communities.
I live my life without any member of my family with me. Walking through life alone. Painful to tell my family in Syria about my pain. I struggle to tell them about my struggles.
But in my exile, I have made another family. A second one. And found myself belonging to many places and many networks. I relied in the darkest times on the kindness of strangers. I trusted in colleagues I barely knew. I approached academics who accepted to be my mentors and others who became friends. And I have found journalists who made me feel understood. The kindness of people around me made me create a sense of belonging when my country has been collapsing.
In my exile, I belonged to these circles. I found refuge in their solidarity. We helped each other find jobs. We cried on each other’s shoulders. We came out to each other. We cared and listened to each other. They were the source of light and imagination in my exile and solitude. And to them, I am so grateful.
Through this sense of collectivity and my membership in different communities in my exile, I feel that I am no longer I, but I am also we.
Dr Ammar Azzouz is a UK based architect and writer
Follow him on Twitter: @Dr_Ammar_Azzouz