The image of Bassam al-Hallak, the Syrian refugee whose body went up in flames, cannot be purged from memory. Last Sunday morning before 8 o’clock, Hallak had his mind made and poured gas over his body and set it to flames near his residence in the town of Taalabaya. He continued to walk quietly while his entire body burned as if it were a moving torch. He moved steadily and confidently. His body did not fightback against the flames, almost as if he was walking in the rain with the air gently breezing past. He did not run nor scream, and his body did not betray what his mind had already decided: parting ways with life while burning in flames. His strides remained steady for tens of meters. His body did not bend while he moved unyieldingly towards his certain death as if it was his salvation.
In the family’s home on a 3rd floor of a building in Taalabaya, inhabited mostly by Syrian refugees, the stricken family of Bassam al-Hallak sat as they mourned and accepted condolences. The social distancing measures in the time of Coronavirus was undoubtedly the reason why few people came. The tragedies of displacement, poverty, and now Coronavirus had already crushed this family that fled Syria in 2014 after life in Daria became nigh impossible. Hallak’s nephew who was the first witness of the incident tells the story of the death of his uncle. He said that his story began the day he forcibly left his home Daria. While sipping coffee on Sunday morning he described seeing a man on fire as he raced to him in an attempt to save his life not knowing who it was. He added that one of the onlookers had claimed that the man burned himself because he had contracted the Coronavirus… which he believed at first. He explained that he pleaded with the man as he attempted to fight the flames: “Why have you done this to yourself? and the man responded calmly as he laid down: “Can you believe that its come to this?”… even as his body melted, he did not shout but was calm. Still, at the time, I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was a passerby and it never occurred to me that he could be a relative or an acquaintance.”
He had not Realized that it had been his Father that was Burring in Front of him!
He sat there until the emergency vehicle arrived an hour after the incident. Hallak’s son said that he had not realized that it had been his father that was burning in front of him: “When I got close to him, all I saw was a burning body. The facial and body features had been altered, and I didn’t know until someone nearby was asked who it was and answered “Wissam al-Hallak”. This is when I yelled “Bassam! Not Wissam! He’s my dad!” The passerby had mistaken the name he heard and though it was Wissam.”
The tragedy is perhaps in what followed. After he was transferred to the Bekaa hospital at nine o’clock, the hospital was not equipped to handle a burn condition of that degree. His family was told that perhaps the Geitawi Hospital in Beirut is willing to receive him for the cost of $20,000. The UNHCR did not respond as quickly as needed. The approval was not issued. Another option that was considered was sending him to Al-Salam Hospital in Tripoli that required two million Lebanese Pounds as a guarantee. Hours passed as the family awaited the approval of the UNHCR and attempted to collect the two million pounds from family members. However, Bassam’s soul had surrendered, and he died there in the Bekaa Hospital at 5 PM on that Sunday afternoon.
Bassam Al-Hallak passed away… Not because of a terminal illness nor because of mental instability, but because he was stricken with pride and his inability to reach out his hand and knock on closed doors. The same doors of the UNHCR staff who came after his death offering help for his grieving family. Many representatives of relief foundations came to offer their aid after his untimely death. Hallak’s son remarked: “What good are you trying to achieve by coming today? The man who needed your help is dead.”
The Economic Crisis
One of the family members stated that Bassam and his two sons have slumped into terrible living conditions due to recent loss of work. The Coronavirus came along and rubbed salt in their wounds. Despite that, not even their neighbors were aware of the conditions they were living in. His death shocked all of those around him as he never asked nor complained.
That morning he wont out of his home, bought gasoline and decided to end his life in protest to the conditions that have overcome his life. He went to show his objection to a world that keeps delivering injustice even to the most vulnerable. The tragic death is that of the collective consciousness. May it one day wake up to the enduring tragedy of the Syrian asylum seeker.