Oh Canada, our new home and shared land
When you hear numbers like the aim of bringing “25,000” Syrian newcomers to Canada, it can sometimes make it hard to imagine the friendly faces those numbers represent. But behind everyone one of those numbers are stories of resilience and determination to overcome the odds and rebuild a new life after years of escalating conflict in Syria. In 2016 I had the opportunity to meet Canadians across Ontario, Canada who were actively working to bring Syrian refugees to Canadian soil safely, and when they did, provide them a warm welcome. Despite my broken Arabic, I also had the pleasure of meeting Syrian newcomers who of which were eternally grateful to be in Canada and eager to have their relatives meet them so they could finally start their new lives.
Before that, In 2015, I had a life-changing experience when I lived in Lebanon for a few months and met a Syrian woman named Malak who lived in Shatila Refugee Camp. I had gone to a center in the camp to speak with women who lived there and gain some understanding on the situation. Strangely enough, much like the little girl I met in Northern Syria in 2013, who took initiative to show me what ‘souf’ meant in English, which turned out to be ‘yarn’ when she revealed to me a purple knitted dress she made herself, Malak, who was in her mid-thirties and bearing the emotional scars of motherhood as a refugee, took initiative to show me what poverty meant in any language.
She guided me through the stuffy cement alleyways of the camp, to finally reach an even stuffier stairway to her little apartment. This was at a time when my Arabic was nowhere near as fluent as it is today, so I had to listen very carefully when she spoke. Although, words didn’t do much anyways in light of the plastic bottle of depleting cooking oil Malak was showing me, along with the cracks of a damaged ceiling or mess of leaking taps. Words also weren’t necessary when she showed me a piece of embroidered fabric she had made.
As soon as I saw this piece of fabric with its beautiful embroidered pattern, it reminded me again about meeting Sebra, the young girl in Northern Syria, and how it kick-started the first collective of artisans in TIght Knit Syria. I was quickly catching on to what Malak was telling me. Many women in the camp have these skills, she explained referring to embroidery, but there is no work or resources to do anything with them. Not knowing the words in Arabic to properly say “It’s funny that you mention that. I started a NFP called Tight Knit Syria that works with Syrian women who are displaced by connecting their products to the Canadian market….”.
Instead, I gave her a big smile, an enthusiastic nod, and a friendly handshake.
The Malak I grew to know over the following 3 years while working in Shatila refugee camp has come a long way from the woman who I met in 2015, whose life was torn to pieces by the conflict in Syria with little hope for the future. We watched her evolve into a fearless leader, inspiring a community of women who are doing everything they can to rebuild their livelihoods. In the same year, I also met Alexandra, who to this day is Tight Knit Syria’s program officer. Alexandra, who was spending some time from the Netherlands in Lebanon completing an internship, passionately joined Tight Knit Syria as soon as I told her what it was all about. Together, Malak, Alex, and I spent months and very long days building Tight Knit Syria’s Lebanon Collective from the ground up. Malak was a determined leader for Tight Knit Syria, and overcame many challenges side by side with us. We watched her mentor Johayna, the woman who would eventually fill her shoes as the new master artisan. And of course, she never stopped fighting for her family. In 2019, she received news that she and her family were accepted into the Canada Settlement Program. It was incredible news. Life outside the concrete walls of the Shatila refugee camp still felt like a distant dream. In September 2019 a plane ride made it all very real. Malak and her family now live in London, Ontario, only a couple hours away from where I was born and raised. Malak and her husband Arff have six incredible children, Nour, Manar, Farah (in the picture below), Muhammad, Mustafa and Ezeal, who unfortunately spent many of their childhood years fleeing war and surviving in the harsh environment of Shatila refugee camp. That’s why when I went to visit them for the first time a few months ago, it was quite a sight to see them all cheerfully one by one stepping off a big bright yellow school bus on a sunny day as Malak runs out from the entrance of her new home to go greet them at their stop, all while adjusting her bright pink hijab caught in warm and welcoming Canadian breeze.