When you have nothing, you dream of everything

This is Chaker Khazaal's story as told to Florence Kim in January 2016


Imagine a place with broken buildings, broken roads, electrical wires hanging; where there is neither electricity nor clean running water. Imagine that you have lived there for years. In fact imagine you were born there. Imagine that every day, you and 25,000 other individuals are facing what might be an unknown reality to us, but is their daily reality.

This is the story of Chaker, born and raised stateless in a refugee camp in Lebanon, who has become an influential journalist and was selected Man of the Year in 2015 by a leading men’s lifestyle magazine. 

“I was born and raised up in Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon - a one kilometer square camp with broken roads, no regular electricity or water, and crammed with human beings.

The houses were so close to each other that people had no choice but be bound together. We became like one big family. We used to play in the streets of the camp, watch soccer games together. But as a kid growing up there, I felt at times that life was so unfair, that it was not normal. However, life had to go on.

I felt trapped and I was determined to leave this open jail. My parents taught me that the only way to get out of this misery was through education and hard work. When you have the goal to be free, you work harder in life.

Our luck was that many volunteers from Canada, US, Australia, and Europe came to teach us English. They were our window to the world. So with their help, I learnt English, acted in plays and read books. I always dreamt of studying abroad to become a ‘normal human being’ as I called it back then. 

Then, an internet cafe opened in the camp. There were two or three computers, and a very slow internet connection. Thanks to the many Canadian volunteers coming into the camp, Canada became my dream. I would spend hours looking at universities over there and applying. I eventually found out that York University in Toronto offered scholarships for foreign students. I applied, got accepted and was granted the Global Leader of Tomorrow Award because my grades in school were good enough and I had a strong community involvement.

When I arrived in Canada, I almost felt Canadian. I could finally see and smell freedom. I felt free, I felt... normal. After a few years I could finally apply for Canadian  citizenship. And so I became Canadian. At the citizenship ceremony, the judge told me: “Now you have a country. Now you have a home.” I started to cry. Holding the passport made me feel that the world would be mine from now on; I could go anywhere I wanted, even to my homeland, Palestine.

My visa applications would not be rejected anymore, I could travel! As a refugee, traveling is a hard mission. Even as a kid... I will never forget that when I was little, a trip to Egypt had been organized with my Lebanese schoolmates, but my visa did not get approved. I was the only one from my class who couldn’t go. I could not understand why. What would a kid do to a country? I just wanted to see the pyramids, that was all.

Being stateless is like being a lost human being. You don’t belong anywhere, but somehow you could belong everywhere. I was a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon which meant I was not Lebanese, nor was I officially Palestinian. And still, I felt Lebanese, and I felt Palestinian. And I felt Canadian the moment I arrived at the Canadian airport.

Being stateless is also somehow being like a fish: you can survive in any water you are thrown into. That’s the reason why this Canadian passport means everything to me. It meant so much to me that the first night, I slept with it besides me in bed and hugged it tight.

Canada is my home now; it is a country I highly respect and care about. With every book or article I write, or with anything I do, I am representing Canada as much as I am representing every refugee in the world. Canada was made by migrants, and I feel I am its spokesperson wherever I go. Canada is a country that welcomes people; that makes you feel you belong to a community, and makes you feel you are someone. 

My mission is to be a voice for those who don’t have any, to let the world know that with little opportunity given to those who are stateless, they can become real contributors to the world. That is also the reason why I accepted the Esquire Man of the Year Award in 2015.

I hope my experience means that refugees can say: “I can do it too.”  I want every stateless person not to give up on their dreams because it is my dreams and determination that saved me from a hard life. Hopefully, this Award can also inspire countries and people worldwide not to simply think of refugees as victims that need charity but rather as people who would contribute when given the chance.

People can’t imagine what it is to be a refugee or to be stateless. Refugees are ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances; give them a chance and they will excel and become someone. Refugees are dreamers determined to make something out of nothing, and our world can truly benefit from this energy. 

From my experience, I can truly say that the harder your life is, the more intense your dreams are. When you have nothing, you dream of everything. My dreams were the result of imagining a better life, a fairer life. And freedom made me achieve them. We have millions of refugees in the world, which means there are millions of dreams waiting to be given just this little chance to become a reality.

Yes, refugees are dreamers. But they can move mountains if they are given the chance to do so. Hardship to me was a source of determination. I did not want to accept the circumstances I was born into, and that became my motivation to break the walls of my jail, and fight for a better life for myself, my family, and my community.”

Imagine that you were given one opportunity in life. Imagine that you were granted freedom. And now imagine that place again, where everything seems broken except the dreams of kids. This is Chaker’s story. This could be the story of millions others around the world.


Photo of Chaker Khazaal by Adrian Fiebig