Opinion
4 min

The fear, guilt and promise of seeking refuge in Canada

Lessons learned two years into living in Vancouver

On Sept 9, 2016, I marked my two-year anniversary in Canada or, as I like to call it, my Canaversary.

Last year at this time I was still taking my first steps to establish myself here, trying to understand my place in this great nation I immigrated to without prior knowledge of its culture or customs. I was also still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and dealing with a lot of social anxiety.

This year, I look at where I am and I realize the privilege I have: a good job I adore, a public image I’m proud of, a novel on its way to being published soon, and a bright future I’m looking forward to. I’m proud that I am not aimlessly wasting my privilege but am instead using it to push for others to find the same safety, security and prosperity that I have found here.

As I prepare to celebrate my second Canaversary, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far along the way.

I’m going to miss home, and that’s totally okay.

During my first year here in Canada, I remember missing home yet feeling ashamed about it.

Missing the country that kicked me out and filled my life with homophobia seemed ungrateful to the country that took me in. It felt wrong to miss a place being destroyed by war and terror.

I remember one night in the winter of 2014, sitting at home on the outskirts of Vancouver, drinking a beer and watching my only friend (Netflix), and missing my days back in Beirut and Damascus.

I felt like I couldn’t tell the people who had worked so hard to bring me here that I was missing home. “I should be grateful I am here,” I kept telling myself. “I should be thankful. I should be appreciative.”

But the truth is we are complex creatures: we can feel multiple, conflicting feelings at the same time. The best way to deal with these feelings is to realize that it’s okay to have them.

Syria, my birthplace, is not just the ruins you see on the news. It’s the place where I grew up, where my memories are planted, where my friends and I stayed up too late for our own good and watched the sunrise together, shoulder to shoulder.

Canada, my home now, is the place that opened its arms to me and welcomed me. It’s the place that accepted me for my true identity as a queer man, and celebrated for my lived experiences and my hard work.

It’s totally fine to love both equally. It’s totally okay, in my books, for every refugee to look their window, see the sunrise and miss home.

I’m not in danger anymore, I should take a deep breath

There is a level of stress experienced by most LGBT people living in countries where homophobia and transphobia is the norm. It haunts us growing up, follows us to school and work, joins us on sports fields and in public parks, gazes at us from the corners of the parties we attend, and sneaks up on us from the shadows as we walk home alone.

When we come to Canada, we don’t leave that stress behind. It has been growing within us for as long as we can remember; it has become second nature to us.

That’s the core of the culture shock some refugees feel: it’s not the different ways of living, it’s the fact that we grew up programmed to be on a certain edge and now — when we don’t need it anymore — it nonetheless remains part of us.

That’s why I have to remind myself at all times to breathe: to think positively, to reprogram my ways of living and my daily attitude, to welcome rather than fear the gaze of strangers.

Mike Carter/DailyXtra

At the same time I need to appreciate that stress and accept it — it saved my life many times in the past, and allowed me to survive.

It also helped me stand on my own two feet when I got here. It kept me alert to the world around me, and supported me to reach the place I’m in now.

That stress is my friend. It was overprotective for a while but I’m learning to tame it now — to be able to keep it around but calm its nerves.

I’m safe. Deep breath. I’m safe.

I’m privileged and here’s what I should do with it

I’m privileged with the life I now lead: I’m out of the closet, unafraid to speak my truth, and celebrated and recognized for who I am.

I’m privileged to be surrounded by beautiful people who support every step I take, and stand by my side in every step of the way.

And I’m privileged to get the chance to pay that privilege forward.

A year ago, to celebrate my first Canaversary, I launched a campaign to sponsor my lesbian friend taking refuge from Syria in Turkey in collaboration with Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee Committee. Today, after a lot of hard work and the support of so many people, my friend has her arrival date: she will be arriving in Vancouver before the end of September; not only her but her sister too, who we included in the sponsorship.

I’m privileged that I was among 12 other sponsors who came together to support these two women. I’m privileged to have been welcomed by Rainbow Refugee, which collaborated on sponsoring these women. I’m thankful for the money we raised from 140 people who attended an event I held to support the sisters’ application in September 2015. I’m privileged that 80 people believed in me enough to send me cheques to support these two women, and I’m privileged to have hundreds of Facebook friends who made it their mission to spread the word about my efforts.

Today, I feel honoured to be here in Canada. I’m part of a beautiful community and I feel thankful for the privileges I have by being here.

Soon I’m going to watch a sunrise, and it will be shoulder by shoulder with all of those people who are now so important to me. But it will also be with these two women who carry the scent of our birthplace, Syria, with them.

Here is to a 100 more years here in Canada, and to a 1,000 more refugees to join us here, and call this place home.