When I was a child, my parents would read to me from a book about a village in the high mountains, covered in snow, with wooden cabins. It was a place where everyone smiled at everyone else, where you can read the love in people’s eyes—and feel it, too. A peaceful, quiet place. Some days I feel like I am living in the pages of that book.
Hassan in snowy Whistler Village
A Christmas to remember
They didn’t provide anything to drink, and I love coffee, so every day I tried to persuade (a.k.a. bribe) one of the members of the airport cleaning staff to bring me a coffee. The staff member didn’t speak any English, so to break through the language barrier, I downloaded the Starbucks logo, sent it to them on WhatsApp, showed them the shop’s location on Google Maps and then texted the kind of coffee I wanted. They would go out into the main terminal, look for the logo and show my order to the barista. The whole process could take up to four hours for a single cup of coffee. Sometimes I would ask them to get me food from McDonalds. It was so difficult to explain things to them that I ended up ordering the same McDonalds meal the entire time I was there. But even that was better than what we were given in the detention centre. We got cold tea in plastic bags! Now that I am in Whistler and I am able to cook for myself, it is about much more than simply preparing food. It is an act that confirms my status as a free person once again. Thank goodness Laurie and her family love eating what I cook.
People often think that those who have survived through difficult circumstances are somehow better than they are. They assume we have never made mistakes in our life, that we don’t know fear. They call us heroes. In truth, we are people who have made many mistakes and have felt more fear than most. I still live in fear—although it is a different type of fear. I am afraid of forgetting the people who still need help. I am afraid of disappointing those people who have believed in me and supported me. I am afraid because I thought reaching Canada would be the end of my story, but it is really just a new beginning, with much bigger responsibilities this time. I lived in fear for so long that I find it difficult to enjoy each day. I am haunted by the faces of the people I have met over the years who were only searching for safety and a chance to love and be loved.
In life, we have dreams, we have aims and we have goals. But dreams are not meant to come true; that is why we call them dreams and why they are usually consigned to childhood. But being in Whistler, after years of being homeless, illegal, jobless, on the run, and in hiding; after seven months of sleeping in an airport chair, listening to the endless flight announcements, hiding myself under an escalator just to avoid the stares or constant questions, all of that made me realize that I was wrong. Dreams can come true. You may be able to live your fairytale story, but you will never be able to run from your past or who you are or what you are meant to be. Destiny, some call it.
Now everything is starting to make sense again. I didn’t go through everything I did because I am a bad person. Everything that happened to me has led to a new path in life. I believe I have a special role to play by continuing to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrian people, and of refugees everywhere. So when you start questioning yourself and wondering why certain things have happened, remember that the time will come when it begins to make perfect sense.
Photos by Hassan Al Kontar