It’s hard to turn on a television or flip through your social media without seeing one or more images of the many injustices that occur in our world. With social media at the forefront of our communication, it can almost feel like we are being bombarded by these images on a daily basis. This clearly has a negative impact as I think many of us have become desensitized by what we see. Images of war and strife are no longer as shocking as they once were and I think that so many of us get complacent because the stories that we see don’t directly affect our lives.
But do they?
When you are out shopping and you brush past a stranger, could that person have experienced unimaginable things that we only see in movies? Perhaps. Has that person had to flee for his or her life, or endure inhumane circumstances? Maybe. Has that person been separated from his or her family only to dream of one day reuniting? It is a possibility. Perhaps the world isn’t as far removed as it seems and perhaps your neighbor could be one of those heroes who are hiding behind a brave smile.
One such person who I have had the privilege to meet this past year and who I can now call my friend is the beautiful and courageous Ella Elazkany. Ella came to Canada less than 3 years ago when she was awarded a prestigious scholarship through the Student Refugee Program that is run by World University Services of Canada (WUSC). WUSC is a Canadian non-profit organization that is dedicated to improving education, employment and empowerment opportunities for youth, women and refugees around the world. The Student Refugee Program (SRP) is unique in that it combines resettlement with opportunities for higher education. The program supports over 130 refugee students per year with partnerships from over 95 Canadian Universities or Colleges. Since its inception in 1978, the SRP has empowered over 2000 refugees from 39 countries to continue their education in a safe and supportive environment. It truly is a remarkable program that plucks vulnerable young individuals from unimaginable situations and gives them a new beginning where they can learn and then give back to the community where they eventually settle. Obtaining the scholarship however is like winning the lottery as the stars must align on so many levels and the applicant must show undeniable promise in their education.
After countless hours of hard work and studying Ella has convocated from the University of Alberta with a Master’s Degree in Mathematical Finance. Because of this huge accomplishment she was featured in the University of Alberta News.
Although Ella has found a new home here in Canada and thus has had the opportunity to strive for her dreams I can’t yet say that she has come to a happy ending. Her family is still fractured and her younger brother’s safety is still very much at risk. I want to educate everyone I know about Ella’s story. She has lived through hell and although her safety is not in jeopardy anymore, she is still haunted by her past and the fact that her flesh and blood literally lives in torment on a day to day basis. I asked Ella if I could interview her about her experiences and she put together this beautiful story. It is so well-written that I don’t want to cut it apart. I hope that by reading Ella’s story the way she has written it, you too will be touched in a way that I can’t possibly replicate.
**for security reasons I have shorted her one brother’s name to just his initial
My family and I had lived in Syria for 15 years before we had to flee to Lebanon due to the war in Syria. Before all of this, my father was born in Egypt and my mother was born in Lebanon. Both my parents lived in Lebanon when they were young, but they left running back to Syria when the Lebanese civil war broke out in the 70’s. My father was working as an electrician when he met my mother. She was studying psychology at Damascus University at that time. They got married in 1990 and I was born in Damascus in 1991. My mother dropped out of school to take care of me and one year later my brother A was born.
When I was very young my father applied for a Visa to take our family to the United States and when I was approximately three years old our Visas were approved. After we arrived in America my father started working and changed his visa to a working permit. For the five years that we lived in America we called Brooklyn, New York our home. In 1995, My sister Rania was born and two years later Ali, the youngest of my siblings was born. Since Rania and Ali were born in New York, they both now hold US citizenship.
My first memories as a child are from when we lived in the US. I did not know Syria at that time. A and I went to school in Brooklyn. I remember that when we used to play we spoke in English, not Arabic. We were attached to American cartoons and comics, and we loved our school and the holidays – especially Halloween.
In 1998, my parents decided to return to Syria so that they could remain close to their families. I remember that A and I struggled a lot during our first few months back in Syria. Speaking in Arabic was difficult enough, but on top of that we had no idea how to read or write the language. Thus, we struggled in school as well as integrating and making friends. I remember that even when I was in high school, I had a different accent than my peers. Growing up in Syria, we eventually adapted and we made a lot of friends. We progressed in school and we were very good in English.
When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a mathematician. My brother A wanted to be a computer engineer, however the only choice he had was to study in a college that would allow him to be a computer engineer associate. He enjoyed college because all of his friends from high school were with him. He really liked to socialize and make a lot of friends. At that time he was considering applying for computer engineering after he finished college. He was very determined and ambitious and wanted to pursue his career in computer engineering.
The war in Syria broke out when I was in my third year of my bachelor’s degree and A was in his first. Luckily, A was able to graduate before things got really ugly. His college was in a dangerous location when the war started and there were a couple of incidents that happened in the college which he was fortunate enough to get out safely. Going to school at that time was extremely dangerous as sometimes routes were closed and we had to walk through alleys to avoid gun fire and being shot at. A, however managed to finish his exams and graduate but I still needed to pass my last four courses.
At dawn on Monday December 17th, 2012, after a long night of hearing bombshells fly over us and praying for them to not land over our heads we had to flee and leave our home. We managed to gather all of our important documents, but only left with the clothes that we were wearing. When we were driving out of our neighborhood we saw thousands of others doing the same – running away for their lives. That was the last time we saw our home and our neighborhood. Later we learned that the entire area was destroyed to the ground, killing so many people as well as decimating our home.
By Syrian law, it is compulsory for families to send their men into the military. The way it works is that when there are two males within the same family, the first male who turns 18 will then be drafted. Therefore under this law, as soon as A graduated he would have no choice but to join the military and get sent to the deadly battlefronts. My parents didn’t want to send their son to his death so when my family returned to Syria after living in America, they never registered my youngest brother as a dual citizen. This way it would only look like there was only one male registered in our family record. This saved A on checkpoints where he showed officials that he is a lone male child and they would let him go. It did pose a problem however, as my brothers were never allowed to be seen together. Whenever there was an inspection to see how many men were in our house, one of my brothers had to leave or hide. When we left the country A had to cross the border first because he is Syrian and they could hold him back and imprison him if officials knew he had another brother. Once A was across then Ali could then cross, however when he did the officials knew that there was some kind of fraud but they couldn’t hold Ali back because he holds a US passport and he was under age. This means that A can never go back to Syria as his life would now be at risk.
When we arrived the Syrian-Lebanese Borders were closed to Syrian refugees except for the ones who had an appointment with an embassy or the ones who were going directly to the Beirut International Airport. After hours of waiting however, they let us through once they knew that my sister and youngest brother were American. We lived in Beirut for three years before I went to Canada on a scholarship. In order to finally reach safety my father crossed through a dangerous smuggling route where he had to cross the sea by boat and land by foot where he eventually claimed refuge in Germany. In 2018 my mother made it to Germany by way of family reunification with my father, and since Rania and Ali both hold a US passport they were able to freely leave Lebanon with my mother. Sadly this left A all by himself in Beirut.
Living in Lebanon is very hard as a Syrian. The UNHCR gave A and other Syrians only barcodes for registration. At that time the Lebanese government had suspended giving refugee status to any Syrian. The only way we could obtain a legal residency status in Lebanon was from a Lebanese sponsor or a work sponsorship – both of which were very difficult to obtain because of discrimination and the very expensive process. While we lived in Lebanon we had no choice but to stay illegally and avoid all Lebanese checkpoints. This status left us without any rights in Lebanon. We went to the UNHCR several times asking them to help us leave Lebanon and were willing to go to any destination but we always got the same hopeless and disappointing answers. The UNHCR did not help us with anything, they only gave us numbers. Thus, the only way to survive was to work without a permit. Working without a working permit gave our employers the ability to take full advantage of us. They made us work ten hours a day and 6 days a week with below the minimum wage pay. My siblings and I went through a lot working in Lebanon. Each one of us has our own experience of being humiliated and yelled at by employers and clients simply because we are Syrians. They treated us less like humans knowing full well that we couldn’t complain about this to anyone.
I still remember how it felt when I was living in Lebanon. There was a huge sense of hopelessness and despair. I wasn’t able to move forward and I couldn’t change my terrible reality. It felt like no matter what you did everything was holding you back. It was like a suffocating prison. I have been in Canada now for about three years and it has changed my reality. I can now pursue my dreams. I am safe. I have rights. I have my freedom. I have legal residency to move around without fear. I can study and work. But I still have nightmares of that terrible imprisoning feeling. No one can imagine the relief and gratefulness that I feel when I wake up and realize it was just a dream. What I describe as a bad dream is still my brother A’s reality. It was terrible when most of us were together, however I can’t even imagine how it feels for him facing this hardship alone. It hurts me deeply to know that while I am warm in my apartment, he is not. While I can move around freely, he cannot. While I can work and not be discriminated against, he cannot. While I am now settled and have found a place that feels like home again, he is an outcast. It kills me to see him suffering like this when all he wants are very basic things that people sometimes take for granted – a stable life and being safe.
A few words from Ella’s brother
I remain with no legal status in Lebanon. As a result, I don’t ride in cars. I don’t leave the neighborhood that I live in. I don’t hang out with friends nor do I go out anywhere besides work to avoid getting caught by police/military checkpoints. Syrians who get caught with no legal status papers get assaulted and prisoned without being presented in front of a judge.
As you can see, Ella and her family have endured more than most will in their entire lifetime. I know that we all face challenges in life, and now more than ever we are being put to the test by the repercussions of the pandemic. Sometimes I find myself complaining about situations that I am in but it is humbling to take a step back and realize that although life may seem unfair at times, there are others out there who have it much worse. There are many heroes that walk among us that put on a brave face despite their heartache. Please hug your loved ones harder, smile at strangers more often and be grateful for the simple things we take for granted.