What happened after I left Lebanon

When I was living in Lebanon, I considered that to be the hard part and that whenever I moved back to the United States I would be transported back to cruising through life with comfort and ease. Now, after a year of living in the US, it doesn’t feel easier at all.

I have been trying to explain why I’m constantly in a newfound state of anxiety and fear, and I finally figured it out. When I was in Lebanon, I was comfortable because it was predictable, not despite all the mind-blowingly stupid and unnecessary problems that would come up every day, but because of them. It’s best described by the saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Lebanon was only constant in how unstable it was. I could expect that every day would be interrupted by some new emergency. As a result, I lived day by day, never planning ahead, never making long-term plans. Putting out fires was the plan, the only plan. It was indefinite and that’s what made it comfortable. I could see where my life was going, even if it wasn’t going anywhere. Despite every individual day bringing some adventure, and even building my character, the long-term overall prospects were quite predictable.

Now, with the stability and opportunities in the US, I can make real plans, long-term plans, ambitious plans, life-changing plans. I have some amount of control over my own life and determining my future, and that is all together difficult, exciting and terrifying. I have plans to advance at work, to build a career, to get involved in political groups, to build social networks, to start a business, to learn, to build a home, and to build a family. I have a chance at building the kind of life that I couldn’t in Lebanon. Suddenly, the stakes are high. Suddenly, there is a possibility that my plans will succeed and my life will be different. I might get what I want if I play my cards right.

When I was an active member of the Toastmasters speech club, I would always feel nervous going up on stage to deliver a speech. I learned that everyone gets nervous when they’re doing something big. The goal is not to get rid of the feeling, but to learn to enjoy it. I learned to identify that feeling as excitement and I got addicted to it, seeking the thrill of going up on stage and giving speeches. Now I’m putting that lesson to use once more, learning to see my fear and anxiety as excitement for all the opportunities that lie ahead.

I know that a lot of people who are emigrating from Lebanon in the latest exodus to find a better life abroad are caught by surprise when they find themselves thousands of miles outside of their comfort zone. I hope they see their discomfort and fear as indicators that they’re on a courageous journey that will reward their sacrifice and bravery.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m identifying as an immigrant now and I’m glad

I met a neighbor today and she had a yard sign that welcomes immigrants.

I told her that as an immigrant, I find the sign heartwarming. I realized at that moment that I’ve never identified myself as an immigrant before. I also realized that I had never considered myself an immigrant before.

Up until this point, I always thought of myself in some transitional state, between the United States and Lebanon. However, now, with the devastation in Lebanon, the lack of medicine or fuel or electricity or water or government or safety, I’m starting to accept the idea that I’m going to be living in the United States for a long time, possibly forever.

Given my love for Lebanon, it’s painful to let go of the dream of moving back. However, my realization grounds me in one place and provides me the certainty I need to build a life. I’m an immigrant now, not an expat. I’m starting to embrace my new identity. I think I’ve always been an immigrant, but I’m just now starting to accept it. It feels good to accept your full self, especially when your neighbors accept you too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our decisions are dictated by our interests

I’ve been reading the book “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama and I want to share an insight.

In one chapter, Obama talks about America’s approach to the Arab Spring. When the protests started in Tunisia and later Libya, he easily took a stance with the demonstrators against the dictators in their countries, in line with America’s values of democracy and the right to peaceful demonstration. However, when the same type of protests started in Bahrain, and dictator there violently suppressed the protests, along with help from Saudi Arabia out of fear that they would spread to their kingdom as well, Obama didn’t step in. As much as he wanted to, and it was causing a personal dilemma for him, and he knew it was the right thing to do, it would have been against the interests of the United States, which has air bases in those countries and alliances with those dictators it would send a message to other US-allied dictators, such as the king of Jordan, that the US doesn’t have their backs, thus damaging those relationships, further hurting US interests. He pointing out that he was put in this position by the decisions of previous presidents. In the end, he had to act in the current interests of the country.

What I realized is that you and I are not that different. Our decisions are not made in the moment, they are dictated by how we have chosen to align our interests in the past. Here are some real-life examples:

  • If you own stock in a company, your interests are aligned with it. You are more likely to support actions that increase the profitability of the company and thus the stock value, even if it comes at the expense of something else, such as the environment or better working conditions for the employees.
  • If you own a home, your interests are aligned with high property values. You are more likely to support city council decisions that raise your property value, even if they reduce the amount of affordable housing for the homeless in your neighborhood.
  • If you are a citizen of a country, your interests are aligned with it. You are more likely to support actions that increase the country’s wealth, even if they come at the expense of the wealth and safety of people in other countries.

Some things we can control more than others. It’s hard to choose our countries of citizenship and perhaps our employers, but it’s easier to choose where we place our investments and with whom we build relationships. Either way, whatever we choose will influence our future actions. When we have to choose between the right thing and our interests, a few of us will follow their conscience and do the right thing. Most of us will follow their interests and protect their investments. The best of us won’t have a decision to make at all, because their interests are aligned with the public good. How are your interests aligned?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I walked off a short film set and ended up with a dozen roses

I woke up on Wednesday morning feeling brave, so I searched Google for open casting calls near San Francisco. To my delight, I found one looking for a Middle Eastern man. I applied, feeling excited all day and that afternoon I got called by the director telling me that I fit the part and I got giddy.

As we chatted, however, I started noticing some odd things. He asked me to add him on Facebook so that he can send me one of his previous videos, which had 5 views on YouTube and was a strange video of him walking around and staring out to sea. I checked out his acting resume and found a lot of broken links. Then I spent a frustrating 30 minutes trying to join a Zoom meeting with him because he couldn’t figure out how to send a meeting invite. Once in the meeting, we ran through the lines fine, but he kept wasting time despite the actress telling him that she had to go to bed early. He was also slightly condescending to her. We asked him for the address of the shoot the next day, but he kept giving us the name of the place instead. After the Zoom meeting, at 11 pm, he wanted to call me on the phone and run through the script again. I refused and started wondering if I had made a big mistake.

I considered bailing, but I figured that it would be unethical to quit after having made the commitment, especially considering that he had a deadline of that Saturday, so on Thursday morning the next day I marked my work calendar as “out of office” and drove to the shooting location.

First, I went to pick up the cinematographer. This was not unusual, in my opinion, because a lot of people in the acting business are “starving artists” without their own transportation and we have to help each other out. What I didn’t expect is that she would get motion sickness and I would spend the rest of the ride on edge, driving at half the speed limit, terrified that she would get sick all over my car. It might not have helped that she was getting large blasts of cold air to the face from the windows that I had opened to circulate the air as a precaution against the Coronavirus.

I reached the shooting location 20 minutes late and found that the director still hadn’t arrived, but the actress was there, upset, and threatening to walk off the set. I started airing my own frustrations and that encouraged her and the cinematographer to let loose a barrage of grievances against the director. In a sudden and surprising moment of camaraderie, the three of us decided that we had lost all faith in the project and were going to walk off the set.

I volunteered to make the call on behalf of the group. The director, unaware that he had a full mutiny on his hands, answered to confidently tell me that he had just arrived. As I broke the news to him, I saw him running up to us in a panic along the sidewalk. My heart sank, knowing that we had failed to make our escape in time.

He started throwing excuses at us, including that he had stopped to pick up a dozen red roses as an apology to the actress for being late. She refused to accept them, but he insisted, so she carried them as she argued with him about everything that’s wrong and who’s fault it was. Every time I tried to speak, he interrupted me to tell me to wait because he could only “deal with one person at a time.” Finally, the unappeased and very uncomfortable actress handed me the flowers and walked away. That’s when the director turned to me.

First, he ranted about the actress. Then I was blamed for not convincing her to stay. Then he ranted about the cinematographer. Then he tried convincing me that he can find another actress within an hour and we can finish the shoot. Then he tried selling me his mission to create content that positively portrays Muslims in the media. Then he tried warning me that if I walked away he wouldn’t work with me again.

I thought of his deadline in two days. I thought of the commitment that I had made to him, even though it had been less that 12 hours ago. I thought of how hard it would be for him to find another perfect fit. However, I couldn’t handle it. The last thing on Earth that I wanted to do was to stay and shoot this film. For the first time in my life, I literally turned my back on someone and walked away.

I felt scared. I felt bad. But, above all, I feel free. Nobody should spend their time in an uncomfortable situation that their gut tells them is wrong for them. Trust your gut when you’re seeing flags that are as red as the dozen roses that are now in a vase in my living room as a reminder that sometimes you just have to walk away.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I learned to stop feeling guilty as an expat after the Beirut blast

It’s been two months since I left Lebanon in the midst of all its turmoil to start a new job in the US. I had already been struggling with thoughts of guilt for abandoning Lebanon when I woke up to the news of the Beirut port explosion. I spent the rest of that first day clutched to my fiance in front of the TV, crying as I watched the news in disbelief.

On the second day, I admitted to myself that I won’t be able to do any work so I officially took the day off. I sought a respite from the news by taking a walk outside and going grocery shopping. It worked somewhat, but it was a temporary escape.

On the third day, I realized that I need to start taking real steps to recover. I told the rest of the week off work and I started calling every Lebanese friend and family member that I knew. It felt good to share our anger, grief, despair, compassion and support.

By the first fourth day, I had gotten all the phone calls out of my system and it was time to face some pertinent thoughts and questions.

First of all, the guilt. Is it right that I’m living comfortably while people I love are suffering far away? What right do I have to clean water, electricity, and safety when my friends and family don’t? What about following my role models, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, who gave up luxuries to join the struggles of their fellow citizens? Am I allowed to enjoy my life?

Yes, I am. My loved ones in Lebanon want many things and me being miserable isn’t one of them. Just as I want them to live good lives, they want the same for me.

As far as my duty towards Lebanon as a citizen, I believe that I am more useful as a successful technical professional living in the US than as a jobless person living in Lebanon. At this time, I have nothing to offer to Lebanon from within. Three years ago I went there with my entrepreneurship, but now it’s evident that Lebanon needs political change. The diaspora is in a position to be a powerful force of that change if we play our cards right. Combined, we have more financial resources, experience, time, and even numbers than Lebanese inside Lebanon. The diaspora is an untapped power waiting to be unleashed.

It’s in both my best interest and Lebanon’s to accumulate wealth and knowledge and to live a good life. It’s in the best interest of the mafias that we be poor and desperate and in need of them. By being successful and independent, and we can fight them. My good life here has already allowed me to donate time and money to initiatives like Impact Lebanon.

People at work who saw the news still ask me if things are okay back home. There’s a certain appeal to say, “it’s fine, thanks for asking,” just to keep the mood light and move things along. However, it feels much better to say the truth that it’s a terrible tragedy that takes a heavy emotional toll and I need time off and to delegate some tasks. People are much more understanding than we typically realize.

I’m passionate about activism to a point where it can dominate my life. After I started falling behind at work, I realized that I need to cut down on my time volunteering for Lebanese causes. Once again, it’s important to the cause that I live a good life because it’s the key to sustainability. Burning myself out, getting in trouble at work or getting fired wouldn’t help anyone. So far, what’s working for me is setting a schedule. I spend one hour each day on volunteering and just getting Lebanon out of my system. Then, I go and do personal care things to recharge. The key to winning in the long run is to be in good mental health.

All Lebanese deserve a good life, whether in Lebanon or the US or the UK or anywhere in the world. This is what we are striving for. These are our values. We’re not setting a good example by spending our time being miserable. If anything, we want to lead by example and give our loved ones some hope that life can be better.

My sister-in-law inspired me all the way from Lebanon by starting her new job just one day after the blast. Whether in the US or in Lebanon, we are fighting the same struggle. We have to take any opportunity to make ourselves feel better and move on. Be productive. Be active. Go out and buy groceries. Take care of yourself. Don’t feel guilty doing it. It’s what we want for each other. We can do all that while at the same time we fight the evils that are destroying our country. We’re all in this together.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Should you hire software engineers in Lebanon?

I co-founded a company called Finders in Lebanon for two years and during that time I hired and managed one full-time and two intern software engineers. I’ll share the pros and cons according to my experience to hopefully benefit people considering hiring software engineers in Lebanon. My experience is up until the economic collapse that started in October 2019, so I’ll conclude by mentioning how I believe things are different now in mid-2020.

PRO: Value for money

You can hire world-class engineers at a fraction of the cost of engineers in the US or Europe.

We paid our interns around $300 per month and our entry-level full-time engineer under $2,000. They were hard-working and professional, even by global standards. In fact, my co-founder intended to recommend one of them for a job at Microsoft.

I’ve heard that the top-paying company, Murex, hires entry-level engineers at around $3,000. Due to the economic collapse, scores of employees have been wanted to leave Lebanon, to the delight of Amazon which has been snapping up employees by the dozens and relocating them to Europe.

Lebanese generally have some highly valuable soft skills, including English fluency, social skills (possibly to a fault), creativity, and problem-solving (maybe because everyone is used to fending for their own in a society with no reliable services).

CON: No prior experience

For every software engineering job that we posted on LinkedIn, we got hundreds of applications. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them lacked experience, which isn’t entirely surprising. Lebanon has a very limited number of software development companies, so there aren’t many places for them to go and get experience.

The candidates generally didn’t have side projects or self-taught experience, either. I’m not sure why, but I’d blame it on the lack of resources in Lebanon. It’s quite difficult to take an online course or create a cloud service when the internet connection is metered, slow, and intermittent. Add on top of that the electricity outages and other random issues and people aren’t left with a lot of time for self-development.

So it’s very easy to find cheap entry-level engineers that you have to heavily invest in training. I bet this isn’t very different than other markets in the sense that the top talent is either already employed or has multiple offers, so you have to go poach them and offer competitive compensation.

However, the problem that’s unique to Lebanon is that once a person reaches a certain level of expertise, they become enticed to leave the country entirely and go get paid the big bucks with a big company abroad. Beyond a certain level of seniority and expertise, people who stay in Lebanon do it because they’re able to get more experience as co-founders, CEOs or CTOs. If you want to snatch up those people, you better come with something comparable: either a high level, or a company like Microsoft, Amazon, Uber, etc.

Theoretically, there should be some highly-qualified individuals who need jobs and are stuck in Lebanon, but I haven’t met anyone like that. They somehow always manage to sneak out one way or another.

CON: Infrastructure

It was a constant headache to get decent facilities in our office, including water, electricity, air conditioning, and internet.

It’s incredibly frustrating to have the entire company’s productivity come to a halt because the internet is down again. We had multiple internet services: DSL and cellular. We would constantly jump from one to the other because one was down. Sometimes both were down. It happened so often that we gave up on trying to fix it. If the internet was down, we’d fiddle on our phones or go get coffee while we waited for it to magically fix itself.

A lot of time was spent calling and following up with services that were meant to be regular. Where is the cleaner today? Why can’t you send a cleaner? You said she’d be here every Thursday. Where is the water delivery? They were supposed to be here today. Where is Sanita? We’re out of paper towels in the bathrooms. Why can’t they come until next week? Is this electricity a generator or government? Can we turn on another A/C? The power went out. Did somebody call the concierge to flip the switch? Can we turn off your heater to turn on ours? Our room is cold but we can only turn one on at a time.

It’s a full-time job and a half to keep the office facilities in order, and they will still not be what you expect. Maybe this can all be avoided by having employees that work remotely, thus having them take care of their own facilities.

CON: Political instability

After the economic collapse in October 2019 and revolution, protesters starting randomly closing roads. We had to close our office several times because employees couldn’t make it to the office. As the company’s management, we had to keep following the news to decide whether to open or close the office each day.

During days when roads were open, employees had to skip work to go to their banks to try and withdraw their money. The queues were long enough that this took hours out of each day.

Even if your customers are abroad and you’re just hiring engineers, you’re going to face substantial difficulties with basic financial and operational tasks. Unfortunately, this is only getting worse at the moment. Maybe you can get around this by having employees work remotely and being flexible with working hours.

Conclusion

Co-founding and running a software company in Lebanon was one of the best experiences of my life, but a lot has changed after October 2019. Some are saying that the current crisis is the worst in Lebanon’s history, including the civil war, and unfortunately it’s expected to keep getting worse.

If you decide to hire engineers in Lebanon, it won’t be easy. Expect disruption, instability and wasted overhead. However, what you will get in return are employees who are so incredibly grateful for the opportunity that they will work harder and show more gratitude than probably anyone else who you’ve ever worked with.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How I got a job at Google during the pandemic

Celebration osmalieh courtesy of Lara Hammoud.

I closed down my business on the first day of March of 2020 and I started job hunting. What I didn’t know was that COVID-19 will become a big deal and help me get a job at Google in several unexpected ways.

I made a list of places where I wanted to work: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Waymo, Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix. I knew that they’re all big names and might be a long shot, but I figured that I had enough time to start there and try something else later if none of them worked out.

The first step of getting into a company is getting the attention of a recruiter. It’s not easy, but there are multiple ways of doing it.

One way is to get referred by someone at the company. In my experience, this works rather well. In fact, that’s how I got internships and interviews at Google in the past, so I reached out to my friends at Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple to recommend me. They all did, but this time I didn’t get contacted by any recruiters. I guess it doesn’t always work, so I had to try something else.

I had my ex-manager at Microsoft on LinkedIn so I sent him a message. He sent a message to a recruiter who then reached out to me and scheduled interviews. As an ex-employee, I was able to skip the phone screen and schedule a full round of on-site interviews for the end of March.

Not stopping there, I went through my inbox to find old emails from recruiters. Sure enough, I found one from Facebook and one from Google. Even though they were over a year old, I replied to them and I got initial phone interviews at both places. I scheduled them during the first week of April so that I’d have a few weeks to prepare and then another month to prepare for the on-site interviews, if I got that far.

To increase my chances, I still wanted to get interviews at Waymo, Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb, but I didn’t know anybody there and I had never been contacted by a recruiter so the only option I had was to submit my resume through their website. I applied to several positions but I never heard back. I’m not entirely surprised, because they must get massive amounts of online submissions. Also, it’s possible that being in Beirut was a negative factor. Some companies have a limited capacity for international hires or work visas.

By the time I was done applying, it was mid-March. My interviews were a few weeks away and it was time to prepare.

A close friend and Google employee told me that he prepared 2 hours a day for 6 months. Since I was out of a job, I could prepare all day every day for 2 months. I knew that it’s a lot of work but I also knew that Google and Facebook interviews were no joke. In fact, I have interviewed with Google and failed around 7 times throughout my career. Now, I had an opportunity of a lifetime, made better thanks to COVID-19.

The first advantage that COVID-19 gave me is that around mid-March it became clear that the pandemic was no joke either and everything shut down. We cancelled my birthday, a getaway weekend with my fiance, and my engagement party. On top of that, my calendar which had been typically packed with activism workshops, protests, and random club meetings suddenly became wide open. I had nothing to do but prepare.

The second advantage that the pandemic gave me is that the onsite interviews all became virtual. Instead of spending time packing bags, flying and getting over jet lag, I could spend time preparing and relaxing. Also, instead of white-boarding in a stuffy conference room, I could write code on my own computer at my own desk in the comfort of my own home. Suddenly, instead of being the away team, I was playing ball on my own turf, and it was incredible.

The location of the Microsoft, Facebook, and Google onsite interviews (my desk).

I prepared for the interviews with extreme focus. I read the book, Elements of Programming Interviews — twice. At the same time, I signed up for AlgoExpert and solved all ~90 problems on the site. When those were done, I signed up to LeetCode and started solving problems there. While that prepared me for algorithms and coding, I prepared for the system design interview by reading all of Designing Data-Intensive Applications and asking my friend at Google to give me a mock systems design interview. Finally, I prepared for the behavioral interview portion by writing down answers for popular questions I found online and practicing with my fiance. As an added twist, I asked the questions to my fiance to get insights from the interviewer’s point of view as to what answers they want to hear.

Scratch paper used to practice solving technical problems.

The beginning of April rolled around and I trounced the Google and Facebook phone screens. Facebook even decided to skip their customary second phone screen and go straight to on-site interviews. Microsoft came back and told me that I passed the remote onsite interviews and would be moving forward with an offer.

At this point, I was somewhat desperate for a job. Lebanon was disintegrating quickly and I had no income. Microsoft is beyond fantastic as an employer, so I considered saving myself the effort of interviewing with Google and Facebook. I told my fiance that they are notoriously difficult, so my chances would be slim anyway. On top of that, Microsoft would want an answer quickly and wouldn’t wait. Why lose a great offer? The decision kept me up at night until fate stepped in: There was a sudden hiring delay at Microsoft due to COVID-19, giving me the time to continue with Facebook and Google. In the meantime, my acceptance at Microsoft would stay pretty much safe. It was more unexpected help from COVID-19 to land me at Google.

I returned to the preparation with renewed vigor. As the dates approached, I found that my technical skills were top notch, but my self-esteem was in dire need of attention. I was a ball of nerves, missing sleep and getting constant headaches. I was overcome by anxiety and doubt, and I knew that I couldn’t pass the interviews like that so I started several new routines.

Every day right before sunset, my fiance and I would go down to the parking lot and ride around on our skateboard. It did wonders to give my mind a break and my body some exercise. Since my interviews were at night due to the time zone difference, the calming effect was well-timed. Then, right before an interview, I’d go and put on a t-shirt with the company name on it. I’m just lucky to have both Google and Facebook t-shirts from my previous internships. Besides being fun conversation starters, they tricked my brain into believing that I already belonged there, which eased the anxiety. Another simple trick I did was looking at photos of me at those companies from past internships. I’ve already been there once, so why not again? But my favorite trick was doing a “hype-up” with my fiance, where we’d put on some music and dance wildly around the living room. You can think of it like a warm-up exercise, and it definitely did loosen me up, put me in a good mood, and help me think more clearly while solving the onsite interview’s tough technical problems.

Socially-distant parking lot for taking breaks with my fiance.

One night about a week after the onsite interviews I got the news that I had passed both the Facebook and Google interviews. It was quite a night of jubilation. Facebook extended me an offer, but Google’s process required that I be matched with a team first.

The recruiter warned me that COVID-19 had made team matching more difficult by causing Google to announce a “hiring slow down” and cut lots of positions. However, I ended up matching with a very attractive team that mentioned that they were impressed by several machine learning courses I had taken on Coursera. It wasn’t long afterwards that I got an offer. While I was incredibly grateful for Facebook’s offer, I decided to go with Google.

In rare cases like mine, the pandemic can help you get a job. However, for most people today, it is harder to find jobs or even stay in them. If you’re trying but it isn’t working out right now, take advantage of the downtime to advance your career by taking online courses on platforms like Coursera. Sharpen your skills by working on a side project. You can go even further and go back to university. In fact, that’s how I got my first internship and my foot in the door. Also, don’t get intimidated by interviews. As a friend once told me, “you’re at that level but you just need to prove it.” So, prepare extensively, go skateboarding, believe that you belong there, and unexpected things just might happen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How I traveled from Beirut to San Francisco during COVID-19

I was in the village in South Lebanon when I found out that I got a job with Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and I needed to be there the next month (I’ll write about how I got the job in another post). The only problem is that Beirut’s only airport is closed and there are travel restrictions in the US and all over Europe. Luckily, I have a US passport.

I sent an email to the US Embassy in Beirut asking if they have any charter flights planned and they said no, but there’s another way. MEA is flying expatriates from Europe back to Lebanon and they have seats on the return flights to Paris, London and Frankfurt. The only condition is that I show them that I have another ticket continuing on to the US.

I checked the details of the special flights on MEA’s website but it wasn’t of much help so I called them. They told me that there was room on the flight to Frankfurt in less than a week, but when I called back to ask what time it arrives in Frankfurt, they told me it’s fully booked. I continued to get conflicting information over the phone but I decided to take my chances when they said there are seats on a flight to London. I found on Expedia a flight from London to San Francisco the morning after, so I booked it. Now I needed to buy the ticket from MEA.

MEA told me that I can buy the ticket for $1,400 over the phone or pay lira in person at the official exchange rate of 1,520 LL. The second option was clearly better, because the market price for lira was about 4,000 LL so I’d in fact be paying about $530 for the ticket. I called my fiancee and she happened to be carrying that much cash on her so she came over and drove me to MEA’s office where I put on my mask, walked in, plopped down 2,126,000 LL in cash, showed them my Expedia ticket, and walked out with an MEA ticket from Beirut to London.

Buying my MEA ticket using stacks of 100,000 LL notes.

I went home and filled out an online form by the US Embassy in Beirut that lets them know when I’m travelling so that they inform the Lebanese authorities to let me through the airport. Then, I went back on Expedia to book a hotel for my overnight stay in London.

There are no hotels inside the airport, so I booked one outside. Now I had to make sure that I could enter the United Kingdom to get to it. I tried to find this information online and by calling Heathrow Airport but I didn’t anywhere until I tweeted at Heathrow Airport. They replied within minutes letting me know that my US passport allowed me to leave the airport.

My departure date was about a week away, so I packed one suitcase and one carry-on and my parents and fiance promised to clear out the rest of the things in my apartment for me while I was gone. I said hasty goodbyes to my friends and family who were all shocked to find out that I’m leaving on such short notice.

I called MEA and found out that they hadn’t checked in my luggage all the way to San Francisco so I had them do that.

The day of the flight, I drove up to the airport. It was absolutely deserted, providing ample parking spaces at the curb that’s usually bustling with people dropping off their loved ones. Inside, there were only a few sparely scattered employees. Otherwise, everything proceeded as usual. Nobody asked me for a PCR test. It was pretty great that there were no lines and no crowds. On the plane, the flight attendants were dressed head to toe in what looked like Hazmat suits. Every other seat was empty, and food was wrapped in plastic.

Flight attendant aboard the MEA flight to London.

When I got to London Heathrow airport, it was virtually deserted as well. There was no line at passport control. In fact, there were no humans at all. I scanned my passport and a gate automatically opened and let me through. I was in the United Kingdom.

Blocked rows of seats at London Heathrow airport.

My suitcase was checked in all the way to San Francisco so I skipped baggage claim and I took a bus to my hotel, spent the night and came back to the airport the next day. United Airlines gave me my boarding pass and I boarded the flight with no issues. The flight was very empty, filled at only about 10% capacity by my estimate. Everybody who wanted to sleep took up a whole row, including me, so it was a rather pleasant flight. The flight attendants wore masks and required that all passengers do the same, except when we were enjoying our plastic-wrapped meals.

Nearly empty flight from London to Chicago.

I arrived in the United States and waited in line at Customs and Border Protection. A plainclothes man wearing a badge around his neck came around the line asking people where they’re coming from. When I said Lebanon, he took me aside to another booth and asked me at length about my last three years in Lebanon. He was friendly and I didn’t mind the chat, but it was painstakingly thorough, going into names of people I worked with and who of my family members I visited. It was also very important to him to know which other countries I had visited. After what seemed like 20 minutes, he hit me with, “green or yellow?” It was surprising but not unexpected that he would dive into politics. In fact, I wondered why he beat around the bush for so long. I told him that all the current political parties in Lebanon are bad and we just want a decent democracy.

Next, somebody else made me fill out a form asking what COVID-19 symptoms I’m feeling. Then, he took my temperature and gave me a little pamphlet telling me to self-quarantine for 14 days. I took my pamphlet at proceeded to my gate.

Chicago airport was surprisingly busy. McDonald’s was serving burgers and another place was serving hot dogs. Everyone walked around with masks while the speaker system repeated instructions about social distancing.

I got on the plane and found that I’m seated in between an entire family complete with their rowdy kids. I asked the flight attendant if I can move and she flatly told me that it’s a full flight, and indeed it was an uncomfortable 4 hours until San Francisco. I rushed off the flight, got my baggage, hopped an Uber to my Airbnb and I was finally home.

It was quite an ordeal but I made it. If you are a US citizen in Lebanon, I hope this helps you. Make sure that you’re registered with the US Embassy in Beirut to get email updates about all chartered flights. There is currently a flight on June 5th in case you need it. Good luck and stay safe.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

3 years ago I moved to Lebanon and now I’m moving back to the US

I just signed a full time job offer with Google. Ever since I was a computer science undergraduate, I’ve wanted to work there. Now it’s a reality. It’s a wonderful piece of news in an otherwise dark time, just months after having dissolved my business in Lebanon and while the country continues to plunge deeper into crisis.

The Lebanese government shut down the airport in a bid to thwart the COVID-19 pandemic, so everyone is trapped inside the country, except for lucky US passport holders like me. I bet on my American citizenship saving me during hard times, and it’s come through. I left on a flight in the midst of the airport shutdown and I’ve never breezed through an aiport so quickly. I didn’t wait on a single person during check-in, security or passport control. The employees were sitting there waiting for me to show up like I was some VIP.

Three years ago, I left the comfort of a stable job to find some answers outside of the US: What is it like to live in Lebanon? Why do people who try to live in Lebanon constantly give up and leave? Can Lebanon be fixed? I also had professional questions: What is it like to freelance? Is freelancing a sustainable way to make a living? What is it like to start a business? Can I start a successful business?

Now, three years later, I have answers to all those questions and more. I’ve grown by leaps and bounds personally and professionally. I ran a company and got job offers from the top tech companies. I spent priceless time with my family. I found someone who I love and enjoy spending my life with. I became an experienced political activist. I’ll be writing blog posts about each of these aspects in more depth, but overall, in retrospect, taking the risk and moving to Lebanon is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

What’s the moral of the story here? I think it’s that life’s possibilities are endless. Something that seems like a bad idea at first glance can reward you beyond your wildest dreams, so don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.

So what’s next for me? I’m going to go apply my new skills at my new job and my new life in the United States. I’m going to keep learning and growing as a person and an activist so that I can find ways to help people around the world improve their lives by fighting oppression and corruption in their countries. I’m going to find a way to make a positive difference in Lebanon in a way that I couldn’t when I was living there.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Job hunting again

Being quarantined at home has had another unexpected positive side effect for me: having a lot of time to prepare for interviews. With the closing of my business, I’ve been interviewing with the big tech companies again. At first I resisted the idea because it felt like a step down from being an entrepreneur, but then I realized that, aside from having no choice right now, I’ll be going back with a small promotion.

I’m optimistic, despite some stressful factors. First, there’s uncertainty around returning to the US because Beirut airport is closed and there are global flight restrictions, but I expect them to open at some point or the US embassy to offer another charter flight. Second, companies are freezing hiring while they continue to monitor the impacts of the pandemic on the economy, but the tech sector seems to be doing better than others because everyone still has to stream Netflix and work from home.

It’s stressful not having a job and not knowing how long it will be before the pandemic is over and companies will start hiring again. I’m starting to have sleepless nights. At this point, while it feels like the whole world is crashing and burning, I’m willing to accept almost any offer. At least the interviews are going well, so I’m holding on that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment