I usually opt for fiction to gain understanding and empathy for topics that are far from my own experience, but sometimes I come across works of nonfiction that are just as moving. I found Homes to be especially powerful, perhaps because the story is told from the perspective of the boy who lived it.
In 2010, because of religious discrimination, Abu Bakr and his family (including 7 other children) moved from Iraq to Homs, Syria in hopes of a safer life. But it was not long after, when Abu Bakr was 10 years old, that civil war broke out on the streets around him, marking the beginning of his father’s attempts at moving his family again – this time with the help of the UN.
It wasn’t until the end of 2014 that the family was escorted to the airport and on to Canada, where they made their new home in Edmonton, Alberta.
Most of the book tells us of the family’s years in Homs, the unpredictability of the violence and the effects it had on Bakr as a child.
One thing I love about this book is that it shows how life can be good and bad at the same time; the terror of growing up in a war zone mixed with the joy of being with family or hanging out and playing soccer or video games with friends.
“I had a traumatic childhood, yes, but I also had a happy one.” ( The Alberta Teachers’ Association.)
Bakr also helps us to understand that coming to a new country – one that is going to be so great and wonderful and safe – is much harder than we might think. Everything is different, there is so much to learn and get used to; a new language, new schools, new people, new friends to make, and a homesickness for the country they have known and grew up in, despite the fact that it is no longer safe. And all the cousins and aunts and uncles left behind makes it even harder. There is homesickness, but also guilt about the fact that they made it out while others did not.
“Here, I am safe, but I am also terribly lonely. There are no bombs, but our path ahead is still uncertain. But, the beautiful thing about my life here is that I can imagine any future I want.”
This is one of the reasons Bakr felt compelled to tell his story. He wants people to know that their family is not defined by war. He had a traumatic childhood, but also a happy one. He witnessed car bombs, but he loved to play soccer. He had to start over again in a new country, but he has his family and his future.
“A lot of people treat us like … we don’t have anything, just war,” he said. “That’s why it was really important to me to tell the people, ‘No, we have a lot of things.’ ” (CBC)
When people in the West hear ‘Iraq’, they instantly think of Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War. But when I think about my home country, I remember the honey-drenched baklava my aunts gave me, the pinches on my cheeks, affectionate tickles under my chin, and coos of laughter.
In my twenty-six days in Canada, I had not heard or seen a single bomb or gun. There was no fighting, no war. I was glad to be here, to be safe. Some kind of impossible knot inside me had released but now, I was just a different kind of afraid. I had prayed so long for safety but now, I felt ungrateful and ashamed and I couldn’t help it. The backs of my eyes started to sting and I clenched my teeth because I didn’t want to start my new life with tears.
Soon after reading Homes, I read The Boat People. I knew it was about a boat full of refugees hoping to seek asylum in Canada, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I was going to find so many similarities between The Boat People and Homes.
I was struck by the similarities of the descriptions of violence and terror in both books; one a nonfiction book set in Syria, the other a novel partly set in Sri Lanka. Mahindan and his son are on their own in The Boat People, but their relationship and experiences reminded me of Bakr and his father. The difference? Bakr and his family arrived in Canada by way of the UN and the “proper” route of immigration. They were lucky to be able to travel to Damascus and apply for asylum in another country. Mahindan and the other 500 refugees that came to Canada in a boat were desperate – most of them had no other way out of their country. So they took a chance on being let into Canada.
Unfortunately, at the time, Canada was worried about being seen as soft, and the refugees were detained for many months and some were even sent back after hearing everyone’s claims, case by case. I found this process interesting to read about in The Boat People. Sharon Bala takes us through it from different perspectives; from the point of view of Mahindan, his son and the other refugees; from Priya, an law student whose parents are Tamil and immigrated to Canada before their children were born; and Grace, one of the adjudicators in the process, a Japanese-Canadian woman who has been influenced by a politician who would be happy to see the Boat turned around and sent back.
Grace’s perspective of the story fascinated me the most. Her job seemed impossible to me – having to make life and death decisions about people’s lives with very little (or no) evidence. I could see how easily influenced a person can be depending on their experiences and what they’ve been told going into a situation. In addition to the stress of her new job as adjudicator (one she didn’t seem entirely qualified for) and what she had been told by her political friend about not wanting to let terrorists into the country, Grace had her mother continually arguing that the Boat Peoples’ circumstances were no different than Grace’s grandparents’ as Japanese-Canadians during the war. And she couldn’t help but compare her own daughters’ comforts and privilege to the children from the Boat. I was deeply curious to find out how she would handle things as the story went on.
These girls had been born into a country at war, in a place where children were given guns and taught to fight, where girls strapped on explosives and turned their bodies into weapons. A place where ‘suicide bomber’ was the highest possible calling. They had lived unimaginable lives. While all the violence Meg and Brianne had ever known was confined to a video game.
Not long after the Tamil Boat People arrived in Canada in 2010 (the ones on which Sharon Bala’s novel is based), this article was written for the Literary Review of Canada, explaining The Rights of Refugees in Canada.
Refugees are not as big a problem now as they were in the war years, or in the years immediately after communism ended. But they have become a leading political and media issue in almost every western state, in large part because every country nowadays believes its system is too soft and it is therefore being taken for a sucker.