Hear their Stories: Welcoming and Understanding Refugees

By Lamees Al Ethari, PhD, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature.
Watching Syrian refugees arrive in Canada these past few weeks has ignited memories of displacement and migration for me and my family. I am not a refugee. I have not been stranded in UN camps that provided the basic needs for human survival. I have, however, lived through the traumatic experience of war and displacement. I have stood for hours at the borders of neighboring countries and pleaded with officers as they rummaged through my clothes and threatened to send me back on the long, dangerous route to Baghdad that seemed to never end.
As an Iraqi, I lived through both Gulf Wars and was forced in 2006 to find some way out of the country in order to escape the constantly rising violence and instability that plagued Iraq. We left Baghdad with three suitcases of our belongings and a prayer for better days to come. The experiences of trauma and displacement were not issues that we easily overcame or dealt with. At times, I feel that I can still smell the scents of morning as I wake up at my grandfather’s home surrounded by family. At times, I am jolted awake by memories of American troops raiding our streets. I am always burdened by mixed feelings of unquenchable longing for a home that is no longer there and a life that has dissolved in the midst of conflict, fear and hate. 
I do not believe we will ever fully recover from that experience; however, through supporting each other and finding support in the communities that surrounded us, we were able to focus on moving forward and constructing a new sense of belonging and identity here in Canada. We have learned to establish a home and a way of life that integrates our culture and our beliefs with the diverse cultures and beliefs of those around us here in Kitchener-Waterloo.
The excitement and interest surrounding the arrival of Syrian refugees that I have witnessed in the past couple of months is heartwarming. People in our communities are doing their best to support the cause both here and abroad. However, as the excitement recedes, we have to acknowledge some issues when we deal with these families and individuals. While there is no formula to follow when dealing with people in such traumatic situations, we can still keep in mind some of the following points:
  1. First and foremost, remember that these people may have suffered the loss of family members and friends, the loss of traditions and culture, and of course the loss of home. They are struggling with accepting this loss and are most likely traumatized.
  2. The whole concept of a new “home” is in itself traumatizing. Trying to adjust to new weather conditions, new positions in society, and a new sense of identity is not an easy shift. That little hyphen (Arab or Syrian-Canadian) is heavy with issues of confusion, acceptance and belonging.
  3. Although everyone thinks about the topic of language, not many focus on its ability to create a strong sense of isolation. The inability to express certain emotions or certain concepts because they cannot be translated is very difficult. The language barrier plays a major role in leading people to avoid socializing and adjusting.
  4. Canadian and Middle Eastern cultures are different, but that does not mean that these people have been isolated from the world. Arab culture and Arab media have evolved greatly in the past few years and people have come to accept many aspects of Western culture.
  5. That said, however, many families still hold to strict cultural and religious ideologies because they were raised within societies that enforced them. The idea is to accept who they are, not change them.
  6. The process of adjustment will take time. That sense of gratefulness may not easily surface because there is so much to take in during this move to resettle and adjust.

The most important thing is to listen. Each of these individuals is unique and each one of these Syrians has a personal narrative that tells a story of a journey, of loss and of trying to find content within the safe borders of a new home.

On March 15 at the Kitchener Public Library (7–9 pm), Lamees will participate on a Faculty of Arts panel addressing global and local perspectives on the Syrian and other refugee crises.

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