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Home is where your tea is

By Shirin Azad*

10,523 kilometres.

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.