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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