Editor's note: Rtvsrece is dedicated to sharing a wide variety of voices. This first-person essay is part of a collection focused on the experiences of living in the Pittsburgh region. These essays highlight both the unique charm and the common struggles of our community. Discover more perspectives at Rtvsrece First Person.

Ever since I came of age, I’ve been preparing to leave behind the turmoil of Lebanon for the promises of the American Dream. Before I was born in the United States in 1996 — only to be whisked right back to Lebanon in my infancy — numerous relatives from both sides of my extended family had made a home for themselves there across generations. I was certain I would one day follow in their footsteps and find similar success.

Like other Lebanese born after the country’s civil war (1975-1990), migration for better prospects in the Persian Gulf and the West was expected — especially after the situation in our country took a seemingly permanent turn for the worse. Circumstances, however, conspired that I would find myself back in Beirut after an unsuccessful stint in Doha, Qatar.

Graduate education took priority for the next few years until I lost my life savings in Lebanon’s liquidity crisis of 2019. Skirting by on a mix of cash on hand and freelance work on the side was manageable until local establishments started pricing at the U.S. dollar rate, leaving me unable to cover bills. By 2023, I had to leave Beirut again. This time, Pittsburgh would be my destination.

Years earlier, my sister left Lebanon to attend Carnegie Mellon University, and we decided I would join her in Pittsburgh so that she could help me resettle. It was not an easy trip, taking three flights, the longest of which had me stuffed in a 10-person row for over 10 hours. I was then driven to an old house in Squirrel Hill, where I would stay until I could get on my feet. My sister and her college friends had rented the ground floor, but it didn’t seem to have been renovated once in the hundred years it had stood there. Stepping inside, the floorboards creaked, and as I made my way to the living room, I noticed nails sticking out everywhere. A deflating inflatable mattress became my bed.

Things only got worse. Due to the water damage in the ceiling, I was startled awake whenever our upstairs neighbors walked around, worried that the entire floor would collapse. If I could sleep through that, I would choke from the strep throat I caught on one of the planes but didn’t discover until months later. To get up every morning, I had to roll off the mattress, stiff and sick, hoping not to land on the nails, and then call someone to help me stand up.

Obviously, the setup wasn’t ideal.

Even with the outages and shortages in Lebanon, life was somehow more comfortable in Beirut. This Beirut, however, only existed in my memory by that point. Pittsburgh was the new normal, and I knew I needed to be as tough as those nails to stick it out in this city.

A Downtown unfit for even McDonald’s

Bettering my circumstances with government assistance proved laborious. Applying for food stamps and health insurance took days, and it would be weeks before I could secure them. Until then, I was unsure if I had followed the procedure properly, and even after word arrived by mail, I could barely wrap my head around the Kafkaesque processes needed to take advantage of these benefits.

Eventually, once I had worn out my welcome in my sister’s residence, she told me to move out. For that, I needed to find a job. However, I had no professional contacts in the States nor the STEM education to secure work quickly with a respectable salary.

J.D. Harlock followed his sister to Pittsburgh expecting success and opportunity. Instead he found racism and rejection. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece) Credit: Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece

Initially, I wasn’t worried. I had read up extensively on the situation. Pittsburgh, the Steel City, was being lauded for its miraculous economic revival decades following its collapse. Aware of what other Rust Belt cities were going through, I felt reinvigorated by the durability on display in the online articles. I figured something was bound to come up if I just looked hard enough.

But running around Pittsburgh for interviews wasn’t feasible. Unlike Beirut, the sloping landscape in the city made walking long distances impossible, and public transportation was time-consuming and expensive. Considering what I saw on the streets of the city, it was hard to understand how the economy was considered to be in good shape. Regardless, after the prior couple of years, I wanted to be hopeful; I needed to be. It was not until we visited Downtown that I realized how bad the socioeconomic situation in Pittsburgh actually was.

The financial hub of this major city was deserted. The infrastructure was aging, with potholes everywhere and buildings that looked in poor shape. Barely any customers could be spotted inside the shops or restaurants, with uncharacteristically vacant fast food joints littering every corner. I heard that even the last McDonald's in Downtown had closed down.

(Photo courtesy of J.D. Harlock)

A driver bringing me back to Squirrel Hill explained that the economic momentum Pittsburgh had been building in recent years had come to a sharp halt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Pittsburgh isn’t as widely discussed in international media as other major American cities like New York or Los Angeles, it wasn’t as clear how much it suffered. Jobs were now scarce, wages had stagnated, and expenses were at an all-time high.

Even though I had already completed a master’s degree in international relations from the Queen Mary University of London and had years of marketing experience under my belt, I realized he was right when I couldn’t find work in anything but low-income service jobs.

Arabs need not apply?

Worse yet, all the corporate positions I was interviewed for were for placements outside of the city, requiring a handful of calls with employers who, on hearing my accent, probed me about my background and were seemingly unsettled by the fact that I was from the Middle East.

Realizing that my origin was why I was given the cold shoulder shocked me. None of my relatives in America seemed to have encountered this resistance in their time. After all, Lebanese have been migrating to the Americas since the 19th century, with a significant diaspora in Pennsylvania that had integrated seamlessly into the mainstream culture. A lifetime ago, my grandfather’s cousin, George A. Kasem, was the first Arab elected to Congress representing California; now, I wasn’t even invited into an office in Pennsylvania.

In post-9/11 America, the perception of Arabs had changed, and this discomfort with my origins wasn’t limited to professional circles. Friendly locals asked me where I was from, only to stop dealing with me when I answered them. For the first time, I was aware of my race as I interacted with others. Slowly, it became uncomfortably clear that economic class was divided along racial lines in Pittsburgh, with BIPOC minorities occupying low-income jobs, and any sort of affluence largely limited to European Americans. Like anyone who follows international news, I was aware of the racial problems that America deals with. And yet, I never realized how prominently race loomed over the country until I encountered it firsthand.

Now, far too late for my age, I was forced to confront the stark reality of resettling in Pittsburgh: I could overcome economic hardship in modern America but never escape where I came from.

Pittsburgh — like Beirut and Doha before it — was to be a stopgap for better prospects elsewhere. But, even after months of trying to stick it out, I could only hold out for so long. Even though I was an American citizen, this was not my city. It wouldn’t let itself be.

Through all the hurdles I had to overcome, I could never imagine spending the rest of my life in Pittsburgh. I chose to continue my education at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Once I finish my doctorate, Lebanon’s economy will still be in shambles, with no job prospects. I have few options but to return to Pittsburgh for work, but I hope to eventually find a permanent home in Europe, where, ironically, I expect the culture shock not to be as severe. After what I’ve been through, it can only go up from here.

J.D. Harlock is a SWANA American academic pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of St. Andrews, whose writing has been featured in The Cincinnati Review, Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, The Griffith Review, Queen’s Quarterly and New York University's Library of Arabic Literature. He can be reached at LinkedIn.

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