The arrival of a young Syrian immigrant triggered a flood of memories for my son Daniel. This is his story. Pic Cred: Susan Young de Biagi.
The day of December 11, 2015 began like most others, with me opening my Internet browser and looking at the day’s news. The first plane filled with Syrian refugees had landed in Toronto the day before. I was watching a video of a young girl being carried by her father as they emerged from the arrivals’ gate. While her father was focused on the cameras, the reporters, and our smiling Prime Minister, she was taking in these new surroundings. That’s when I was hit with a flood of memories and emotions, of a similar day when I was almost eight years old.
I was two when we moved to Colombia, so my earliest memories come from there. There’s a lot of baggage that comes from telling people you’re from Colombia: the war on drugs is the thing most people gravitate to. When I remember Colombia, I think of baseball practice, my Dad’s overly elaborate Halloween costumes, and 10-20 of our closest friends all piled into a truck for day trips into the countryside. I remember going out for ice cream, running around the neighborhood playing with friends, and getting yelled at by my teachers for talking in class. I also remember the frequent power outages, police check points, and poverty on a scale that we don’t have here in Canada. The good, the bad, the normal, the weird: that was my life. It was all normal to me and I loved it.
There were a number of reasons we left: Julian needed surgery, my Dad had to give up his job, and our country was transitioning from a little to a lot dangerous. It was a traumatic time for our family, most of which I was shielded from … well, a lot of it anyway.
The weeks leading up to our departure are the clearest in my mind. We’d visited Canada once or twice but it was never a real place to me: Canada was a distant land where all the best toys came from. There were a lot of hugs and tearful goodbyes but for me the big moment was when I went out to play G.I. Joes with a neighbourhood friend for the last time. Who was I going to play G.I. Joes or dinky cars with in Canada? Would I even make friends there? How? It was hard and I wanted to cry but I had to be brave, not just for my Mom and Dad, but for my brother Julian and baby sister Ariana. So as I picked out the toys I could take with me and headed to the airport, I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known.
Arriving in Canada was a surreal experience. Dad had stayed behind to wrap things up so it was just the four of us. I still remember the airport in our new home: Sydney, Nova Scotia. Wide eyed, I was taking in as much as I could, in a whole new light. The air smelled different: it was cold and drier, there was snow outside instead of palm trees, even the way in which people moved was different. Gone was the casual pace I’d grown up with. I was excited, nervous, scared, happy, sad. On the outside I was quiet and calm but on the inside I was all over the place.
My brother and sister were too young to understand what was happening or to remember the life they’d left behind. I wasn’t. As adults, we perceive time differently: a day is a day, a week is a week, a year is a year, and so on. When you’re a child, a day is a week, a week is a year, and a year is an inconceivably large amount of time. When we left Colombia, I’m sure my parents thought we’d go back to visit, maybe a few years later. Not a big deal. But to me, that life, those people, they were gone and they were gone forever.
The changes only came faster. Since we had left almost everything behind, we moved in with my Nana and Aunt Linda, both strangers to me. We had no cold-weather clothes so until we could get some I had to make do with poorly fitting jackets and rubber boots, along with strategically placed plastic bags to stay dry. School wasn’t easy: I could speak English but I couldn’t read or write so I was kept back a year at first. I tried to make friends, but a rumour had spread that my Dad, a marine biologist with a master’s degree, was a Colombian drug lord. I was bullied a lot for that and spent many recesses alone.
It seemed impossible at first, but things slowly changed. Summer came and I tried out for the little league baseball team. I was too young, but they let me join anyway on account of how good I was. (There are two sports in Colombia: soccer and baseball, I played baseball and I was damn good). I made a friend, then another, and another after that. Life started to feel normal again. It wasn’t easy: it took us a while to move into a house of our own, work was hard for Mom and Dad to come by, we moved a lot, we struggled, but we built a new life here — one that is ours and one that we’re proud of.
I don’t know how life will go for that wide-eyed little Syrian girl and her family. She came from a different place, under different circumstances. Her challenges and hardships will be different, as will her successes and triumphs. What wasn’t different though, was what she was feeling behind those eyes. It’s a feeling I will forever carry with me in these years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”