I was a "refugee", once. In the spring of 2011, I was living with my husband and three children in Damascus, Syria. Since 2009, I had been the head of the political section in the Canadian Embassy. We lived in a comfortable neighbourhood a few blocks south of downtown, filled with low-rises, small shops, bordering a cactus field and the highway to Lebanon. I spent my days reporting on the political situation in Syria - covering everything from the pervasive drought in the northeast, the First Lady's attempts to open a children's museum, and the trials of political dissidents. Our daughter was born on a scorching hot night at the venerable French Hospital, while the older children went to school and took swimming lessons. It was home, despite all the differences between Damascus and Hubbards, Nova Scotia.
That spring, there were tremors everywhere. The fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes could be felt reverberating through society like a distant sonic boom. There were reports of protests, and I witnessed some myself, unprecedented and risky. There were pro-government rallies too, and angry words between friends. Reports of torture and disappearances. Everyone was constantly uneasy, but some people tasted hope. One woman activist I knew told me that she was going door-to-door on Fridays, the day of rest, to encourage other women to come out to protest the government crackdown. "There will never be another first time to taste freedom, my sisters", she would say. Soon after, her colleague and mentor in her movement was assassinated, and hope turned to fear.
One weekend in April, during a visit by my mother-in-law, the family went south across the border to visit some sites in Jordan. At the last minute, I stayed behind to keep up with the increasingly frantic pace of work; we were all anxious about the separation - things were happening in the south, and by the time they came back to Damascus there were checkpoints and nervous young men with guns all along the roads, reports of incidents. My Ambassador asked me to send my mother-in-law home to Canada, and I knew families and dependents would be next. The call was made a few days later to return all dependents home to Canada for their safety. I helped my husband pack himself and our kids. I was grateful that my nine-month old daughter had recently finished breastfeeding.
They were gone on Mothers' Day. I threw myself into work and stayed out late, hoping to fall dead asleep in the empty house. My husband made a small life, with the help of family and friends and colleagues, in a furnished hotel apartment in Ottawa. Our oldest had trouble in school; the middle guy whined about everything; the baby took her first steps. My husband's employer couldn't figure out what to do with him - he should be reporting to work, but how? When we were reunited a few months later, it took us weeks to make sense again as a family. I thought constantly about the colleagues we left behind. We went onto a new assignment in Jordan, thanks to an incredible colleague who stepped in to my position so I could be reunited with my family. Life slowly returned to normal.
I don't tell this story for sympathy, but for contrast. If you can imagine that it might have been hard for our family to go through this experience, imagine life for a true refugee. We never had to choose between bombardment or fleeing with nothing. We never lived in a camp. We didn't spend our life savings. We had uninterrupted education and health care for our children. We got our salary and were supported by our employers. We didn't leave half our family behind. We weren't conscripted into an army and asked to fire on our countrymen. We didn't witness the destruction of our family home or the death of a loved one. We weren't humiliated by the change in our circumstances. We weren't travelling injured. We didn't risk rape or kidnapping. We got to take all our possessions. We didn't have to hide. We had a passport and documentation. We knew, mostly, what the future held.
Nobody questioned whether we had the right to a safe place to live. We were sure that we had a home to return to. Those simple realities made us some of the luckiest people on earth.
Emily King is the Chair of The Bay Refugee Project. Originally from Hubbards, Nova Scotia, Emily has worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development since 2001 and is currently on posting at the Atlantic regional office. She has returned to living in Hubbards with her husband and three children, and is very excited to contribute to the resettlement of refugees in her community. Views expressed herein are her own.