Recently, I was sitting beside a thirteen-year-old Syrian refugee, Fatima, when she nudged me and mumbled she maybe wanted her photo removed from a story I'd written on her.
Shocked, I responded that I'd see what I could do. I looked at her father, Bassam, wondering if my story about her had brought negative attention, or violated a cultural code that I hadn't been aware of.
Her father started lecturing her in Arabic, and she pouted.
"I can try to remove the photo. Was there something wrong? Was it against the rules?"
Fatima grumbled something in Arabic, and her friend, a slightly older Syrian refugee, broke out in laughter.
"No, she's telling you she wants her photo replaced because she's a lot prettier than that!"
We all share a laugh, reflecting that teenage girls are teenage girls, no matter what the culture.
Earlier this year, when I was given the opportunity to report on Syrian refugees, I was moved by the significance of telling their stories.
I mostly report on things without expressing my own views or personal observations. But this week, National Observer's founding editor-in-chief, Linda, asked me why I want to tell their stories, and deep at the core it comes down to this.
I'm not a religious person, but in the broadest sense, I believe things and people come into this world for a purpose. Everyone has unique gifts, unique personalities, qualities to express and contribute to the world.
And with the Syrian refugee crisis, as with any similar crisis, there's an overwhelming destruction of human potential and purpose. I look at the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face-down on the beach and think, whatever else he was born for, it couldn't have been that. What could we have done better? It's the same feeling with all of the stories in National Observer, whether it be about cruelty on fur farms, or about decimated natural landscapes, about tragic accidents. Life is unknowable but at a basic level, we tell stories to develop empathy and learn how to respond better next time. It may take hundreds of attempts to get something right, but progress is made along the way.
Unlike natural disasters, individuals have a say on how some stories turn out.
The Syrian refugees who have made it to Canada are the embodiment of a second chance. The outcome of their story is yet undetermined, and they come full of potential. But like anything big, it's a collective effort; no refugee, no matter how talented or driven, can make it in a new country alone, and whether they succeed or fail has much to do with the environment they live in. The Syrian refugees' story isn't just about them, but also about everyday heroes in Canada who help them succeed.
I see children like Mariana and Yusra Sua'ifan, their incredible maturity at such a young age, and their siblings, the inquisitive Yousef and mischievous Mohammad, the deeply sensitive Rahaf. I see the immense joy that baby Karam, who nearly died en route to Canada, brings to his family simply by existing. I see ambition in Fatima, who prides herself on straight-A grades and studied by herself in the camps. I see decent, kind children like Uday Al Hamdan, who schooled me on his favourite Bollywood hit movies and made sure to clean up the mess caused by his younger siblings before letting guests in the washroom. There was Amal and Ahmed Shukr, who told me they just want the best life possible for their non-verbal daughter, and seemed to speak an invisible language with her that only parents can understand.
I see the incredible determination of fathers like Ali Barsan, who was forced to quit school and enter construction work at age 12, put his brothers through college, supported his wife through cancer, and immediately found work within the first month of arriving in Canada. I remember the moment he excused himself from an interview, overcome with tears, the first time we talked about his family, and how he broke into sobs again the second meeting, remembering his parents in Aleppo. His tearful laughter after sharing a joke with a translator, and the long, silent embrace he gave his daughter, while picking her up from daycare. Even though he endured many injustices, they never hardened his heart. There's much to learn from people like him.
Especially because we're living in an age of normalizing prejudice and resentment toward outsiders, stories about Syrian refugees, and refugees in general, are needed more than ever. Anyone who has ever experienced racism knows the frustration of being targeted over things that literally can't be changed, like skin colour, ethnicity, or first language. These experiences can truly distort a person's relationship with others through a lifetime, so it's especially crucial how we treat newcomers now. Not a single one of the refugees I've met can be reduced to a stereotype, and no one knows how they may contribute. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Edith Piaf was the daughter of a Moroccan artist. There are so many countless other 'great' individuals whose origins might surprise us.
They're here today. Now the question is how we get along in this shared space. On a bigger level, this is the challenge we've had all along, and our own survival depends on it.
Nobody knows how these Syrian refugees' lives will turn out, especially the children. Their stories are just beginning, and have already been affected by tragedy. It's up to all of us now how the rest of their story will unfold.