From West to East
During my senior year of college in the winter of 2013, I was walking on the cobbled brick streets of Ohio University when I received an email on my phone saying "Congrats Kaylyn, you received the funding to go to Lebanon." I remember that day like it was yesterday. Like any senior, I was planning my life after college. I knew there was a possibility that I may go abroad because I was taking a foreign correspondence course as my capstone class. At the end of my class, three students were chosen to spend 90 days pursuing journalism in the country of his or her choice. I've never been abroad before, but yearned for the exploration and self-discovery of it all. I wanted to report on the same topics some of my favorite journalists were reporting on.
Fast forward to September 19th, 2013 and I was at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with two suitcases, my stamp-free passport and my anxious and supportive family. This day didn’t come without prior skepticism from family and friends and even self-doubt on my part.
On September 20th, jet lagged and filled with excitement, I touched down in Beirut, Lebanon. I honestly couldn't believe I was actually here. I was in the Middle East. A region that my own government always wanted to have a stake in and one that continues to be misunderstood and misguided by foreign interests for oil and the fight against “terrorism.”
When I arrived in Beirut, I knew only one person and I had a ticket back to Ohio in three and half months. The met my future roommates on Facebook several months before arriving. I moved several times, acquired odd jobs and met a network of new contacts. I never would’ve thought I would still be here freelancing and blogging in Lebanon. Living and working in a foreign country has taught me invaluable skills that I wouldn't get living in my parent's home in the suburbs while commuting to a typical 9-5 job.
I've been anxious, happy and down right naive sometimes. When I first arrived, I was a tall, 6 foot something blonde who was curious and would take a risk just to get another perspective of the culture and go beyond the surface identity of Lebanon which seemed to me like another metropolitan city occupied with western franchises and sky rise buildings. I would like to say that I’m still just as curious to explore this ever-changing country and region a year later.
See the thing is, working and living abroad has given me freedom to learn about myself and grow as a 20- something journalist with out any distractions from home. If I was at home, society wouldn't let me just be a freelance journalist without the constant pressure to find a full-time job that was secure with a health care and retirement plan and a ring on my hand.
My original plan was to stay in Lebanon for only three months, because in reality that was all my funding could cover. However, as each month went by, I found more qualities that I liked about living abroad. I was on my own, completely independent and build something from scratch. I also never get bored at discovering something new. A ride on the bus filled with migrant workers going to the Lebanon's red light district is never a dull moment. When the time did come to pack up and go back to my humble abode in Cleveland, Ohio, I began to panic. Not because I didn't want to see my family and friends, but because I knew staying here in Lebanon was the path I had to take in order to build my career as an international journalist. So I stayed. I started to pick up freelance gigs and then I served at a wine bar/pizzeria in the hip and trendy neighborhood in the capital.
When you live abroad, you have to fend for yourself or else you're out on the streets in a foreign country. Networking is almost as important as having the right skills for a particular job. The person you meet at a small weekend gathering in the mountains could know someone at a company that you want to work for. Also, new contacts can be an important support system when living abroad. Behind every person I meet, I find a story, a phrase of inspiration and even sometimes a commonality between each other. I’ve interviewed individuals from all walks of life whom I wouldn’t have met if I was back in Ohio. Despite the borders, the bodies of water and nationality on a passport, traveling enables you to see beyond the barriers created by governments, the media and societal stereotypes.
In a year's time, I've seen first hand the effects of the neighboring Syrian War, various marginalized communities struggling to get by and the growing gap between the rich people driving range rovers to the poor people picking scrap metal out of a garbage dumpster. I've seen the creativity that Beirut breeds and the opportunity it gives to both young and old individuals to build something out of the box. I've seen and continue to see many disturbing things: children shoe shiners roaming the streets at night, physical discrimination towards migrant workers and the aftermath of the occasional suicide bombings and clashes. But I've also seen many beautiful sights such as the warmness and hospitality from the Lebanese people, the green forestation and Levantine styled villages that cover the mountains like the first frost of winter and the energy that living by the sea brings. The beauty is deep and engrained into the Lebanese culture, the old Phoenician buildings and the homemade bowl of hummus and fresh Tabbouleh.
Through traveling, I can discover for myself the stereotypes casted over a certain group or country. I am grateful more than ever of where I was born and the backbone to always go home to a country that wasn't bad to begin with. It's my duty and of every traveler's duty to share the observations, experiences and the truth about people, a culture and country. As I establish myself in a country that I will always feel and be treated like foreigner, I remind myself what I sacrificed to pack up my life in two suitcases, my small amount of savings and leave my friends and family --all in the name of passion. Traveling abroad and even across to another state is expensive, but if you can save the extra cash and allot some time to travel, then you will save yourself a life of dreaming curiosity. You can’t take that paper to the grave, so go and explore your neighboring city, state or neighbor. Eat new foods, experience new things. If someone is negative about your decision, take it with grain of salt and don’t ever give in.
Yes, my decision to go abroad with the purpose to pursue a career in journalism in a volatile region is a move many consider a risk, but for me, if you’re being pulled in the direction of your path in life, then that is always a risk worth taking. Always.