By Shirin Azad
“It’s so hard that I can’t see my mom during this social isolation.”
“It’s so difficult that I can’t visit my sisters.”
“The hardest part for me in this pandemic is seeing my son 2 metres away.”
“I really miss my co-workers or just seeing people out here!”
I’m reading all of these comments on a Facebook post that asks what you really miss during the COVID-19 social distancing.
All the while, I am sitting in my Brownie rocking chair pictured above. This was the first piece of furniture that I received when I came to Canada after leaving my family in Kurdistan five years ago. The well-loved chair was given to me by the first Canadian woman that I met. When she and her husband opened their home and their hearts to my husband and I as refugees, she became an angel to me. The feeling of that day and her kindness still touch me.
When she picked up my husband and I in Mission’s train station, I was experiencing the most stressful and strange time to meet someone. Add to that having to decide if I could live with them in their house. But it ended up being an easier transition than I expected.
The chair that made many good memories for 50 years in her life now is making a memory in my life. Of course, a 50-year-old chair has limitations. The good thing is that it can still hug me tight in its puffy, beige cushions, lessening my lonely feelings on rainy, grey mornings as I sit, phone in hand, seeking good news to relieve the continuous stay-at-home anxiety. But my phone fails to deliver the good news I crave. Instead, article after article discusses coronavirus and how the number of cases rises so rapidly.
And what we have to do to be safe is so simple: just stay at home.
“It’s so simple, just staying at home,” I remind myself slowly and silently while the chair tries to lull me with more rocking. My mind goes to 2003 when we had to leave our Kurdistani home to escape our city because of the capture the leader of Ba’ath regime Saddam Hussein. His government killed thousands of Kurdish people and destroyed thousands of villages in chemical attacks.
The comparison to now hits me. We couldn’t stay at home; even looking back to the 1991 uprising when I was just 5 years old, we fled from our land. We all walked many days without enough food to get to safety. We had to hide ourselves from that regime because of the curfew and out of fear of being taken hostage. All of these experiences taught us to be ready for any situation.
That’s how I know what we need to store, what we should buy and how can we use it to stay safe and fight for our lives. I watch while so many shoppers are running after toilet paper. It’s not my highest priority.
Sometimes I tell myself, that’s why I was able to move to a country a thousand kilometres away from home to have a better life and better future. Somehow all this happening now is not unfamiliar to me. I went through more difficult times. I recall the day when I started to study journalism in Kurdistan. Protesting against the kidnapping and killing of one active young journalist happened on the same day: May 4, 2010.
The creaky sound of my old chair brings me back from all the crowds and darkness to this 2020 moment when I am at home because of the pandemic. I open my eyes, thinking of the same question, what do I miss most during this regime of COVID-19? I think: it was what I wanted even before this pandemic: to see my mom, to hug my dad, and go out with my sisters to make wonderful memories. It’s been 5 years.
Reading the Facebook comments, I want to write “I miss sitting beside my dad on a comfortable sofa and putting my head on his shoulder, feeling all that pure love that a small girl has for her dad. I miss those childhood experiences of home, like smelling his scent of tangerine and apples, or hearing him ask if I would rather have him pick up red or yellow Popsicles?” This is what I miss. During quarantine time in Canada, I am extraordinarily exhausted by the kilometres between us, not just by the two metres I have to consider as I dodge others on the street.
In the end, I want to ask, how do you compare staying at home with fleeing from your home? For me, as a person who has experienced both, it’s so simple and safe to stay at home with all the boring routines.
Given a different choice: sitting beside my kind dad on a colourful Kurdish rug or snuggling alone with my phone on my cozy, Canadian rocking chair, there is no contest. I wish I could be with my family. But that choice is not available.
So here I am, on the Brownie rocking chair, waiting to carry on with post-stay-at-home life.
*Shirin Azad is a pen name for our author. We are protecting her identity to preserve her safety.
When you leave your home as an immigrant or student, you come with a plan and you know where you want to go. But coming to another country as a refugee who doesn’t have any choices and not having enough time to even think about a plan is the hardest and most painful.
I didn’t think about how it would be hard to leave everything behind, what it’s like coming to a place where you don’t have any idea about the people, life, and culture.
But wherever is the best place to save ourselves, we need to be there. We want to be in peace and make our other family members safe. I came as a refugee claimant to ask for protection and to live in a secure place. Here I am.
Working as a women’s activist in a country where most people don’t believe in women’s rights is hard work, especially when publishing injustices against women by the government results in big trouble. For 10 years after graduating with a media degree in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, I was working with some nonprofit, local and international humanitarian organizations. While this was unsafe and stressful in so many ways, the feeling of how much people need support and awareness pushed me to keep working. Women have, ironically, all the rights and not any rights at the same time! The authorities don’t want to show what we really face daily. So we been loved, harassed and killed. Earlier this year, a husband killed his wife in-front of his four-year-old son.
Canada welcomed me as a refugee who didn’t have any place, family, and safety. I appreciate living in this harmonious country where I have learned to be firm again, to build myself after losing so many things and most of my feelings, which I felt that I let go as well as all my sense, dreams, and energy. What happened to me really helped me to try to revise myself again, make this country my second home and help me to understand all the differences and way of life here.
It was difficult to live my new life as a newborn again. I arrived in British Columbia in a very hot summer in 2015 with my husband. After being accepted as a protected person and staying eight months in a transition house, I started working in a screen production company. It was amazing and I learned a lot, but it was so hard and overwhelming for me with all my thinking and worry about everything here to live, study English, work, learn all about the new culture and try to help people to understand me!
I couldn’t find a good friend, a good sister, or anyone to really know me and understand me except my husband who was in the same situation as me. But I am lucky: I can trust my pencil and notebook which are my best friends. I can tell them everything that makes me sad and concerned, everything that makes me angry, and a little happy sometimes. I use my pencil to play all my mixed emotions in my small notebook which tells me “The Purpose of Life Is to Enjoy Every Moment” on its grey cover and shows me so many key’s pictures that remind me there are many doors for you: you just need to find the key!
This belief brought something for me to participate in: a project to write a story about my journey as a refugee woman. I heard about this from a lovely woman who I previously talked with about my situation. One day, she heard The Shoe Project writing and said it reminded her of me.
This was the first step for me to participate in a writing workshop to write about how I came here with my shoes and why. It was a very interesting approach, and gave me a new start to write in English. I wasn’t very comfortable in the beginning to talk about myself. However, I thought that’s what I have to do: tell my story to help myself and all other refugees in Canada and help Canadian people to understand from us to try to make a good interconnection to produce a caring community all together.
So it was a big door for me which allowed me to expose my writing experience and skills by writing my story. I also have the chance to read it in a sold-out performance by The Shoe Project in Vancouver in 2018.
I think it was one of the key steps in my journey that propelled me to another other writing project. I joined another writing workshop and wrote more three stories. After that I participated in some other performances in different cities to read my stories and met amazing people, making some links to continue writing.
That’s how I am keeping up my writing now. You are reading my story on Highlight Communication’s website, after all. I was so grateful and felt that I can be a writer again instead staying as a refugee woman!
That was a considerable welcoming to Canada for me. It gives me same feeling I had when the judge welcomed my husband and I at our hearing day in the court. How important to be accepted here! It is vital to go back to your career or even doing a small part of what you have done back home, to feel that we all live in the same planet and we all have a right to be anywhere we can save our lives and find another chance to start again. It’s vital to live and rebuild all our emotions and strength. We need to be welcomed as humans and who we were instead of continually containing us in identities as victims of all what happened to our country. We want to contribute and belong.
By Shirin Azad*
Do you fully understand what it means when you leave your country and start a new life in another country where is everything is so different?
Changing your country means not just changing the land and leaving your family. It means changing whole your life, your friends, your career, your language, and even your personality somehow.
A little background on me...
I was a student in level two of Media department when I started working at a non-governmental newspaper in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.
I had two different types of feeling: confused and happy. Confused because I didn’t have any experience starting a professional job, but now acting as a reporter. At same time, happy because I believed I could make a change if I could stay strong.
It wasn’t easy, especially in my region where people look with totally different eyes at women. I am a bit lucky that I came from a family that values independent women. I had to work with a group of men which was not generally considered acceptable by the community.
After a long day, I wanted to go home to type my articles and transcribe interviews about honour killings, women’s prison stories and other penalties suffered by women who tried to do something to make a change.
I had to go home by bus and try not to sit in beside men because of the likelihood of harassment.
But with all the hard work and stress, I felt that I was a happy, successful woman because I could be a voice for a woman in my region. I could listen to them and write their stories to show how we can help those who need us and defend those facing danger.
Going home after a long day, I would visit with my mom and gather with my sisters to talk about our day with lots of love and laughs; it was such a perfect therapy that I really wish I had now. It helped me to continue and encouraged me to fight for my own rights and other women’s rights.
But then I became a public figure. Some people thought I was doing a great job but others talked to me as if to say “what are you doing? You never can’t change this society!”
Of course, I knew I couldn’t change everyone but I could change some people’s minds at least about myself as a woman working in journalism. I could show that women can do jobs other than teacher or doctor.
After nearly 10 years in my work, I was very happy. Unfortunately, then it became unsafe.
June 2015 was the time that I had to start my new life with my husband in Canada. I started searching and asking for jobs. What I had studied back home felt a million miles away; it didn’t work for Canada as I needed Canadian experience more than my degree. Even if my degree was still relevant, I still needed to speak English as a native speaker, so being a journalist again began to feel like an unreachable dream.
I had to do a completely unrelated job at that time to help to support my life here. And so it began.
Working in Canada: Day 1
It's a very dark, cold January morning and it's 4:30. I can’t open my eyes. I want to stay with what I am dreaming about wearing my running shoes, going to court to record the last trial of my story case.
“We have to be there soon for our first day working”, my husband wakes me up with those words in the midst of packing food and fruit in our second-hand lunch box. Our kind host with his fatherly manner will drive us to our first Canadian jobs.
We arrive at the window manufacturer and we are touched to see a welcome sign with our names. I go to the second floor mesh department and my husband goes to another section. How close is this to journalism? My feelings rang from happy to confused. Happy to have Canadian experience but overwhelmed with big pieces of mesh surrounding me, women and men doing the same physical tasks, so different from home where you never see a woman work in a production facility. I experience a good feeling about a Canada being a country of equality.
“You have to go on the table and take the measurement to measure the mesh,” my Taiwanese coworker joltesme back from my introspection.
I am looking at the measurement with surprise on my face. “I don’t know how to use inches!” Even the simple concept of measurement feels so confusing.
I climb on the big white table asking, “How can I learn using inches while I grew up with using centimetres?”
“They will teach you, don’t worry.” My Taiwanese colleague adjusts his light glasses while extending the long measuring tape toward me on the table.
An inner monologue of fear continues. I am not just afraid about this job; everything else about relocating my life here suddenly becomes frighteningly real. How can I work for 8 hours without sitting? How can I make friends here? Do I need to make Canadian friends? What should we talk about? What will happen if I cut the mesh wrong? Will they fire me? Will they punish me by cutting my wages?
So many fears overtake me. Suddenly I hear a ring. A very short, cold sentence hits my ears. “Lunch Time!” a young woman says.
Ohhh, what a hard day. I am so hungry.
I take the stairs down and sae a handsome man whose white shirt is speckled black with a hundred little spots from cutting aluminium. I used to see him in his business suit when he arrived home from his accounting manager job before we moved to Canada.
We reach the lunch room and sit with relief to eat our delicious Kurdish lunch. All eyes are on us. We open our full lunch box and dug in.
Day by day, I became more familiar with everything and learned. These lessons were not relevant to anything I once did as a journalist. However, working in a production company and getting to know my coworkers has value. They help me to handle the loneliness I feel for my family and sisters.
Working in a labour job was never my dream job. I had never thought about working just to survive.
I miss working with people who need me. I miss advocating for women who have endured violence or those who need to find a safe place: a young woman whose uncle wants to kill her because they caught her with her boyfriend; all those small girls around the world whose subjected to Female Genital Mutilation or arranged marriage.
I was extremely grateful for the window manufacturing plan with its respectful, kind workers. Sadly, I was there only with my body. My mind was focused on the bigger questions of how I could adapt to be happy here. The questions continued to plague me. How can I learn? How can I improve myself to speak better English to have a better future?
It was not terrible news when I was called one day with another group of people and told that I would be laid off because of shortage of work. It was hard to lose the security of the work but I had so many things to do to improve my self and make a future plan. My first welcome to work and Canadian experience was successfully completed and I had to consider what my next chapter would be.
*Shirin Azad is a pen name for our author. We are protecting her identity to preserve her safety.
By Shirin Azad*
It’s a long way - much farther than most people can imagine. That’s the distance from my home in Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) to Canada. Even the time is very different. When it’s daytime in Canada, it’s the middle of the night in Kurdistan. Sometimes it really does feel a world away.
I was a journalist in Kurdistan, and I had to leave everything in my life there. Life there was just too dangerous. I was active in defending women’s rights, and that put me in great danger.
Leaving was the toughest decision I’ve ever made. I will never forget the night when I had to say goodbye to my family. I still feel their love and hugs mixed with their tears. I carry that picture around with me. But I had to flee and start my new life with my husband. Now I just have the weekend to talk with my big family. I have to wake up at 5 to go to work every weekday, so I love my weekends because I can see my lovely parents and my siblings.
This story is not about my biological family, though, it's about the relationship with my second family in Canada.
It was a rocky start. When we arrived in Vancouver, we didn’t have anywhere to live. I started to search for an organization which helps refugees to find safe housing. I found Inland Refugee Society and they found a place in Vancouver where we could stay for two weeks. I wasn't very happy. I missed my family, my mom's sympathy and my dad's hugs. I was crying all day every day and every night. I told my husband I need my family, my friends and my sweet home. I was heartbroken, grieving for everything I had left behind.
But that’s the thing about being a refugee: we couldn’t plan these things, we couldn't go back and we couldn't do anything about all of these new things in Vancouver.
After we had been in Vancouver for a while, the man at the organization told us he had found a place for us with a couple in Abbotsford. My first response was: “what is Abbotsford?” I didn't have any idea whether Abbotsford is a place or a name of something. He said it's a nice place a way from Vancouver. There is a couple who can help both of us and we could stay with them.
We couldn’t understand why these people in Abbotsford would want to help us. He said, “they want to simply because it makes them happy”. He looked at me with a smile and said “go, and you will not be back, I know!”. We were unsure and wondering whether to say yes or not. But we didn't have anywhere else to go, and we didn’t know anyone, so we had little choice. We decided to go check out the place, and then decide whether to stay.
On the day we left Vancouver, we had lots of heavy stuff and the weather was unbearably hot. We came down stairs out of the building and went to catch the train, but we didn't know how to. It was like being a child again, and I felt so lost. I was so frustrated I burst into tears. Fortunately, the manager of the organization came down, saw I was upset and surrounded by all our stuff. He helped us to go to the station and get the train to Abbotsford.
On the train my husband and I were both quiet, thinking about everything that might go right or wrong in the future. We had no idea, no impression of the people who we were not just going to meet but move in with, except a very brief conversation on the phone. I couldn’t help wondering what their motives were for helping us, for letting us into their home. What would happen if they were not good people? After all, what kind of people would open their door to people with little English and hardly any information about living in Canada?
We tried to pretend everything was going to be ok. We wanted to be ready, but ready for what?
Before getting on the train I had talked with the woman who was the owner of the house and she had asked how she could recognize me. I said “I have a lot of hair and my husband has a beard”. She said we would know her, as she had a butterfly on her shirt” That was the only way we were going to recognize this stranger who was going to help us.
When we arrived in Abbotsford, suddenly I had a terrible thought: What if she doesn’t come? What can we do in this far out place? All these thoughts and doubts were running through my head.
We got off the train and started walking down the platform. Suddenly we saw a lady waving. My husband saw her and we both started walking towards her. My eyes went directly to the butterfly and my heart started to beat faster. We crossed the road and the first thing she did was hug me! She gave me a real hug, so tight it reminded me of my mom’s hugs and of feeling very warm. She asked my husband if she could hug him too, and my husband said “yes, of course” At that time he just knew a few phrases in English, and “of course” was one of them.
She remembered our names and she said “Let’s go home.” On our way she asked a few questions and we told her about our far away region of Kurdistan.
We arrived at the house and she showed us inside. She took us directly to our new bedroom. I remember there was a blanket in my favorite colour: dusty pink, and a white dresser and a chair with a small, soft blanket on the chair. All of these were so beautiful and perfect for us.
But there was one another thing which meant so much more to us, which showed that I really had found my Canadian family, people who would love me and my husband like my parents do. It was a gold tray with two Kurdish teacups and a full box of delicious black tea. This was so special and very meaningful for us. She had said everything she needed to through this tray of tea. She had showed us her heart, and all my fears melted away. The tea told me this house was full of love and happiness. The cups showed me the depth of her kindness. They reminded me of having tea every morning for breakfast, and after lunch and supper with my family back home. I looked at this lovely Canadian woman with tears streaming down my face, and said: “How do you know me?”. She had never had Kurdish guests, so did not know all our culture and customs, but she had wanted to. She had turned to Google, and asked “What is that thing Kurdish people can't live without?” The answer that she got was: “Black Tea.”
Seeing the tray of the tea in our room marked the start of our new life in Abbotsford. We decided to stay and became a part of this lovely home. It is a transition house for refugees, giving them a home until they can settle, and build a life in Canada.
Even though we have moved out now, we are still part of the family. We will always remember the joy, hope, happiness, and real love that we experienced from the moment we arrived in Abbotsford. We now know why the couple are so welcoming and generous, too: they are Christians, truly serving their God and living out their faith.
Now we can honestly say we have a good life here. We both have jobs and friends. We arrived not knowing what Abbotsford was, but now we don’t want to leave. We love it, and we love the people. We are so thankful we came here. The tea is now famous in the house, and is known by my name. Everyone drinks it at every gathering.
It doesn't matter how far apart you are, what color you are, what religion you are or what your identity is, we have to believe in humanity. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make life better for others, and for ourselves, too.
In my case, I experienced my first taste of belonging in a cup of tea. It gave me a feeling of the warmth of home, crossing a distance of 10, 523 kilometres in a single sip.
*Shirin Azad is a pen name for our author. We are protecting her identity to preserve her safety. Special thanks to Angela Belcham, who assisted with pinpointing suitable English words and grammar to match Shirin's explanations.
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