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June 26, 2018

Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah

When I think back to Fall 2015, I can’t help but cringe. It was an awful time, absolutely shameful, when a deranged man with a gun attacked the Canadian parliament during the most awful Canadian election I can remember, when Ministers were announcing “barbaric practices hotline” and simply throwing up their hands when the body of a child washed up on a Turkish beach, one of so many migrants who’ve been drowned. People kept hearkening back to the response of Canadians to the Vietnamese refugee crisis, and wondering if some fundamental morality was missing from us now, or perhaps we’d all been overtaken by inertia. It was the worst of times—it just was. And then something shifted.

With the election of a Liberal Government that October, Canada’s hard policies toward refugees was eased, and families started arriving. Suddenly everyone I knew was sponsoring a Syrian family, or tutoring them in English, and families joined our school community, became my children’s classmates. It’s been an incredible story, albeit not a straightforward one, but what human stories ever are? Did you read the one about the chocolate company founded by a Syrian refugee and their Pride-themed chocolate bars? Remember when Chris Alexander blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on the CBC? Oh my goodness, I do not miss that guy one single bit.

I will note that Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah and his family arrived in Canada in late 2014, one of the lucky few that were permitted when Canada was being pretty stingy with welcomes. And that his is just a single story standing for many, but still, it’s a remarkable thing to hear a refugee story from a Syrian point of view. Homes: A Refugee Story, as told to Winnie Yeung, who was Bakr’s teacher at his Edmonton high school. He wanted to share his story, he told her, to honour his experiences, so much loss, the friends and family he’d said goodbye to when he left his home. And so together they created this book, which is categorized as a work of creative-nonfiction, Yeung writing in Bakr’s voice, with information gleaned from interviews with his family.

Together, they tell the story of Bakr’s early childhood, born in Iraq: “It wasn’t always like this. My life wasn’t always like a scene from Call of Duty or Counter Strike.” He remembers delicious food, being surrounded by family. But eventually it becomes very difficult to be a Sunni Muslim in Baserah, where they lived, and after a cousin’s body is found in a dumpster, the family decides to leave. In 2010, they received visas to relocate to Homs in Syria where they already had family, and a twenty-four hour bus ride leads them to their new home.

Soon after arriving, the family apples for refugee status—Bakr’s father suspects that Syria will not be any safer than Iraq, and his suspicions prove prescient with the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011, which would come to throw Syria into its bloody civil war. The first sign is an attack on the mosque where Bakr and his family are praying, and this first time the response is disbelief—could they be being shot at? But eventually they’d become numb to the violence, accustomed to the sound of gunfire and explosions—though never to the terror of being approached by government thugs in the street. But even still, life goes on. Bakr’s father tells him: “Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Even life doesn’t matter, son. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. We love each other, hard, and hold on tight. What we face, we face together. Together we can move forward and every little happiness we can have, we enjoy. We cannot let hatred and fear stop us from living.”

This is a story about an ordinary childhood against an extraordinary backdrop—eventually the schools close, the field where Bakr and his friends play soccer is overtaken by snipers, Bakr witnesses his first massacre, and then another one—what kind of a childhood is that? But then the family wins the lottery (literally) and receives permission to travel and make a new home in Canada. It’s such a long way from there to here, but Bakr (and Yeung) are so generous in sharing the journey.

  • This book nicely complements Ausma Zehanat Khan’s A Dangerous Crossing, a gripping novel about the plight and trauma of Syrian refugees that similarly brings the story of this brutal war to life.


One thought on “Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah”

  1. Also in late 2014 (or maybe it was 2015) we also received an Iraqi family who arrived in Lille, France. Mother, father and 4 kids. It was difficult for them at first, but they slowly adapted. Free French lessons are offered at each municipal town hall around the country, so the parents went. The kids, of course, learned French a lot quicker at school. Flash-forward 3 or 4 years and they’re all fluent in French, the kids are doing well at school, and the mother (who’s a computer engineer) is enrolled at university to get her master’s degree. It’s a real success story.

    However France and other countries need to step up and receive more refugees.

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