My name is Sabrine Abu el-Ola
My name is Sabrine Abu el-Ola
Sabrine was born in September 1992 in the “Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp” in Damascus into a Palestinian family that came from the occupied city of Shefa Amr. She spent her elementary and middle school years in the UNRWA schools of the camp, before transferring to a vocational institute, where she learned Fine Arts.
Sabrine was a curious and passionate young girl. She loved extracurricular activities, such as painting and embroidery, and collected all kinds of colored, and patterned fabric for her hobby. She used to make daily trips to her favorite place, the Sukkar Library, where she never got bored of working on yarn embroideries of her teachers’ names to offer them presents. Those simple things made her happy and gave her a sense of accomplishment. Every Friday morning, Sabrine used to wake up at 7:00 AM and visit her neighbor, Umm Ali, who taught her Palestinian embroidery patterns. The woman was a well-known and loved figure in the camp, for she gathered the girls in her home to teach them what she had learned as a child from her grandmother in Palestine.
Umm Ali was a most encouraging presence in Sabrine’s life, pushing her to study hard. Sabrine planned on taking her Literary Baccalaureate exams independently, in order to later study Human Sciences at college. Her main motive was the eloquence she was known for. Her parents already used to call her “Miss lawyer” for her skillful way of verbally defending her siblings at home. Her sister, too, saw in her a literary talent since she found out that Sabrine had a knack for writing in second grade, so the entire family always motivated her to pursue creative writing.
A short time before war started in Syria, Sabrine bought a lot of yarn and crochet supplies from the Sukkar Library for her graduation project. She couldn’t foresee, at the time, that war was around the corner, waiting to destroy her childhood dreams and snatch away all she had ever planned.
It was on a school morning in 2012 when Sabrine witnessed the explosion of a bomb-car right across the institute where she was studying at al-Mazzeh region. That morning, she had taken the green “Hersho” bus to her institute, and noticed that the driver was playing Qur’anic verses instead of his usual Fairuz morning songs. She had a strange feeling that things weren’t right that day.
Five minutes after she arrived, the bomb exploded behind the wall she was leaning on. To this day, the horrifying sound still echoes in her head. She couldn’t find her girlfriends in the heavy dust of the rubble, and her heart was racing as she tried to find out if she had any wounds. But, she and the other students made it safely. Still, that incident changed her a lot; she lost her ability to feel safe as she moved around, and soon decided to quit going to the institute. Sabrine didn’t expect the war to go on for long, she didn’t know her academic life would be interrupted for good, and she certainly didn’t imagine that the fire of war would soon reach to the camp.
She believed all of that was temporary and that she could shortly return to her classes. She wasn’t the only one who thought that. Sabrine’s father rejected the idea of leaving the camp to a safer place, saying that the clashes were far from the neighborhood. Even after the shootings and bombings got very close, he refused to budge, fearing that his family would have to go through another layer of exile, after all that had happened to his ancestors in Palestine.
One Sunday morning, the family woke up to the voice of their neighbor calling to Sabrine’s father: “Abu Muhannad! Abu Muhannad! They’re saying the MIG aircrafts are coming to bomb the camp today!” News spread, and families started to evacuate the camp. For three consecutive hours, starting from 9:00 AM, Sabrine and her siblings kept trying to convince their father of leaving the house like the others. On the other hand, the family was also worried about Saber, Sabrine’s brother who worked for the Palestinian medical relief in the camp. To her, her brother was a real-life “Superhero” who feared for other people’s lives much more than he did for his own.
Eventually, the family left the camp and went to Sabrine’s uncle’s place in one of Damascus’ suburbs. There, more than 30 people took refuge in the space of two rooms, one kitchen, and one bathroom. Her father was convinced that it was a matter of days before they went back home. His certainty was a source of comfort for the family at first, but two weeks later, the clashes got fiercer, scarier, and closer. When the fire reached her uncle’s house, Sabrine and her family moved to her aunt’s house in Khan el-Sheikh camp, where the situation was nothing short than tragic.
The basic needs of daily life were lacking, and for a month, everyone had to survive on lentils and bulgur. Saber went to the bakery at 6:00 every morning and waited in line until 3:00 in the afternoon to get them 6 bags of bread, which was increasingly difficult to get after most of the bakeries of the city closed their doors due to the clashes.
As things got worse, with murders, bombings, and destruction everywhere, Sabrine found herself urgently looking for ways to pass the time. She decided to gather the children of the family and set up playing sessions and some classes in arts and crafts. She wanted to do that because she was always reminded by Umm Ali, who taught her the importance of passing skills and knowledge to other people. These activities resurrected hope in Sabrine and made her feel like one day, things would eventually go back to normal. However, several months later, war got to the outskirts of Khan el-Sheikh, and it was time for the family to flee, once again. This time, they went to her sister’s place in Jayrud.
On the 8th of June, 2013, Sabrine and the family woke up to the sounds of mortar missiles and gunshots. War had been following them everywhere, and the situation was becoming unbearable. Through the mosques’ loudspeakers, the sheikhs called on the people to evacuate the area as soon as they could, but all the roads were blocked. The family had to spend a horrifying night at a gas station that was relatively away from the bombarded area. Sabrine was up all night, and when morning came, the family had already made their decision to move to Lebanon.
Sabrine was excited about the prospect of discovering a new country that was close to the sea and far from the war. At the same time, she was upset about leaving her extended family and the camp where she grew up. Her father, on the other hand, was certain that their expatriation wouldn’t last longer than two or three months, which made Sabrine confident that she would return to her room, books, and classes pretty soon. Her biggest concern, at the time, was that her graduation would be postponed an additional year.
At that time and compared to the complications of today, there were no real obstacles that hindered the flock of refugees into Lebanon. As the family crossed the border, the summer sun was high and hot, yet Sabrine was wearing the same heavy winter clothes that she wore on the day she left the camp of Yarmouk. She didn’t care about the heat. Her sole concern was getting to a safe place and, perhaps, getting a chance to get back on track in her education.
The family chose to stay in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon. Her father already knew the camp from when he was one of the Fida’yeen (resistance fighters) who fought the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sabrine entered the camp at 10:00 PM, and saw a place which seemed void of any life. She could barely see the sky behind heavy nets of electric cables which extended in all directions like a spider web. Then, she noticed a few young men, barely 20 years of age, standing next to small bunkers with guns in their hands.
Everything looked gloomy, and her feelings of discomfort were only aggravated by the conditions of the first apartment they had to live in there. It was a one-room unit with a sink and a tiny bathroom. The roof was the kind of zinc board that clicked and crackled under the heat. There weren’t enough sleeping mattresses for everyone, so the family had to put use clothing items as improvised pillows.
Sabrine couldn’t get used to the place and always compared Ain el-Hilweh camp to the Yarmouk one. Here, everything is so different: the spaces and the houses are tiny, you could barely transport a refrigerator in the narrow alleys, and privacy is nonexistent due to the attached-together houses.
Once, as she was out to get some groceries, Sabrine met the wife of the landlord who told her: “Last night, I heard you saying that you wanted to leave the apartment. We’re a family, here, let me know if you need anything.” Sabrine was stunned and asked herself whether the entire neighborhood could hear her family’s private conversations!
Five months later, a relative helped the family with some money so that they’d be able to rent a better place. Sabrine had conflicting feelings. She was glad to be leaving that neighborhood, but also sad that others still had to live in such unbearable conditions.
Before the war broke out in Syria, Sabrine used to read about the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, so she already had a hint of all the difficulties. However, that didn’t dilute the shock of what she actually experienced in the camp and which seemed light years away from what the situation was like in the Yarmouk camp. Sabrine felt discriminated against in Lebanon, even by other Palestinian, even in the camp itself. They used to call her “the Syrian”, despite the fact that she was a Palestinian, just like them, and the word “Syrian” was used as a sort of derogatory term, instead of a descriptive one that referred to someone’s nationality. In addition, many took advantage of the increased demand on housing, due to the influx of refugees from Syria, to raise the rents.
Sabrine found herself battling a double racism: once, because she was a Palestinian who came from the Syrian camps, and another time, because she was a Palestinian from Ain el-Hilweh living in Lebanon.
When she saw a job advertisement looking for a salesperson in a clothing store in Sidon city, she went straight inside to apply. The interview was going well. She answered all the questions confidently and talked about her previous work experiences, until the interviewer interrupted her, somewhat looking suspicious.
“Where are you from? It sounds like your accent is not Lebanese…”, asked the woman.
“I am a Palestinian,” answered Sabrine.
“Honey, I’m sorry. This store only hires Lebanese people,” the woman replied, feigning sympathy in her tone.
Sabrine was shocked, and asked the woman, who just moments ago seemed interested in what Sabrine could do, why they only hired Lebanese people. The woman said it was a “store policy”, which had nothing to do with her. But Sabrine understood, clearer than ever, that racism against Palestinian refugees was practiced everywhere in the country; first and foremost, by the Lebanese state itself. The law forbade them from becoming legal employees in many professions and denied them health insurances and termination indemnities.
Most of the time, Palestinians who held university degrees had to work in simpler professions that had nothing to do with their field of study. That happened to her friend, Rana, who studied journalism, but ended up working in a flower nursery to make a living.
Sabrine’s inability to continue her studies took a toll on her morale. Day after day, she could see her dreams withering before her eyes. In the beginning, her family’s situation deterred her plans to get back to studying. She had to find work at a store that sold yarn and sewing tools in Sidon. That was the only work opportunity she could find, but for her, it wasn’t the worst option, as she already had some experience in the field, due to her previous work in embroidery. She was paid 15,000 Lebanese pounds only, for 8 hours of work per day. She woke up at 8:00 every morning and went to work at the shop that was 3 km away from her house. She would go there on foot, because she knew that the cost of transportation would eat up a third of her daily pay.
Sabrine knew that she was being exploited, but she needed the money. She knew other Palestinians agreed to bad conditions for the same reason, like this woman she knew who had been working long hours in the same store for 20 years for a salary of 500 thousand Lebanese pounds a month. The woman couldn’t ask for a raise, because the manager would simply fire her and get another employee who would agree to work for the same pay.
Sabrine realized that the general despair many young Palestinians in Lebanon were experiencing was the result of the exploitative work conditions under which they lived. They were treated as foreigners, forced into agreeing to getting paid in “crumbs” that were barely enough for sustenance, or to otherwise immigrate to a place that provided them with a basic human dignified condition. Her eldest brother, Muhannad, made that decision once he arrived in Lebanon. He worked non-stop, day and night, to put together $4,000 which he paid to the smuggling network that took him to Europe.
Despite all, Sabrine looked everywhere for a scholarship that would allow her to continue her studies in Lebanon. She finally found out about an open application, two days before its deadline. She sent in her folder with low expectations, yet, to her surprise, the donor institute called her a short while later and informed her that she had been accepted into the scholarship program, and that she needed to send in the rest of her documents in order to be able to enroll at the university.
That was one of the happiest moments of Sabrine’s life, but, alas, it was a short-lived happiness. It was impossible for her to bring her Baccalaureate (high school) certificate from Syria, authenticate it at the embassy in Lebanon, and get the equivalency from the Lebanese Ministry of Education all in the same day. And, even if she could, Sabrine didn’t have enough money to go to Beirut and pay the costs of authentications.
Meanwhile, her brother, Saber, was successful in getting a university scholarship. He came home one day to find the whole family sitting together, so he announced to them right away. “I’ve been accepted for the scholarship, and I just came back from enrolling in the Nursing program at the university,” the elated Saber said. He couldn’t believe he finally got the chance to fulfill what he had dreamed of since he got his high school diploma. Sabrine glanced over at her father and saw pride and happiness in his eyes, too.
That was the first time she saw him smile since they had arrived in Lebanon.
Sabrine still gets the blues every time she sees students on their way to university. She felt a deep frustration and self-loathing when she saw some her younger friends at the camp graduate before her. She knows that they suffer, like her, with joblessness or finding small jobs in professions they never studied … Still, she feels like all she ever wanted was to get that chance to continue her academic journey and get a diploma, even if she couldn’t do anything with it except nail it to a wall.
Sabrine kept a journal and wrote some literary texts for herself every once in a while. When one of her volunteering colleagues came across one of her writings, he told everyone at their workplace that the young lady was talented with words. A short while later, he called her to tell her about a writing vacancy in a magazine named “The Pencil”, which was interested in covering the situations of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Enthusiasm returned to Sabrine, so she immediately applied for the position, and was quickly accepted. In the beginning, she found it quite difficult to write the pieces she was asked for, because she only knew to write creative literary essays. She had absolutely no idea about how to write investigations or informative pieces. Within two years’ time, though, her experience in journalism flourished and she became well acquainted with the ways of writing good essays, reports, and investigative pieces. Joining the news website “Shababik”, in which many reporters from all Palestinian camps worked, was also extremely helpful in broadening her journalistic experience.
Later in 2018, the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut announced a creative writing workshop with Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. Sabrine was hesitant to apply at first; it seemed to her that her level of skill might not qualify her to be in a group of professional writers. After some thought, she summoned enough courage to submit her application, only to be amazed by the news of her acceptance. Sabrine’s happiness was boundless…
During the workshop, she learned a lot about creative writing and developed her style and technique. Another important achievement at the time was her increased freedom which boosted her character, after she challenged her family’s initial refusal to let her stay out after sunset, in Beirut. At the end of the course, Sabrine completed a text that was published in an anthology book titled “Love in the Camp.”
The young lady cried tears of joy when she saw the outcome of her efforts. The experience brought her much pride and contentment, yet she kept dreaming of a university degree that would supposedly open doors to better opportunities and bring her more respect in a country where Palestinians were treated as inferiors.
Sabrine still struggled with the lack of opportunities and found blocked roads everywhere, however, she never considered immigration as an option. She was, after all, the proud Palestinian child of the camp. Her brother’s cancer was a brutal blow to her and made her reconsider.
Saber found out he had colon cancer barely two semesters before his prospective graduation. The family did their best for him, going from one doctor to another and from one hospital to the next, until they were finally able to get him the lumpectomy he needed. But, it was too late, as the cancer had spread too far. Sabrine’s father went the extra mile to find a way to get his son to a good hospital outside the country but failed repeatedly. Being a Palestinian dimmed any chances of getting a visa. Saber passed away only one month after he discovered his illness, leaving behind a deeply wounded, grieving family.
The house turned gloomy. For the next three months, Sabrine always woke up to her father’s weeping. For the first time in her life, she felt a real need to take refuge in another country and obtain a new nationality, if only to guarantee basic rights and access to medical help to her family and herself, so that the tragedy they had been through wouldn’t repeat itself.
Today, nearly a year after her brother’s passing, Sabrine has become more determined than ever to travel abroad, write her first novel, and enroll at a university, in the hope that she may, at last, fulfill her long pending dream – and Saber’s…
The real shock was when we discovered that Saber was sick on October 14, 2019.
We tried to take him abroad for treatment, but unfortunately, there were obstacles everywhere. We were Palestinians from Syria, fleeing war and dealing with displacement. It was so difficult that we even thought about going back to Syria, but that meant that Saber had to go back into the army. We knew that it would take a long time until they believed that he really was sick, and we couldn’t afford to wait because we might lose him to liver cancer.
Saber passed away after battling cancer for a short while, but during his life, he had always been an ambitious young man who was forced to suffer war, displacement, and unemployment for three years until he was finally granted a scholarship to study nursing, as he had always dreamed.
He used to be a helping nurse ever since he was still in Syria, before even studying at a university. Saber had a passion for helping people and doing benevolent work, and even when there was heavy shelling over our area, he was out there doing his best to help others. He was very kind, loving, and helpful, which is why he chose nursing in the first place.
Sadly, Saber passed away barely three months before his anticipated graduation. A ceremony was held at his university in his memory and he graduated postmortem. It was a bitter-sweet event without him.
When we found out about his illness, we tried to communicate with the Embassy and many other authorities in order to take him abroad for treatment, knowing that treatment possibilities were much higher in Europe, including giving him a liver transplant. However, we couldn’t do that, perhaps because we were Palestinian, or maybe because we had no money. Fate wasn’t on our side…
Saber had learned how to give shots during the war and how to take care of people. He used to provide blankets and food for the displaced people in the mosques. Yarmouk camp was opening its doors to people as the rest of Syria was shutting down due to war, and Saber was one of those people whose heart was always open to everyone. He enthusiastically helped anyone who took refuge inside schools and nearby mosques. When the camp was under siege and our house was bombed, Saber evaded eminent death and, by unbelievable chance, was able to flee Yarmouk to Qudssaya. He struggled a lot to get to Al-Jroud, Al-Qalamoun and Khan Al-Shih in Syria, before finally leaving Syria to Lebanon.
In order to travel to Lebanon, Saber had to pay a fee of five thousand Syrian pounds in order to postpone his obligatory military service. When he arrived in Lebanon, he got stuck in the country, having to stay because Palestinians weren’t allowed to leave the Lebanese borders, and at the same time, fearing to return to Syria because of obligatory military service. After three years of poverty, displacement, terrible living conditions and much suffering endured in Lebanon, Saber was able to pursue his education at the university with the help of a scholarship. Although that covered his university fees, he still needed to save some money from his food and transportation allowances. Saber used to walk at least 2 kilometers every day to and from his university. He even used to wear the same clothes on most days, but he didn’t care much about that, as his only concern was to graduate with the degree he had wished for.
Indeed, we were all very proud of him for pursuing his dream as a nurse. That was until that fateful day in October 2019, when we found out that he had liver cancer. We tried to save him, but we were defeated by the circumstances…
Writer: Anas Ali
Translated From Arabic: Sabah Jalloul
Videos: Heba Yassin
Photographer: Rana Moussa
Multimedia Supervision: Fourate Chahal El Rekaby
Design: Ibrahim Charara
Editing: Rida Hariri, Sabah Jalloul
Development: Jaafar Charara, Rawan Houri
Editor: Ibrahim Charara
The subjects of the stories published on the StoryLeb platform were chosen by the young journalists and media creators who participated in the first training session of the project.
This project benefitted from the financial assistance of the European Commission within the framework of the project Shabab Live, a joint project of Deutsche Welle Akademie, Arab Resource Center for popular Arts and Al Khatt. The content of this video is the sole responsibility of StoryLeb and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Commission or the project partners.