Thursday, 15 December 2016

What it means to be a permanent resident in a country for the first time in my life

Amr Al-Faham, his wife Rasha and their 5-months old son Kareem arrived in Toronto from Turkey on December 6, 2016 - the second family sponsored by the Ripple Refugee Project. He describes what it means for him to be a permanent resident in a country for the first time in his life.

It’s been a week and I am still in the denial phase that I am here, in famous Toronto. But more importantly, I am here with a legal status that allows me to become a citizen in a specific number of years. This means that there will be no more queuing and pushing and being pushed for hours in the crowded residency permit offices in all the countries I lived in. No more running back and forth for days to renew my residency and repeat this process every single year. No more bribing and faking a smile to the officers so they can facilitate my residency permit without complications. More importantly, no more fear of the future and feeling vulnerable every time a major incident happens in a country I live in.  

I still cannot believe that on arrival, and with a two-hour process, I was provided with documents that will help change my life for the better and for the rest of my life. I am a permanent resident in a country that I come to for the first time in my life.

In the thirties of the last century, my grandfather opened the fifth modern pharmacy in Damascus, and went to Iraq to open one of the first pharmacies in an Iraqi city. This is where he got the opportunity to get the citizenship of the back-then new-born kingdom of Iraq. He kept the Iraqi citizenship believing that Iraq will be one of the best countries in the world as it has oil and agriculture and an old civilization with a rooted culture of education and production, and he dropped or neglected the Syrian nationality.

After spending most of his life moving between Iraq and Syria, he decided to settle in his city of birth, Damascus, with his daughters and sons but he left us; his grandchildren, the legacy of Iraqi nationality.

So I was born in Damascus, Syria but with an Iraqi citizenship. And ever since, I had to renew my residency every year. My father had to renew my residency for me when I was a child and I still remember how difficult it was as the diplomatic ties were cut and borders were sealed between Damascus and Baghdad for over 22 years. My father had to know key people in the Syrian ruling Baath Party so he could succeed in keeping his and our residency going, and each year he had to make the phone calls. When I grew up I started to take his role and visit the residency offices but still my father had to make the phone calls and the prearrangements with his connections.

Things kept going this way until 2003 when the Americans invaded Iraq and millions of Iraqi refugees flooded Syria. In a few months, I turned into “just another Iraqi” in Syria and the government did not distinguish between my case and the newcomers’ cases. My father’s connections became old and left their positions and thus became useless, and the Syrian government had asked me to head to the “Bureau of Immigration and Passports” to be issued a residency permit. I still remember the first time I went there; I had to queue for seven hours in a very crowded and loud room. While queuing, the person behind me advised me to put a bribe of 500 Syrian pounds in my passport (which was worth USD10 back then) and hand it over to the officer when I reach his desk. And yes, everyone was doing the same. Collecting the residency permit was another painful process where people would crowd and push each other and shout while collecting their stamped documents.

In the following years the residency renewal became much easier - not because the Syrian government had improved it, but because my elder brother figured out a new magical way; he would enter the Bureau with a fat wallet and start distributing Syrian pounds notes here and there. Once, he asked me to accompany him and I was astonished as he looked like he was entering a bellydance night club where all the officers were saluting him while receiving the notes and slipping them in their pockets and desk drawers.

In 2013, two years after the demonstrations started and developed into a war, the Syrian regime was torturing and/or killing all the activists. Being one myself, I had to flee Syria to what was supposed to be my country: Iraq. I left to Iraqi Kurdistan to the city of Suleimani (Assulaimaniyya). Being classified as an Arab in their eyes, the Suleimani Kurdish local authorities issued me a yearly residence permit after a long interrogation process, asking me unfamiliar questions such as “what is your race? What is the name of your clan? Are you Turkmen but pretending to be an Arab?”
I was alright with that as long as I received a legal status, but it was surprising to me that I had to have a residency permit issued in my own country of citizenship. The more surprising fact was when I was traveling from Suleimani to the other Kurdish city of Erbil to meet my brother who had just moved there. The Kurdish Assaiish (Police) had sat up a big checkpoint at the city’s entrance, and the first time I was passing there, they stopped me and asked for my residency card, saying that my Suleimani card was not valid in Erbil because I was an “Arab” in their eyes. I was asked to proceed with the Erbil residency permit in order to be able to enter the city. Of course Turkish and European citizens did not require this permission; it was only the citizens of Iraq from another race.

On the second trip to Erbil I met Rasha, whom I fell in love with, and decided to travel to Erbil every second week to see her. But this meant that I had to cross the Erbil check point with an entry permission card every time I wanted to see her. The Erbil entry permission issuing process took between an hour to four hours. The process starts when the Assaiich member discovers that there is an Arab in the car and he would scream to his colleagues: ”Here is another Arab!” I then would be asked to go to a large fenced open area with no chairs or trees and queue, sometimes push and be pushed, and fight until I got this permit card. I had to wait in the heat of 45 degrees summers, and in the cold of -1 degrees winters, I have seen old men crying, and sick people begging the officers so they can enter the city to receive treatment.

The Erbil checkpoint became much more crowded after ISIS invaded Mosul and a big wave of Mosul’s residents fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. But across the two years I stayed in the Kurdish region, I have lied to the officers, played tricks with them and faked the dates of old permit cards so I could access Erbil and meet my love.

In late 2014 I moved to Turkey with Rasha whom I married later, and for the first time in my life I did not have to bribe or call connections or key people in order to get a residency permit. Everything was clear and the process was relatively easy. But I still have renewed my residency two times, as I had to renew it on a yearly basis. I had this sense of insecurity and of the “what if”: what if the Turkish government changed the rules of treating the Syrian refugees, what if I was not allowed to renew my residency for any reason? Where would I go as I cannot go home? What will happen to me?

In July 2016, the Turkey coup attempt has raised the same fears and the same “what if” questions I always had. My newborn son was in the incubator in a faraway child hospital, and we did not know what will happen to us if the coup had succeeded. 

So here I am in Toronto at my Canadian sponsors' family house, with a document that will last for years and with a clear status that will save and protect my rights as a normal human being who doesn’t have to bribe, use dodgy connections, explain whether he is Arab or Kurd, state his religion or swear to the officers that all he said was true. On the other hand, the sponsoring group is offering us with all possible ways of support; introducing us to basic knowledge of our new home country and offering us all sort of help and support. To be honest, this is too good to be true and I am still living in the denial phase.   

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