A stranger in a strange land appreciates the peace it brings

  • April 20, 2010
Iraq CanadaForced to flee from Iraq, a refugee recounted to Catholic Register editor Jim O’Leary the story of his family’s flight to Syria and start of new life in a Toronto suburb. Along with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law, he arrived in 2009 after being sponsored by a Toronto-area parish. To protect his children’s privacy, he requested his name be withheld.

Our family is blessed to be in Canada. We have received wonderful support and we hope some day we can pay everyone back.

In Baghdad, our situation became dangerous when the American war started in 2003. There were tanks in the streets and bombs and fighting.

Before the war, Christian families and Muslim families lived side by side. It was a mosaic of many cultures and religions that lived in harmony. But that ended when Saddam Hussein fell.

I didn’t know what to do. We were torn. You feel like you must leave for the safety of your family but, on the other hand, you are thinking: “This is my country. We can’t just run.” Then you realize peace is only a dream and the only way to escape that hell is to go to Syria or Jordan.

Rich families went to Jordan and the others went to Syria. But the Syrians took advantage of us. They increased the rent for apartments and prices for other things. We registered with the United Nations to get some aid, things like food, blankets, simple mattresses, etc. People older than 65 could  get 5,000 Syrian pounds (about $110) per month. But others had no money.

My family was there three years. It’s like being in prison. You get rubbish for food but you have to say it is wonderful or you fear they will cut you off. Iraqis can’t work legally. One Iraqi was allowed to invest in a restaurant. He did all the work to get it opened and then he was forced to close. He lost all his money. There is nothing he could do. If you complain, they say, “If you don’t like it, go back to Iraq.”

I graduated in 1980 from the University of Baghdad College of Science with a degree in physics. I joined the army during the war with Iran and was a soldier until 1985, then I worked as a teacher until 1995. But my first love was music. My dad was the same. He sang all the oldies — Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day. Every Christmas, music filled our house.  I opened my own music studio and started a new career as a music recorder, composer and singer.

I remember performing in a club one night — singing songs like “Oh Susanna” and “Blue Moon” — and some Americans and Germans were astonished to be hearing those songs in the middle of Baghdad.

I learned English as a boy by singing American oldies. Then I went to a high school run by American priests. I can still recite some passages of Shakespeare.

Still, language is the most difficult adjustment in Canada. We must wait another two months before my family can can enrol in English as second language courses. So, for now, I have to always be close by to translate when the phone rings or someone comes to the door, or to help my daughters with homework. Even for me, I make many mistakes and there are many things I don’t understand.

When I first got calls from telemarketers I was very confused. I thought it might be an important call from someone in the government. Finally, someone told me to just hang up, so that’s what I do.

For now, I have no job. We have no car and transportation is important. I am learning the buses but it is very confusing.

Canada is a completely different culture. We have been blessed with a nice home but our street is very quiet. In Baghdad there are many people on the street all the time. Here, it is quiet. No sounds of people, no trucks, no barking, no children. It is a 20-minute walk to the supermarket.

In Iraq we bought everything with cash. I never had a credit card or debit card. I have to learn these things.

The food here is much different. We miss fresh lamb, sweet apples and oranges and other fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market. In Baghdad, if someone cuts a cake you can smell it a block away.

It is difficult for my girls. The small one refused to go to school at first. She cried every morning. I told her she was lucky to be here but I don’t blame her for being sad. Since we left Iraq three years ago they have not had any friends. They are starting to learn English but it will take time. I sit with them for a half hour in the morning and watch cartoons and make comments so they will understand English.

The TV here is very different. And what you see on the streets is very different — men with earrings and everyone with tattoos. This is freedom — I understand. But in Baghdad it is very strict and you don’t have drugs and sex everywhere.

But Canada is beautiful because it is safe. There is no bombing, no killing, no kidnapping. We are lucky to be here and we pray for everyone who has helped us.

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