My family’s refugee story wasn’t as harrowing as the ones you read about today. The wars, the open sea, the bloated bodies, the refugee camps – we never saw any of these things.
My parents were political and religious refugees. Yeah, same shit tearing up the Middle East decades ago is still relevant today. They really need new material. But nah, same stuff recycled. A bit of political oppression here, some ethnic cleansing there, a few years of civil strife for the masses, and a whole lot of stealing and corruption for the few who rule. You know, same shit, different pile.
Without going into the details of our exile, destitution, and eventual flight to the West, let’s just say some memories can really stay with someone. I was three-years-old when we had to leave my country of birth (not to be confused with my parents’ country of citizenship which they had left in their childhood decades earlier). Doesn’t matter, when you’re the wrong kind of Muslim, in a Muslim country, it doesn’t bode well for you. So, after a month of imprisonment, my dad was told he would be released only if he signed some papers and leaves the country. No, he had no lawyer, and no, he wasn’t allowed to read the details of the papers.
After he signed, we were finally granted a visitation. My dad was sitting on a plastic chair, wearing a white tank top undershirt and long white pajama-style pants. The kind he would have worn under his white thawb, should they had given him one. But he was a prisoner. I remember the fluorescent lights and the sparsely furnished office. I remember a huge desk to my left with an equally huge mustached and uniformed man sitting behind it, trying to look kindly my way. I remember a beret on his head and hands folded on the desk.
I remember running into the room and my dad suddenly looking up. When they opened that door, I just ran. Ran and hugged him for dear life. My baba. The only one of his friends who would take his little girl to his soccer matches. The only one of his family to go by his daughter’s name, Abu Nura. My baba, who was my world, was taken from me for a month.
Fast forward. He took the deal. We had to leave. I remember sitting in an airplane, my mother holding my younger brother and silently crying. Me looking out the window and seeing my grandmother and asking why she wasn’t coming with us. I could see her and she was crying, being held up by my two uncles. And I started bawling. I was never going to see her again. At three-years-old, my world was turned upside-down. My family was breaking apart.
Now, picture a young family, father leading his six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son by hand, while the mother carries their baby daughter. It’d been a long arduous and stressful flight. He was doing this on a gamble. He didn’t know how these people treat others. He’d heard they were good. He wanted to see some good. He needed it for his children. He sacrificed it all to make this trek. It was all or nothing now.
The people ahead of us moved on, and the man behind the counter said: ‘Passport, please.”
My father choked out the few English words he’d learned to get him through this perilous journey: “We are refugees.”
Please, for a moment, realize that I am seeing all of this unfold before me. For weeks and months I sensed my parents’ demeanour change as they planned for this. For hours I was witnessing my father barely keep it together to reach these shores. I would realize years later that these were the moments which would define how I would see this new land; and, they rested fully on the reaction and response of the border officer.
He looked at my father and glanced down at us, smiled and said: “Sir, welcome to Canada.”
That was my first impression of my country and what a damn-great impression. I don’t know where that border officer is. I wish him nothing but good. He welcomed us and we felt welcomed. As we waited to be processed and meet with the friends waiting for us, the port control officials gave each of us brown bags with water, banana and a Mars bar.
You see? That first interaction was the first step to create undying love and admiration for our new adopted home, that took us in willingly, and welcomingly. Yeah, that was my first initiation into being white-washed. Zero regrets.
Then, we stepped out of the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport into a beautiful November blizzard. And I remember thinking: what the fuck did baba do?
He did good.