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They came to Canada as refugees. Now they’ve written the stories of the world they left behind — stories only they could tell


They came to Canada as refugees. Now they’ve written the stories of the world they left behind — stories only they could tell

Nissaba Hido can recall every detail from the day in grade school that she heard an explosion and everyone started running for cover.

She was in Al-Hasakah, and the Syrian war was escalating all around her.

There were blockades of the street and the neighbourhood as crying students waited for their parents to pick them up. A bomb had gone off at the nearby courthouse, where her lawyer father was working.

Every few minutes, the school principal would enter the class and yell the name of a student whose family had arrived to escort them home.

“I’m not scared,” Hido would say to everyone who tried to comfort her during the seemingly endless wait for her turn. She was picked up by uncle, and her father did survive the bombing.

The now-22-year-old got chills, she says, as she sat in her family apartment in Richmond Hill — her new home — reliving that day and trying to document it as an assignment for a writing workshop held weekly for Syrian newcomers.

“It was difficult for me to bring back those memories,” says Hido, whose family fled to Lebanon in 2015 and resettled in Canada under a private refugee sponsorship the following January.

“When we came here, we’re trying to start a new page of our life. We had to forget everything that happened just to start a new life.”

“As a kid, I was actually scared of everything around me,” she recalls. “I felt it again as I was writing. But after I wrote it down, I felt like I’m freed from it. I’m relieved.”

More than two years after she and others started the creative non-fiction writing workshop, they now hope their collection of short stories, tentatively named “Next Stop: Four Syrians Write Their Way to Canada,” will get the interest of a Canadian publisher.

“The book shows what this Syrian disruption did to ordinary people. These are people who were just living their lives, but suddenly they didn’t feel safe in their country. When you see their stories, you know why,” says University of Toronto professor Guy Allen, the workshop facilitator.

When Allen, who teaches professional writing and communications, was approached by the Syrian Canadian Foundation to volunteer for a writing workshop in 2018, he had no idea what to expect.

However, he was immediately impressed by stories submitted by the dozen participants, who had attended the two-hour workshop at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education every Saturday until last March when the city went into lockdown.

In the windowless room, the newcomers would sit in a circle and read their stories out loud to one another. Allen would share with them writing techniques about plotting, voices, perspectives and even grammar. Each week, participants were assigned a topic — their favourite people, places, food, events, their childhood, their home — and had to return with a story the following week.

Their story collection takes readers to Syria as it existed before the uprising in 2011 and shows the war trauma and upheaval that they and others have experienced. The stories tell of their dangerous and uncertain escapes, as well as the obstacles they faced settling in Canada.

These stories have a special resonance for Allen, who himself sought refuge in Canada from imprisonment as a Vietnam War draft-dodger in the United States in 1970.

“I love Canada for taking me in and I have empathy in their situation,” says Allen. “Writing has a transformative ability to take some of life’s worst experiences and turn them into good experiences.”

Hido is part of a core of four writers in the workshop who have been with the group for the longest time and contributed to the collection of 25 short stories.

As a child, Hido says, she loved writing prose but never shared it with anyone, not even her family. She stopped writing for a long time during the war and while her life was in transition. When she joined the workshop through a posting on Facebook, she says, she discovered the healing power of writing.

“I wasn’t an open person before I started the workshop. I wouldn’t share any of these experiences and feelings with other people,” says Hido, who majors in human rights and equity studies at York University and works part-time at an animal-care clinic.

“This is a good way to have people listen to you and validate your emotions and experience. We all witnessed and went through all these things back home, and we try to encourage and inspire each other.”

Yazan Alhajali, another writer, says it’s difficult to commit to sharing and writing because one needs to confront their own past and expose their inner-self in the process.

Growing up in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, Alhajali fled to Turkey in 2012 and worked with international agencies to support the people in Syria before he resettled initially by a private sponsorship group in Woodstock, N.B., in 2017.

He says he struggled with his first story, “Black Screen People,” about how protesters post black profile photos on Facebook to mark the silent funerals.

“Some of the stories were deeply personal. They talk about our families, our partners. You’re exposing a lot of things about yourself for the first time,” says Alhajali, 33, who studied Japanese literature in Damascus and recently finished a master’s degree in professional communications at Ryerson University.

“The society is very judgmental and the culture is judgmental. You feel judged when you share your vulnerability and weakness.”

Alhajali recalled seeing the hundreds of thousands of protesters against the Syrian regime who “fuse like water drops that flow in streets like rivers” shouting words “we could only whisper before — ‘Freedom,’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Dignity.’”

“The story shows the state of fear and helplessness in such a situation that you can’t do anything and death is everywhere. You are scared and you try to find courage in little things,” says Alhajali, who now works in the not-for-profit sector helping refugees.

“It shows in small details how you hesitate to talk to another person, and the darkness and silence prevails. The book is not a history of events that happened but personal stories.”

Despite the horrific memories, somehow Alhajali managed to infuse the characteristic Syrian dark humour in the story.

“Soldiers at checkpoints hear that the protesters use ‘Facebook’ to conspire, but they don’t know what Facebook is, and they look for ‘Facebook’ in backpacks and car trunks,” he writes.

At times, Alhajali says, it’s challenging to express details in English and paint the scenes for readers such as describing how a hand is positioned in holding a spoon or finding the technical terms in his second language. Allen and editor John Dunford were instrumental in helping him plot his stories and overcoming those barriers, he says.

“I enjoy the sharing and writing, seeing how a story ends when you put your soul on the paper, share it and see the reaction of people. I wanted people to know more about Syria but not how it’s defined by the media,” he says.

“People who come here are not refugees only. They are not victims only. People have stories. They have lives. I wanted to show that it’s like other places where people live, things happen. We’re not all just victims.”

Unlike Hido and Alhajali, Doha Rehtnem, who has a degree in economics from Damascus University, says she did not enjoy writing at all — not even in Arabic — but the opportunity to use the workshop to improve her English skills was appealing to her.

The workshop surprisingly helped uncover a storytelling side she didn’t know she had.

“Expressive writing is amazing,” says the 29-year-old Sweida native, who fled Syria in 2015 and was sponsored to Canada under a private sponsorship via Lebanon a year later.

“I never thought I would be able to write a story about the incidents that happened to me. It helped me a lot to get it out of my system, out of what’s inside me.”

It took a lot of discipline and self-motivation for Rehtnem to show up at the workshop every week while working full time as an accountant and struggling to reunite with her husband, who was still stuck in Lebanon awaiting his papers to come to Canada.

With her mind always on her separated spouse, Rehtnem decided to write about his farewell and flight from Syria, which became “Escape Tour,” one of the stories in the collection. She says emotions started pouring out from her pen onto the paper, and she started crying sitting in front of her desk.

Her then-fiancé deserted the military service and was stopped at a checkpoint without a civilian ID. Somehow, he made it through to the Syria-Lebanon border, where he and other refugees must hike through the mountains and dodge Lebanese border patrols. He tripped many times and fell behind his smuggler and the pack.

“He loses track of the men. He screams into the darkness. No response. His legs collapse out from under him. He rests his head on a rock. He won’t be able to find his way without the two men. ‘Promise to keep me safe and promise I will make it,’” Rehtnem writes.

That’s when he pulled out Rehtnem’s photo in his pocket, before he ultimately caught up with the others on his shaky legs.

“I wanted to show people if they have determination, they can get to where they want to be no matter how many obstacles there are. Love helps us fight and keeps us going,” says Rehtnem, whose husband finally joined her last March, just before the pandemic closed Canada’s borders.

And it was that same resilience among the writers that helped the book project prevail. In the making of the book, concerns were raised about whether the stories would get the writers themselves and their characters back home into trouble.

A health scare Allen had also threatened to end the project before the lockdown stalled the process.

For Dima Aboukheir, she also had to struggle to find her footing in her adopted country, taking part in a bridging program full-time to restart her career in public relations and communications in Canada while caring for her seven-year-old daughter and six-year-old son.

“Everything was hard. My two kids were babies and it’s a lot of responsibilities,” says Aboukheir, who immigrated to Canada via Dubai in 2017 with her architect husband under the skilled immigration program.

“I applied (unsuccessfully) for jobs and felt really down. I lost my identity and I felt I failed.”

The writing project has lifted her up.

In one of her first stories, the 39-year-old told of a trip she took alone to the United States from Dubai to give birth to her daughter while her homeland was in crisis, so the girl would have a backup country to go to if there were no end to Syria’s war. (Birth in the United Arab Emirates does not confer citizenship.)

She was sent to secondary inspection at the airport, where she was interrogated by the officers about the purpose of her trip and her pregnancy. She insisted she was there only to see her aunt.

“If we find out you’re lying, we will find you,” an Arabic officer warned her.

Aboukheir says she can remember every detail of her encounter at the airport and will never forget the fear she experienced.

“I wrote ‘The Passport’ because it reminded me how we, as parents, always try to make life better for our children so they won’t suffer. It shows parents think for their kids even before they come to life,” she says. “No one can write your story better than you.”

That sentiment is also displayed in her story, “New Birth,” about her daughter’s first birthday in Canada. To make little Sarah not to feel alone, Aboukheir baked a cake and held a birthday party in a local park, inviting everyone there to the celebration. They were also joined by their family from Syria on Skype.

The book ends with Hido’s story, “Next Stop,” about how a city bus becomes “a home on wheels” where she feels she belongs as people of all colour and ages on the bus embrace her every morning on her way to school.

It’s also Hido’s favourite story because it speaks to the journey every migrant experiences as they search for a sense of belonging.

“This book is a collection of personal experiences about how the little things that happen in our lives change us completely. All four of us come from different parts of Syria. Each has a different point of views of what happened whether it’s about the civil war or the resettlement here,” said Hido.

“It’s not a documentary. It’s not about statistics. It’s about our personal experiences and voices that everyone can relate to.”

What follows are excerpts from the stories they’ve written.

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“Idiot Giraffe” by Doha Rehtnem

“The idiot giraffe is coming to our school,” I whisper to Sahar, referring to President Bashar Assad’s long neck. “How lucky we are.”

Sahar giggles. “That sounds like a great title for a poem,” she says.

The English teacher, Miss Nadia, arrives. Miss Mayada leaves. The lesson starts. Fifteen minutes later, Maya and Dina ask to go to the washroom.

“Class just started,” Miss Nadia says.

“Please, Miss. We’ll be quick.”

“Okay, go. But don’t be late getting back.”

Sahar looks over to me. “Something wrong, huh?” she whispers.

Five minutes later, Miss Mayada enters the classroom without knocking and stares at me with a frown. “You. Come here right now,” she says.

“What’s wrong? Why do you need Doha right now? Can’t it wait until we finish the lesson?” Miss Nadia says.

“Definitely not! The issue is serious and confidential. Doha must come with me right now,” Miss Mayada responds.

“It seems like I killed someone, Miss,” I say.

Miss Mayada slaps me in the face.

“How dare you?” I say.

“How dare I? You pretend you don’t know what you’ve done? Don’t waste my time. Come right now. The secretary will call your parents.”

I follow her to the principal’s office filled with anger and a red mark on my face. I want to kick her ass. Her assistant, Mr. Ziad, a friend of my dad’s, sits in the room with two other teachers. Mr. Ziad will help me, I think.

“Tell us what happened. Is it true you said those bad words?” he says.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know why Miss Mayada dragged me here,” I say.

Miss Mayada jumps out of her chair. “You’re guilty and you should admit your sins. Stop lying.”

“Miss Mayada, could you please calm down? I need to hear from Doha. This may be a misunderstanding,” Mr. Ziad says and looks at me. “Doha, is it true? Did you say bad words about the president?”

My eyes widen. My hands shake. I’m in big trouble. I thought of a hundred different scenarios in the previous year but I never thought about a spy in my grade five class. I should have been more careful, especially considering the two girls sitting behind me come from Qurdaha, the president’s hometown.

“Her Room” by Yazan Alhajali

I stare at Laila through the open window as she snuggles in the back seat of the minibus.

Her face glows in the dim red interior light. I stand outside smoking a cigarette since the minibus won’t leave until the seats are full. Laila stares back at me. “Do you want to come over? Mom’s visiting her family in Idlib. Noma’s at home. She won’t mind, I think,” she says.

“Are you serious?” I say.

Laila lives with her mother and older sister, Noma. Her father moved out after her parents divorced. “If you want to, you can come over. But we have to wake up early. I have to help Hala with her graduation project,” she says.

“Please!” I say.

Laila grabs her phone and calls Noma. I stretch my neck inside the window and kiss her cheek. She pushes my face back outside and slams the window shut. I turn to the street and light another cigarette.

We’re at the Syrian Arab News Agency intersection. The agency’s blue and white tower stands across from Damascus University’s colleges of law and engineering and across from the hospital where Laila was born. Traffic jams the street. Soldiers at a checkpoint stop all vehicles and inspect IDs.

At the entrance of the agency building, two security men slouch on white plastic chairs with their AK-47s leaning against a wall behind them. They spray “Assad or we burn the country!” on a fence. A black tea kettle, a pack of Hamra cigarettes, a pack of yerba maté, an empty sugar bowl and a walkie-talkie crams an overturned cracked wooden crate in front of them. Protests against the Syrian dictatorship sparked in March 2011. Protestors shouted “down with Assad!” The government responded by ordering the military and security branches to surround the armless citizens. “Assad or we burn the country!” the soldiers shouted.

Laila opens the bus window and waves her hand. “Come inside,” she says.

I hop in and slide in the seat between her and a bald man.

“What did Noma say? Does she mind?” I sneak my hand to Laila’s lap and hold hers.

“She was very welcoming. She doesn’t mind at all. I think she likes you,” Laila says.

A man sits down in the last seat. A woman next to him, wearing a navy head scarf, slides closer to the window. The driver sips the remaining tea in his cup and adjusts the pillow behind his back. Then he lights a cigarette and signals with his arm out the window that he intends to pull out and merge. A cool breeze sweeps in through the open windows. Laila touches my arm and whispers, “Goosebumps.” A man sitting behind the driver collects fairs. Each passenger passes him five pounds. He collects, counts, returns change and then stretches to hand the money to the driver. With one hand on the wheel, the driver grabs the money and then recounts the coins and tosses them in the car ashtray. The bus jiggles on the bumpy asphalt. The bald passenger next to me gazes out the window. He elbows me as he scratches his waist. A woman in front of me rests her head on her palm and closes her eyes.

“One Answer” by Nissaba Hido

I retreat to my bedroom, the only asylum in the house, to think. If true, it means ISIS is only forty kilometres away from us. What if they attack the city? Where will we go? What will happen to us? Four families crowd our apartment with barely any room to breathe. I can hear the twins whimper, wishing they could go home.

At around one in the morning, Dad returns. I lie awake. I need to know what happened to all the people forced to leave their homes. I hear Dad say that residents have opened their homes to displaced people, making sure no one remains on the streets, and that churches and mosques have opened to welcome them too.

“We can’t stay here anymore. It isn’t safe. We will wait until we find places for the families here and then you, Nissaba and Nishen must go to Lebanon,” Dad whispers to Mom as everyone sleeps.

“What about you?” Mom says.

“I can’t leave now. I will come later.”

We all stay in our house because we have no other choice. The situation lasts for two weeks. Although Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians, Kurds and Yazidis lived in Hasakah for decades, the Assad government recognized only one ethnic group, Arabs, and imposed Arab culture on the rest of us. Then the government withdrew from Hasakah and covertly supported a movement to establish a Kurdish state and courts. When ISIS attacked Assyrian villages, Assyrians formed a militia group, the Khabur Guards, to fight them, especially in the town of Tal Tamir, but without sufficient weapons it was unsuccessful. The Assad government used the ISIS attack to try and weaken Assyrian presence in the region because we were neutral in the Syrian civil war. It tried turning ethnic group against ethnic group, fomenting hostilities among each group by manipulating the ISIS attack to deliver the stark warning that those who don’t support the Assad regime will be left on their own to fight ISIS and other Muslim fundamentalist groups.

Mom looks out the van window at our apartment building in Hasakah for the last time.

Tears stream down her face. She tries to commit every corner of the street to memory, right down to the convenience store. “Even if I do come back to this street one day, nothing will be the same, everything will be different,” she says. “New people will fill the place of the people who left, buildings will be damaged by the bombings and the shootings. Nissaba, even this will not be our home anymore.”

My room, my bed, my desk — mine no more. Our home, whose every creak and corner I know so well — ours no more.

As the van drives further from our apartment building, I start to think of school. I’m supposed to prepare for grade twelve. I remember my friends back at Mwahda High School — George, Freddy, Marina and Orshina. I’m not sure how long I will stay in Lebanon. I will be a refugee and I don’t know if I will be allowed to continue my education there. The future remains unknown for me and my family. I sit in the back seat of the van with my little brother, Nishen.

He puts his head on my shoulder. “At least there’s no bombing in Lebanon, right?” he whispers.

On April 9, 2015, we moved to Lebanon with Hidra’s family. From there, a church in Canada privately sponsored us as refugees. My family didn’t consciously make the decision. Truth is there was no choice and only one answer — Canada.

“My Real Copy” by Dima Aboukheir

A month after landing in Toronto, I finally decide to go out. I didn’t stay home because I don’t like going out. I just didn’t want to know what was going on out there. I didn’t know if I wanted to start all over again.

I dress for the cold weather — black coat, pink scarf and hat — and google “English-language schools” as I stand in front of my apartment building. I feel happier now. I made a first step.

Enhancing my English language skills is the key. After all, I’m starting from zero in Canada.

Zero friends. Zero experience. Zero knowledge. Zero memories. You need time to make friends.

To build memories. To belong.

“Let me start with anything. Anything I do now will be help in the future,” I tell myself.

I walk around the apartment building for a bit, then cross the street and walk along a boulevard until I reach the corner. “Oh, a Food Basics,” I say to no one. I walk a bit more. “Oh, a daycare. Lucky me.” I walk some more and recognize a transit station. It’s near Jones School. I see a man standing near the entrance. I think I know him. I know that man! He looks just like someone I know. I should recognize him. I’ve known him all my life.

“Papa! Papa!” I say and put my hand on his shoulder.

He turns to me. “Are you crazy?” he says.

The look on his face forces me back to reality.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

I’m here in Canada very far from my home and the people I love, I think to myself. It isn’t just the physical distance between us, though — there’s the eight hours’ time zone difference between Canada and Syria. When I start my day, their day finishes. When I wake up, they’re ready for bed. We can’t communicate in any simple detail.

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