Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Keeping a balance between the now and my roots

Amr Al-Farham, his wife Rasha and their son Kareem arrived in Toronto in December 2016. They are the second Syrian family our group had sponsored to come to Canada. We asked Amr to give our supporters an update about how the family has settled in.  

I promised, with pleasure, that I would write a post a year after our arrival and now it’s been almost 19 months. My wife and I were, and still are, overwhelmed with life, and this is another sign of becoming Torontonians. I think that one of the most important signs of becoming a Torontonian is that what you think you can do is way less compared to what you can actually do. 

When I knew that moving to Canada is happening, my child had just gotten out of the incubator after two months of intensive care. He had been born prematurely. To celebrate both events, we threw a big party at our flat in the city of Gaziantep, which we call Aintab, in the south of Turkey. During the party, my Syrian friend who had been to Canada before gave me what sounded like a very precious advice: “Amr, you won’t believe me if I told you that the country is extremely cold. Please wrap-up very well even under your pants as many people lose their genitals due to the extreme cold. If you’re not well prepared, your genitals will fall off and you will lose them forever.” 

My friend’s advice was untrue but the cold he told me about was something I never experienced in my life. I know now where the famous Game of Thrones’ phrase “Winter is coming” comes from, and how weather here controls not only the way people dress “the crows on the wall” but also how people act, react, live, behave and even smile.

Upon arrival, most people in Toronto have been very welcoming. I later figured out that the reason was that we were the hot topic in the news. We were the topic of debate and, to a much lesser degree, a target of insult for some conservatives. Unlike many Syrian friends in the diaspora who were hiding their identity in the public fearing becoming a target of hate, discrimination or just simply getting bombarded with tons of political and religious questions, I decided to say out loud that I had recently arrived as a Syrian refugee and was open to all responses. In downtown Toronto, the responses were usually warm and welcoming.

However, I would receive the strangest comments and questions that one would not expect. Here are some examples from different people during the past 18 months:
-   "You’re Syrian! Oh wow, that’s cool! I am happy to meet one in person, are you really as traumatized as they say in the news?"
-   "Oh, welcome to Canada buddy! May I ask a question; did you really cross the sea and walk across Europe in order to make it here?"
-   "We are glad you are here and safe; do you need toasters? We have an extra one?"

In our culture we use different bread (what people call pita here is actually Syrian bread), so toasters are not essential in our diet. But my answer to the last question was: “Thank you very much, what we really need here is a job.”

Speaking English and having university degrees helped us jump many steps forward. Ripple Refugee group understood this from the very first time they met us. Instead of registering us in a language school or showing us how to take a first TTC ride, they put huge efforts into networking and helping us write our resumes and cover letters in an attractive way for a Canadian employer. I want to mention the invaluable one-on-one meetings with group member Keith, who is a HR specialist.
With all the support we received, and by being proactive, flexible and positive, by talking to everyone and sending our resumes everywhere, my wife started working in a media company in February. She has since been promoted and given a permanent contract, while I was able to get a limited contract with Doctors Without Borders as a project manager. 

Being in an advantaged position, I volunteered my language skills and translated for Syrian newcomer families who did not speak any English, which connected me with many families who were not as advantaged as we were back home. They told me how determined they were to build a new life for themselves and for their loved ones. They were eager to study, or just jump at any job opportunity and start providing for their families despite all the challenges. I was also introduced to different private sponsorship groups who were from different age groups and different professions. Some were faith based while other were just neighborhood groups, work colleagues or even dog walkers. But what they all shared is that they were amazing people who were willing to provide as much support and care as possible.

Fleeing a war-torn country is not something that is easy to overcome. We still have our parents in relatively safer cities but with mortars occasionally falling around and kidnappings. They live under a brutal, oppressive and corrupt regime in a permanent failed economy and prevailing misery in the air. We have friends and family who are scattered around the world, with similar education qualifications. Some have been successful while others are still struggling. We talk to them on the phone and many reveal how desperate and helpless they are. I believe that if my friends in Germany, Spain, France or even Turkey and Egypt were privately sponsored and provided with similar support opportunities as happened to me and my wife, they would have been doing much better now and their host countries would have been benefiting from their skills.

In my mindset now, I am not a refugee anymore. I am a newcomer with skills, a Torontonian who follows up with elections, local news and checks the TTC updates every weekend. I am writing this article while my son is running around me, mumbling short sentences of mixed English and Syrian Arabic words. I have a daily struggle of how to keep a balance between the now and the roots, the future and the past, my current Canadian dream of a diverse, fair and open society and my Syrian dream of a stable democratic and pluralist country.  

By Amr Al-Faham

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