Columnist Therese Soukar Chehade: Borders are complicated spaces

Published: 2/5/2017 11:57:22 PM

Early one Sunday morning, I arrived at the Canadian U.S. border in Saint Armand and Philipsburg, Vermont.

I was returning from visiting my terminally ill mother in Montreal. I still had another 4½ hours of driving, so I was relieved to find that mine was the only car there.

Perhaps the border guard who checked my passport was bored, and this accounted for all the questions. Did I still carry a Lebanese passport? Did I still have family there? When was the last time I had visited and where did I go? Anything crazy going on over there?

I don’t know, I thought to myself. But have you checked out what’s happening here?

I have family in Montreal. When my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease took a turn for the worse last year, I started visiting once a month. Getting through is usually a formality, but there were times in the past when security was tight. So I was used to this kind of occasional scrutiny, except that this was different. With the new administration looming, the questions sounded ominous, a harbinger of things to come.

I get nervous at borders, a legacy of all the checkpoints I had to cross during the civil war in Lebanon, when being in the wrong place at the wrong time could have lethal consequences. At the same time, I understand that scrutiny is the price we pay for safe borders.

But borders are complicated spaces. Power and inequality are visible there. Decisions of entry involve more than keeping perceived danger out. They betray a shared understanding about who is worthy of admission and who should be denied.

I am one of the privileged immigrants, documented from the start. But an Arab is an Arab, and crossing into the U.S. has meant different things in the different phases of my immigration status. When the country is gripped with fear, the scrutiny seems designed to safeguard the borders against people who share my profile.

My American journey began in 1983, when I gathered with a large group of people outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut, hoping to finalize my residence visa. A few weeks earlier, a suicide bomber had blown up the embassy, killing 63 people, 17 of them American.

The Marines guarding the embassy were tense and curses were flying. They shouted at us to stand behind a line we didn’t see in an English we didn’t fully understand. We exchanged glances when they weren’t looking and laughed discreetly. We felt sorry for them—they had come all this distance for this. But there was something beggarly in the way we stood in the hot sun waiting for a visa and getting yelled at, and laughter was an act of resistance that restored our dignity.

In 1987 I visited Lebanon, returning by way of JFK. With my new “green card” in hand, I expected an easier reentry. Instead, I was carted off to a separate room along with a group of people. We sat down, resigned and accustomed to the long wait, all of us brown-skinned except for a British man who kept himself apart and seemed quite upset by the company he was forced to keep.

Five years after the “green card,” I became a citizen. With my new American passport I could now travel almost anywhere in the world without a visa and the long lines and questionnaires. I could now get through the borders of “friendly” countries without the grueling questions previously triggered by my Lebanese nationality.

But there was a caveat. My American passport, as do those of all naturalized citizens, identifies my country of origin. To me this says: You are almost one of ours. It means a test I must continually pass.

Still, it felt good to count in the world, to have the cultural capital that opened doors. I have European and Canadian friends who hold “green cards” and are in no hurry to seek citizenship. They have the luxury of a home they can return to. Anything less than full citizenship would have kept me awake back in the days.

At my citizenship interview, the officer asked whether I consented to renounce all allegiance to my native country. After a few moments of hesitation I said “yes.” Guilt gave way to pragmatism. For the Lebanese, multilingualism is more than a constitutional trait: it is practice for the diaspora that inevitably befalls those who can leave.

I began writing this in my mother’s house in Montreal. The doctors had given her days. She went to sleep just before Christmas, lost in the state of delirium that claims Alzheimer’s patients in their final days.

Impending death had already altered her features. Once in a while she opened her mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out. Sometimes an expression of deep sadness covered her face. Perhaps she knew she was dying. Maybe she was in pain. Her head shook with small tremors, signs of the mini-strokes that rocked her brain. I listened to her raspy breathing, the only thread connecting her to life.

She came here in her 50s to be with her children. The dislocation was profound. She did not choose to leave, but was forced out by war. Even though her life, spent in a quiet suburb of Montreal, was better than the lives of the refugees who throng the camps on the borders of nations, she shared with them a story of loss and forced migration, of a new life built on the ruins of the old one.

People leave. Their journey might be full of peril. Or they might arrive, clutching their admission tickets and brimming with plans for the future. If they reach their destination, their story has just begun. Some will have to live in hiding, besieged by fear. Discrimination will shadow welcome. For all of them, longing will trail them. Despite their best efforts, their roots will only sink so deep.

Satisfied with my answers, the border guard returned my passport and waved me through. I entered Vermont and started plotting my escape to Canada. I felt like an ingrate for thinking of abandoning a country that gave me sanctuary, friends, beautiful autumns, and a way to write these words. But after that encounter I needed an escape and the reassurance that I still controlled my destiny. Victoria, I thought, rather than cold snowy Montreal. I have friends there and they are always posting splendid pictures on Facebook.

But these were silly thoughts for someone who, despite being well into middle age, has only lived in two places.

My mother took her last breath on New Year’s Eve. She would have turned 84 the next day. In her lifetime she crossed many borders and stood at the edge of others looking out at what she could not have.

It seems utterly sad to say that only in death no one is turned away. But I don’t have to pretend to be cheerful. My mother is dead. I hope she’s home.

Teacher and novelist Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, is the author of “Loom,” the 2011 winner of the Arab American Book Award in the fiction category. She is working on her second novel set in her native Lebanon in the period surrounding the outbreak of civil war.


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