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The time I got deported

Written by: Islam El-Ghazouly
12.03.2019

The passport control officer was struggling to piece together some information on his screen. He called someone over to him as I feigned a casual stance despite my heart racing in my chest. I vividly remember hearing him say: "Yes, yes, he just arrived. Another one, detention or…?" After receiving the validation he needed, the young man forcefully scrawled deep pen lines across the visa in my passport and, lathering the stamp face in blue ink, branded it with the word ‘canceled.   

The thud of his stamp felt like a bucket of ice had just been thrown over me. Slowly and hesitantly, he got to his feet and closed the door of his counter, leaving behind a long queue of tired, expectant travelers. They were ushered to regroup in front of another open booth. I looked at them apologetically while being escorted into uncertainty. Yet another voice in my head couldn’t help thinking, “the joke is on you if you queue behind me at an airport – a bearded man named Islam.”

Having some familiarity with airport detention, I decided not to make a fuss. I followed the officer into a cramped room. “I’ve seen much better airport detention rooms”, I thought. A strong chill washed over me as I stepped in, and the door slammed behind me. It was mid-July, but the air conditioning made the room painfully cold, especially for someone dressed for less than two-hour flight. There was no furniture except for a couple of cushions on the floor that was claimed by those who had come before me. Around twenty people lined the walls of the room, facing inwardly. Several faces turned to welcome me with smiles, while others eyed me curiously as I stood to stare. One man made a space for me, but I hurriedly declined, assuming that my stay in the room would only be a short one. 

As I surveyed the seated people, huddled beneath their jackets, murmuring to one another, I felt detached from them. I was here by accident, and I would soon be apologized to and permitted to go on my way. But these people, these people were not here by mistake, they must have committed wrongdoing. “We are not the same”, I thought, naively. 

As the minutes surpassed an hour, my arrogance dawned on me along with the realization that I would likely be here a lot longer than expected. My legs grew tired, and I took up residence against a slip of wall, feeling humble and embarrassed. In sitting, I had equalized with my fellow detainees. I had joined the community. It was a ritual passed through by every newcomer I witnessed entering the room after that. 
 
In 2011 I earned my Bachelor’s degree in History amid the Egyptian Arab Spring. At this point, I was already politically and socially active. The euphoria and excitement this period swept across the region, furthered my aspirations to be part of the change we were witnessing in our societies. I took on several projects in an attempt to expand my understanding of the complexities of my region.

Back then, I didn’t realize that being an Egyptian man named Islam, a non-Western humanitarian aid worker, focusing on emergency and civil society projects, was the equivalent of cooking a recipe of future despair. But I was craving it. “How can’t I?” I thought, “There is nothing that brings me joy and excitement more than being close to political events and witnessing my peers participating in their country’s discourse.” I was let loose; the Middle East is my playground.

Before I know it, however, airport interrogation had become routine. My electronic devices were confiscated, including an electric toothbrush. I found myself required to justify the rationale behind every item I carried, training materials such as flipcharts or whiteboard markers became as suspicious as carrying a pocket knife. It became clear that it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself in serious trouble in an airport. The moment finally came at Beirut Rafic Hariri Airport, just over a year ago.

On the floor of the detention room, having let go of my ego, I made contact with a young, skinny, and tired looking guy who had initially made space for me. His name was Saed. He was from Al Hasakah in Syria. Saed asked me what brought me here. I wanted to tell him the real reason. “I’m here to deliver training of trainers to a community group of young Syrians and Lebanese students on civic leadership”…I decided against it. “I’m here to visit some friends,” I replied.” How long have you been here?” I asked Saed.

“I arrived last Wednesday.” In a moment of panic, I tried to remember what day of the week it was: Monday..” He has been in this room for five days already! I’m going to be here for more than a couple of hours,” I thought. My next question to Saed was intended to help me establish how long I would be kept.” What brought you here?” I asked.

“I escaped Syria because I was called in to join the military, I got arrested here, and now they are sending me back, they will deport me next Wednesday they told me.” This terse exchange kicked adrenaline through my veins. I caved in, not conversing with anyone anymore and became a silent observant. There was enough to process: “What is going to happen to Saed when he is deported back to Syria? How much longer am I going to stay here? What is the story of everyone else in this room?”

Around seven hours into my stay in the detention room, there were around 30 men who had come and gone. Some were called out for their deportation proceedings and never returned. Other newcomers entered, spending their first hour in the denial ritual, before succumbing to reality and joining the group on the floor. 

At once, the door opened, and an entire family entered; man and wife in late thirties accompanied by three children, two girls and a boy between7-15 years old. The officer escorting them said that the women would need to go to the female detention room. In an Egyptian dialect, the father said: “No, I am sorry, but we are staying together.” The officer didn’t argue and closed the door on them. It was the first time I realized that there was another room just like ours, full of detained women.

I watched the Egyptian family; the parents assuring their kids that the wait will soon be over. A few hours later the same offer came to the room and told the father: “Your wife and the kids can enter the country, but you are not unless you can show us your birth certificate. We need confirmation of your mother’s name”. The father’s fists clenched: “Why would I carry my birth certificate, of course, I don’t have it.” The soldier said: “There is someone with your full name on our access-denied list and unless you can prove you are not that person we cannot let you enter.” The father shouted, “Okay, get us out of this room; we want to go back to Egypt. We enter together, or we leave together”. The officer informed him that they would have to wait for a day for the same flight they flew in on unless they were willing to buy new tickets for the next scheduled trip. The father furiously agreed, and the soldier went to seek an escort for the family. I did some basic math: five last-minute flights Beirut to Cairo in July would be $1200 on my most conservative estimates, plus the Egyptian Pound at that time was incredibly low against the US dollar. This family was forced to pay the equivalent of an entire annual income for an Egyptian on minimum wage, just for having the ‘wrong name.’

In the interim, a small conversation took place between the father and an elderly Iraqi detainee that has stayed with me for its humor. The Iraqi man asked the question that was on the tip of each of our tongues: “What is your name?” As soon as the question was answered, the room erupted with laughter, even the man’s frightened children joined in. His full, legal name included the three most common male names in the Arab population: Mohammed, Ahmed, and Mahmud. The idea that he would be refused entry because of this was absurd and ridiculous. 

Having visited Lebanon regularly since 2015, I’d always been required to fill the small, paper form upon landing, which includes a space to fill your mother’s full name. Now, witnessing the Egyptian man’s strife, I’d finally understood that it is used as a primitive security vetting system by the Lebanese immigration authorities. Digital fingerprinting is a technology from the 1980s and is, nowadays, not expensive. Travelers to the ‘most progressive country in the Middle East’ should not need to carry birth certificates to prove their identity.

After the family had left, I surveyed the remaining faces around the room, and I realized that I’d never before been surrounded by so many diverse Arab nationals; there were Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Egyptians, Libyans, and Sudanese, Truly inclusive!

I started to wonder how many people were being deported from here daily. This was just one airport, in one city, in one country, over one day. How many wrongful, and at the very least arbitrary, detentions and deportations are happening each day around the world?  
 
My eyes fixed on Saed, who was trying to get some sleep, trying to take shelter from the freezing air circulating the room, shivering slightly, his head lolling without a place to rest it. He and I shared a lot of eye contact during my 17 hours and 40 minutes of detention, but we never did speak again after our first conversation. When I finally heard my name called to start my deportation proceedings. I was escorted out of the room and told to sign three documents that I did not have time to read. I was handed a large, white, sealed envelope, enclosed I could see the outline of my passport. I was escorted to my gate by an officer in military uniform, clutching this envelope to my chest in an unfamiliar walk of shame. 

The airline crew started boarding passengers, and I was asked to wait until everyone else had taken their seats. I was getting looks from everyone - approximately one stare per boarding pass. I felt embarrassed but was thrilled that this was all approaching an end. My mind had already arrived at my destination before I stepped foot on the plane.
  
A few hours later, I arrived in Istanbul, confused with no sleep. For the next two days, I could not shake the thought of Saed from my mind. I was back to normality and freedom, but Saed was still sitting on the floor of the detention room, his sixth day. I knew that even when he was eventually deported, he wouldn’t be feeling the relief I was feeling now. The cold floor of the detention room was nothing compared to the ugly reality of what he’d be facing at the hands of the Syrian military. This was why I couldn’t look back at him as I was left the room. 

While my deportation happened more than one year ago, it still has a profound presence in my daily reality. It was the defining moment between all my previous work and all that I want to do in the future. Human mobility had become a very personal issue.

During a recent work trip a few weeks ago, I realized how profoundly the experience in Lebanon had affected me. I quickly relive the experience psychologically whenever I am waiting at a passport control counter. I had the urge to look at the screen of the officer who was checking me in, and when I was passing, I sneaked a look at the immigration officer’s screen and was confronted with the picture taken of me just a few seconds ago. I couldn’t recognize myself; I looked terrified and guilty. This glimpse into the screen of the officer opened my eyes to the anxiety I have developed from international traveling, which I now carry with me every time I attempt to be a global citizen. But even this is nothing compared to the experience of Saed.  

Islam El-Ghazouly

Managing Partner, Laissez-Passer

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