A Future for Others
Amena* is very warm and personable. She speaks clearly and confidently. Her smile is infectious. We have met several times now to discuss the possibility of our local refugee sponsorship group helping to bring members of her family who are currently refugees in Lebanon to join her in Lethbridge. Our conversations seem like such strange and weighty things. There is so much that hangs in the balance. Probably more than I can even know.
I ask her if she would be willing to share more of her story with me, that being able to tell her story will help as I share with others in our community. “Can you say a bit about your life in Canada?” I ask. “Has it been hard? I know you’ve been here six years, but surely there must still be a bit of culture shock.” “Not really,” she says. “The people are so nice here. You walk down the street and people smile at you. We sit here, you and I, in a café, and nobody bothers us. If this was my country, people would be very suspicious. They would point at me and say, ‘What is she doing? Who is she sitting with?’” She smiles and looks away. “It would probably give them something to talk about for months.”
She tells me about growing up in Damascus, in a time before war. She tells me of the farm her father had outside Damascus—the farm he sold when the war first started. “He knew that this conflict would go on for a very long time and that our country would take a long time to recover,” she says. “Fifty years, perhaps? He knew that it would be very bad… He knew that things would never be the same.”
She tells me about how she has struggled to sleep, to work, to study over the past few months. “I see the news about Russia getting involved now…” Her voice trails off. “So many people fighting, so many bombs. I think about my family and I am sick with worry.”
Amena tells me about her brothers and their families in Lebanon—the people she is trying to get to Canada. Because they are Syrians, they cannot renew their legal documents in Lebanon. “They are ‘illegal.’ They can’t stay, but they have nowhere to go. The borders are all closed. Nobody wants them.” Her one brother has tried, on three occasions, to pay the smugglers to take his family across the Mediterranean. Each time, she says, they give the men money, and the men say, “Come back tomorrow and we will have room on the boat for you.” But when tomorrow comes, the men are gone and there is no boat. “And my brother’s money is gone.”
These are the choices that her siblings must face. Continue trying to exist in the shadows of Lebanon, or try to get on a boat bound for Europe. There is no going home. I try, mostly in vain, to imagine being faced with these kinds of decisions.
“Do your nieces and nephews go to school in Lebanon?” I ask. She shakes her head. “Some, but not all… It is so expensive…” “How does your family eat?” I ask. She smiles. “My brothers, they work ‘illegally.’ They are not officially supposed to be in Lebanon, but we can’t go back to Syria. All of our houses have been destroyed. So they take odd jobs—painting, building, whatever. It’s hard. Very hard. They are good workers, and they want to do anything. But there are so many people in this situation…” Amena’s voice trails off again.
Amena tells me that she has spoken to her siblings and her parents in Lebanon and Syria about the possibility of coming to Canada. She tells me that they were so excited. She told them that because they were a large family, it might not be possible to bring them all. She pauses before continuing here. I look at her as tears start to form in her eyes. “All of my siblings said, ‘Leave me here, take my brother… my sister… my parents.’ All of them said this. They want a future for others, first, before themselves.” The tears flow more freely now.
Amena and I go over the documents she will have to fill out for her family, to try to bring them to Canada, to a better future. I try to explain things, as best I can, but the truth is that I can barely get my head around the whole process myself. I promise to try to find someone who knows more about the application process than I do. I tell her I will send her some articles that might help.
I notice how often the words “I will try” have fallen from my lips over the past hour…
We are getting ready to leave. I tell Amena that we will try—that word, again!—to do whatever we can to help her family. The tears return. “I don’t know the words to say,” she says. “I say thank you, but I mean more. I have been trying for so long to help my family come here, and you are the first people to ever even listen to my story. Even if you can’t help, I am so happy that you at least listened to me.” I smile back, a lump forming in my throat. I don’t know the words to say either.
I wish everyone could have a chance to sit across the table from someone like Amena, to hear these stories that have the capacity to call things forth from us. I wish the people who are drawn to alarmist rhetoric about the “threat” of Syrian refugees could hear—really hear—her words, that they could inhabit her story, even if in a very small way. As I said in a previous post, stories can change everything, if we will let them. Stories can locate us in the pain of another human being and invite us to ask these most basic of questions. What if this was my story? What if these were my sisters, brothers, parents, nieces, nephews?
What would I do? What would I want done for me?
*I have changed Amena’s name for the purposes of this post. She has given me permission to share her story in this context.