“Seeds of Hope: Creating a Future in the Shadows” (2019) talks about the opportunities refugees and immigrants alike create in Canada, one of the countries that is famed to have a “golden standard” for asylum-seekers. But late April, legal assistance in Ontario became unavailable – asylum-seekers now need to find and pay lawyers on their own. Empathy has become a more scarce currency in the hailed country.
One paragraph etches itself onto my memory:
“If ‘home is where the heart is’ /
When was the last time I went home?”
I ask myself the same question; in my homeland, I felt like a stranger, a legal alien scouring the streets for experiences. I now understand that home is more than a physical space – a room filled with familiar posters and musical melodies. Home is mobile; it can be recreated but never to be the same.
In Berlin, I mostly attended events on refugee issues, conducted interviews with subject-matter experts, and practiced my German alongside locals and immigrants at Sprachcafés. As an ambassador from XENION, I was able to leverage my status to become a shadow volunteer in many of these events despite the little German I knew at the time. Equipped with Arabic, I became a person Arabic-speaking refugees confided in with their stories of refugee and thus learned the grit shared among refugee communities.
I recall my interview with Maria Kipp. She works with TAMAJA Soziale Dienstleistungen, who are responsible for housing refugees in heims (homes) and hosting sport events as TENTAJA within the boundaries of Tempelhof Airport. Built by the Nazis, this airport now houses hundreds of refugees – and back in 2015, it was shelter for thousands. I ask Maria about the current situation and how has the volunteering scene transformed. “People’s attitude changed after the fad [of 2015] volunteering passed. But it’s also that the government transformed after the Cologne incident and became more critical. Now asylum-seekers are encouraged to find housing as soon as possible but are shuffled between different places during the period of their claim. As soon as one gets comfortable, another move is scheduled.”
The constant departure from familiarity makes it hard to do anything – let alone learn a language. In Germany, if someone isn’t able to acquire the language (up to the level of B2), residency doesn’t become an option. But often the bare minimum is sufficient to open a restaurant – as evident in Sonnenalle, commonly called the “Arab street”. I regularly attended a Sprachcafé nearby and always got a kofta sandwich to accompany me on the journey back home. And one time, Ramy surprised me with his journey to freedom.
“It’s like, throughout, someone is ripping your heart out.”
The words rang in my ears. He looked at the floor for a while before releasing a smile in my direction. I sat in the side-walk restaurant called “Simsim,” listening to Ramy narrate to me his story of crossing the Mediterranean to find home in Europe. He recalls the details of the crossing – too many children on an unstable boat, violent waves in the sea, and prayers to God. In Syria, all men above 18 have to serve the army for about 2 and a half years. But to many, that would mean becoming a murder. His anger and sadness did not manifest in words – only in body language. Ramy seemed perfectly capable of shifting between his morose and industrious states. It only took him seconds to crack another joke.
It’s remarkable how humans can communicate experiences and learn to regulate their accelerating minds through crystallizing them – using dance, art, or otherwise. Give Something Back to Berlin and Harake were both art hubs for refugees to let go of the singular experience that gave their lives so much meaning. Trauma is often crippling not because of the memories – but because of its significance in reshaping someone’s future and aspirations; it becomes a memory that is relived over and over in mind and soul until nothing has meaning without it. The singularity of the event is substantial that letting it go can be as hard as keeping it in.
I once visited an art exhibition and was lucky to speak with the Syrian artist who drew many of the paintings. Some had featured feet. “But why?” He explained with a calm tone that in the prisons, it was the first body part to target – without your legs and feet, you become helpless…almost powerless to move in thought as in body. It takes time to let go of the memories. To become apart from that event which has reshaped your view on humanity. He distanced the memory through his art.
His efforts resembled those of a dear friend who produced his own movie, “Medallion.” Dance becomes an escapade for a Yemeni soul, who lost her memory on the journey to Germany. Timelines blurred from the trauma, and the past became full of alien memories. But their intrusion is persistent, almost a reminder that the past defines the present. I talked with Mahmoud after the film premiere. He revealed that his most depressed state wasn’t in Syria or during his crossing – it was during the waiting process. Would he be able to stay? Would he be able to work? Or will he be sent away to a no man’s land? Listless, full of doubt, Mahmoud is unable to take any action because all he can literally do is wait in the containers called heims – and use up his savings.
People flee for many reasons – but commonly it is because of the search for fulfillment. And that can be defined in many ways. For younger people, it’s about opportunity and education. Others find safety to be of utmost importance, where an ordinary life seems extraordinary.
Canada can be a perfect example of that. Ordinary livelihoods that seem so remote from those in Jordan, Egypt, or even Berlin. Refugees arrive in Canada with a residence permit in hand (unless filing asylum claim at the airport). I personally had the opportunity to live my month in Toronto with a sponsoring family who was hosting an asylum-seeker from Egypt. Saeed had fled Egypt, lying to his parents, saying that he was studying in Canada. But the truth was that the accusations about being gay – which were true – in addition to his religiosity, which was confused with a Muslim Brotherhood membership, made life in Egypt unbearable. We talked in German for our first meeting since he had studied in Germany, and it somehow made us closer. We would be both strangers in our homeland. Every night, we would sit in the living room to chat about his claim since the legal assistance had been withdrawn. We tackled each inconsistency in his story and eventually were satisfied by the end of the month with his presentation. Our arguments were loud but kind at heart. Our conversations made one thing clear: as Nandita Sharma writes, “national borders…are made to make some people feel at home while rendering others homeless in the very places where they live.”
Since April was Refugee Rights Awareness month in Toronto, there was no shortage of events to attend and be involved. I was once leaving an event from the Gardiner Museum focused on “Mixed Feelings: Leaving Home, Finding Home” when I was stopped by a man. He was on the street looking for someone to help him. Bassam, who I would learn was a successful Syrian physician-artist, stopped me and asked where he could find other Arabs. In the city of Toronto, nearly everyone is a foreigner – it’s beautiful and daunting. (It’s perhaps why I didn’t feel challenged there – my identities were diluted among the melting pot that is Toronto.) I slowly removed my headphones to ask him in Arabic about his situation. Bassam had just moved to Toronto from British Colombia, where he mentioned opportunities were less available. Although Bassam would receive support from the government, his family needed to pay for a hostel for about a week. With the dent in his savings and the last payment closing in on him, he was already begging in the streets for 80 CAD. I canceled my plan to read at a café and insisted to head with him to the hostel to see what I could do – maybe pride had stopped Bassam from explaining to the tenant his ordeals. And indeed.
Life is strange in that sometimes it aligns once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and it is up to the person to seize them and make the most of them. But there is also incredible pressure because of that – you fail alone. Refugees often feel shame around their inability to learn the language quick enough, their misunderstanding of the system, and their attachment to their prior lives. Perhaps this was most apparent when welcoming newcomers (who are sponsored refugees). I was part of a group called Hand-in-Hand that welcomes newcomers at the Canadian airport. And thus, when Feliz finally arrived to Canada, he proclaimed that “the cold of the country is better than the warmth of home.” He had memorized some neighborhoods in Toronto and practiced his English extensively before his arrival. “Isn’t that the Ontario lake?” He excitedly announced. Someone joked about his over-sized bags, and Feliz replied politely, “Well, my entire life is enclosed in those bags.” And it’s true. There’s no return. In our interview, Feliz mentioned that he refuses to be stuck in the past or held back by the love or family. “I cannot be gay in my country; I would die. But I was dying each day there. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m breathing fresh air. Canada is now my home. I’ll make sure of it.”
Take nothing for granted. Nothing lasts forever. Do not think resilience as an inherent characteristic; there are some experiences in life that can make an unrepairable dent in one’s grit. But more importantly, remember that we are not only one part of our lives – trauma should only teach us and not define us. One event should not hold us hostage. We are the sum of all these parts of our strange lives.