Yvona, 34 years old, She/Her
All she managed to tell us about her life in a war-torn Syria was that she was kidnapped by a terrorist group and was under their control for 16 consecutive days… This initial part of our conversation abruptly ended with a few incomprehensible words, muttered in a low voice and followed by a long silence dramatically punctuated by the agony of tears and moans.
We then suggested that she forgets about this part of her story and just share with us how she made it to Lebanon.
2018: The Smuggler from Hell
Yvona fled her jailers in Syria and illegally entered Turkey. Lebanon was not her destination, she wanted to go to a European country that offered her security, dignity and hope for a future. In Turkey, she met a smuggler who, for the mere sum of $1,500 (US), promised to take her to Greece aboard an inflatable raft. Fifteen migrants piled up precariously on board, all emanating from various countries ravaged by wars, religious strife, international conflicts and human greed. The smuggler collected the fees from each of them, then offered to hold on to their passports and the rest of their money for safe keeping in a waterproof bag which he was proudly touting. He assured them that he would hand everything back to them once they would have reached their destination. Yvona handed over her passport and $1,200 (US) that she had cautiously tucked away on her. The raft had barely travelled a kilometer away from the shore when the smuggler suddenly jumped off, dove into the sea and swam away, carrying with him all their documents and money, leaving the boat unmanned and the migrants aimlessly drifting on the high seas…
“We rowed with our hands trying to stay afloat and continue the journey”
There is no shortage of misfortunes and obstacles in Yvona’s story. The Turkish Coast Guard began shooting at the group. Everyone scrambled, the raft capsized, the migrants found themselves in the water, not all of them knowing how to swim. The Coast Guard retrieved them, brought them back to Izmir, handcuffed them and sent them to Istanbul.
Yvona managed to clandestinely cross the Syrian border, back to square one, but now without papers or money. She tried to sneak into Lebanon, but the journey seemed too daunting, and besides she needed to straighten her papers. She proceeded to work in Damascus, saved some money, applied for a work permit in Lebanon and traveled to Tripoli, a large metropolis in northern Lebanon.
2019: Arrival in Lebanon
“When I arrived in Lebanon, I found a job in a hairdressing salon in Tripoli, but I had to hide who I am. Tripoli is a very conservative city. I hid my gender, my personality, ultimately all that I am, everything I love about me. I was using my legal name, one that does not represent me.”
She meets Karam, her first love. She quickly learns that love can be cruel. Loved, misused, left behind: “I fall in love every time I am shown a little affection”, she tells us, still crying.
She loses her love and her job, slips into a severe depression, finds herself homeless, sleeping in the street in front of the marina of Antelias, a Beirut suburb. Hitting rock bottom, she attempts to commit suicide…
The NGO Ristad provides her with free psychological help. Only then Yvona learns of the existence of organizations that do take care of “people like her”. She registers with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and contacts the NGOs MOSAIC and HELEM.
2020: Once Upon a Time
To tell us about the beirut port explosion, Yvona asks us if she could start with “Once upon a time”. This emotional distancing is necessary for her now to speak about herself, the post-trauma of August 4th still vividly engrained in every ounce of her being, whether physically or psychologically. At heart, Yvona is a storyteller of romantic tales, an alternate universe where poetry masks the harshness of reality and love sweetens its bitter taste.
On August 4th, Yvona was having a perfect day with Hagop, her lover, in his apartment, about two kilometers from the explosion, in the Armenian quarter of Bourj Hammoud.This perfect day began with drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and making future plans together. It was supposed to culminate in sharing a pasta dish, one of Hagop’s favorites, which Yvona knew how to prepare to perfection, just the way he likes it. But the pasta would never get cooked: First came a power failure, then some small tremors followed by a huge explosion. It was a life-altering moment. Yvona lost consciousness. When she came to, she remembered that she had ran towards her lover at the first jolt, but now she could no longer see him. She felt the very heavy weight of the fridge crushing her shoulder, and she was covered with shattered glass as she laid on the floor within the rubbles of the completely obliterated apartment.
She could not tell whether she was in a nightmare or simply living a horrific reality. She wanted to go back to the stove and finish cooking the pasta before it gets burned, but the weight of the fridge on top of her and the excruciating pain ripping through her body unmistakably confirmed the horror of the moment. She managed to free herself from underneath the crushing weight of the fridge and the debris despite all the pain and the injuries; she desperately had to find her lover.
Hagop was no longer in the apartment. The force of the explosion propelled him to the outside. The street was littered with rubble, blood, screams and burned flesh. Dead corpses covered wounded and bleeding bodies amidst overturned cars. Yvona describes the horrific scene with a hushed voice interspersed with moans. The agony of the moment is still vividly burning in her mind. She recalls walking through this apocalyptic landscape to the house of her transgender friend who hosts her when her lover is not at home. She proceeded to contact Hagop’s family and asked them to call for help for their son, to go see him as soon as possible, telling them that she was “a friend who happened to stop by his house” when the explosion happened.
She did not need to give any details to her lover’s family about their relationship; they had already figured it out. Yvona was threatened with grave consequences if she attempted to see or even contact Hagop from now on. In a matter of hours, the beirut port explosion shredded her body and her heart.
Our meeting with Yvona took place in June 2021, 10 months after the explosion. She lamented to us: “I don’t even have the right to contact the man I love.”
Hagop was and will always be the object of her love.
As soon as she arrived at her friend’s house after the explosion, Yvona started constantly ingesting pain tablets for the next ten days. But the suffering became unbearable, and she consulted a doctor at a free clinic who prescribed sedatives.
A fortnight later, she was unable to lift her arms, move her neck, or even stand upright. She went back to see the same doctor who requested a shoulder’s X-ray. With no insurance or income, Yvona turned to NGOs, but none would provide her with the necessary financial aid to cover the X-ray’s costs, the equivalent of 35 Canadian dollars.
Two months later, an association put her in touch with a private (religiously affiliated) hospital, and they extended the service free of charge. During the consultation, Yvona was subjected to bullying, intimidating and sarcastic taunts by the healthcare workers…
To this day, Yvona’s shoulder has still not been treated. The pain and the inflammation have spread all the way down to her heel. A protrusion deformity appeared in the shoulder requiring surgery, to be followed by physiotherapy.
Yvona’s dream: “I will not hesitate for a second”
Yvona dreams of living pain free, of moving around painlessly and actively looking for a job.
“Obviously, I know I will not be able to find work in Lebanon; they will not hire me for several reasons. But without the constant suffering, I will be happier. I would like to wake up one morning and realize that my pains are gone, to start a new life in which I will be physically and emotionally strong and I could achieve my goals. I am a hairdresser, it is a passion of mine and I know that it can be a profession that provides me with the necessary income to live on. I want to find a way to earn my daily bread, and to no longer live in fear of going hungry.
I would also like to wake up in the morning feeling safe, to know that I can go shopping, walk down the street freely, without hiding who I am because I love who I am! I don’t want people attacking me anymore, I don’t want to hear insults anymore.
I went looking for work in hair and makeup salons in Beirut. People gave me strange and dirty looks, told me to leave my resume, addressed me in the masculine and told me they will get back with me. No one called.
I don’t like my legal name, I don’t like anything I was given at birth. I like being Yvona, I really like this name, I am a trans woman and if I can have surgery for that, I will not hesitate for a second. »
The comforting object
We gave all participants the option of bringing an item of comfort which they would like to have with them during the interview, should they choose to. Yvona brought a giant plush teddy bear, fire red color, clutching in its arms an equally red heart, on which is embroidered the word Habibi, my love in Arabic. By hand, Yvona had added, with a felt tip pencil, the name of her first lover in Lebanon, who had offered her the teddy bear: Karam.
“I talk to him, I caress him, I put him to bed by my side, I confide in him my worries, I wipe my tears against him.”
6 months rent, transport, food, clothing: CAD 6,000
Surgery and physiotherapy: CAD 8,000
Total : 14 000 CAD