A Glimpse into the Life of a Quiet Hero ~ Ella Elazkany

war image

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.

Ella and her beautiful siblings


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.

India’s Selvamouthou Koumarasamy ~ How the Tourism Industry Changed His Life

mouthou1

This photo is courtesy of Mouthou’s Facebook

There are so many facets to traveling that I absolutely adore. Of course experiencing new cultures, seeing our world’s beauty and trying new things are just some of the aspects that I thrive on. But what pulls at my heart strings the most is meeting the many amazing people around the world.

I recently traveled to southern India where I met one of those remarkable people. His name is Selvamouthou (also goes by Mouthou) and he just happened to be my tour guide. When I first met Mouthou I got an immediate sense that with his big, bright grin he truly loved his life.  Over the course of the week that I spent traveling around Kerala with Mouthou by my side, I got to see first-hand how his zest for life is simply infectious and how his kindness has no limits. For this reason I want to share Mouthou with all of you and let you hear his story.

Meet Selvamouthou Koumarasamy…

mouthou

This photo is of Mouthou and Richard Woodward. It was taken by Lucy Michael and shows the bond that Mouthou creates with his travelers. 

Mouthou was born on March 24, 1972 in Pondicherry (now called Puthucherry); a city on the south eastern coast of India. He was the fifth and only son to be born into his family; and with the importance of having a boy to carry the family name, this was a glorious day for the Koumarasamy family.  His father owned a grocery shop and his mother stayed home to raise the children. His family was fairly well off by Indian standards; enough so that they could afford to send their only son to the most prestigious schools in the area. The family’s income would be pooled together to pay for the school fees for Mouthou, but his sisters would have to sacrifice because they were merely girls. Although this is the norm in most Indian households, you would think that this would put an enormous amount of pressure on Mouthou.  After grade school Mouthou went on to attend University and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in BA History.

pondy

It seemed that the world was at his fingertips and there were so many opportunities in store for Mouthou. But it was at that time that his father’s business went bankrupt and his family had to sell all their possessions; everything from the country home to the gold jewelry that his mother wore for her wedding. Times were extremely trying and Mouthou needed to help out with his family’s financial situation immediately. He took an entry level job as a truck driver which required him to work odd hours and in terrible conditions. The roads were extremely unsafe and his family urged him to find another job.

Because the territory of Puducherry was under French rule until 1954 many French dignitaries still visit this part of India. With that, tourism catering toward the French was thriving at that time and the possibilities of working in the tourism industry sparked an interest in Mouthou. He sold his truck and bought a tour bus. Soon he was transporting important French officials around the city. His cheerful disposition and hard work ethic quickly sprung him to the head of his industry where Mouthou became the go-to person when visiting Pondicherry.

Because of his outstanding reputation, Mouthou was asked by a reputable tour company to join their team. They didn’t want him to be a driver, but instead offered to train him to work as a tour guide. Being a tour guide is a very sought after position in India so Mouthou jumped at the chance at this opportunity. He truly has everything a tour company is looking for; perfect English, extensive knowledge, great people skills and most importantly a heart of gold. Mouthou excelled and thrived in his field.

In his personal life things were changing too. He was at the age where his parents were involved in arranging his marriage. The festivities surrounding his wedding were lavish and having around 1700 guests in attendance made him feel like a local celebrity. In 1999 he married his wife and a year later his daughter was born. Adjusting to married life seemed to be difficult for Mouthou’s mother. Women show their love and affection through serving and taking care of their men. For Mouthou’s entire life his mother had doted over his every move. He was the only boy and truly was the golden child of their family. In an instant he was being passed on to his wife, and it became a struggle to let go of her only son. Tension grew within his family and Mouthou slowly became depressed. He coped with the stress through alcohol and over time his addiction took over his life.

Relationships at home were unravelling and his work was greatly suffering. Because he was so intoxicated Mouthou would forget who owed him money or what services had already been attended to with the business. Some people knew he wasn’t functioning at his highest level and thus took advantage of his generosity by using and stealing from him. Mouthou was sending his family into debt and he truly felt trapped and unable to fix the problem. In 2004 Mouthou had hit rock bottom and decided the only way out of this mess was to end his life. He waited until his daughter came home from school so that he could see her one last time and after silently saying his final goodbyes he made his way to the river where he drank poison. He explained to me that when he put it in his mouth it burned so profusely that he had a hard time swallowing. He drank the entire bottle and slowly made his way home on his motorbike. He had to pull over on the side of the road because he started to black out, and while he was laying there a friend drove by. His friend instantly knew something was seriously wrong and took him straight to the hospital. It was clearly an act of God that his friend came by when he did, because if Mouthou would have waited much longer the doctors were sure that he would have not survived that day.

It was definitely a long and uphill road as Mouthou slowly put the pieces of his life back together. In 2009 a Dutch company heard that he was healthy and was ready to begin working again so they quickly snatched him up and he began working in operations, designing and developing tours. This company took a chance when they hired Mouthou and in return they truly gave him his life back. By 2013 Mouthou lead his first group with the reputable sustainable adventure tour company called G Adventures and that is who he works for to this day.

Mouthou credits his life to the tourism industry. He truly believes that he wouldn’t be where he is in life today if it wasn’t for this industry. He has also seen first-hand how so many others have been positively affected by tourism in his country. From the small business owners like tuk tuk drivers or farmers who are able to supply restaurants; the demand for resources goes up and with that locals are benefiting from the profits.

mouthou3

I asked Mouthou what propelled him out of his darkest days and he simply stated ‘every problem in life has a perfect solution…time; when we wait answers will come to us and each problem will sort itself out’.

Looking at Mouthou today you would be shocked that this jolly, middle aged man underwent something so traumatic in his life. He loves his family and would do anything for his two children.  He exudes strength and positivity and I am truly a better person having met him for this brief time. I think the important thing that I hope to convey is how tourism truly is a life saver to so many. It brings so much joy and purpose to those of us who get to travel and see the world, but it also is an important industry that provides so much to those living in developing countries.

If you are looking into taking a tour and don’t know which company to go with check out G Adventures. Mouthou is one of their many amazing guides who I was lucky enough to meet during my travels in Kerala.

If you like this post and want to share it to Pinterest, feel free to Pin here!Copy of Thaipusam Festival

 

 

 

 

South Africa’s Mpoe Mogale

sunset-hands-love-woman
When I first started this blog I thought it was going to be a place where I could share my travel experiences with all of you. It was essentially going to be an online journal in which I was hoping to entertain you with my blunders and inspire you with my stories. I jumped into the blogging world blindly and as I am coming up for air I definitely see that in order for me to give my readers the best quality of content I really have to reinvent my blog and tap into what inspires me most about traveling. Of course the beauty of the destinations themselves is a reason alone to travel, but what tugs at my heart strings the most are the people that I meet along the way. No matter where I have gone or how different people seem to be, I believe that as human beings our core values are all very similar. No matter our race, religion or sexual identity; when we strip away our skin, our hearts beat the same way. Humans yearn for love and acceptance and my hope is that we all strive to be the best versions of ourselves. Of course life is not always rosy and when we face adversity the human spirit is put through the test. I believe that by understanding the struggles of others we in turn have a better chance to become a stronger more loving society.

Where am I going with this you ask? Well I am hoping that my blog will not only be a place where people come to get travel inspiration and advise, but I want it to be a platform where I can share human stories of the wonderful people that make our world go around. I want our differences as humans to unite us instead of divide us and this is why I have created The Humans of Our World section.

img_0489

With that said I would like to introduce you to Mpoe Mogale. Mpoe is a 21 year old woman who was born and raised in South Africa. At the ripe age of 13 Mpoe was brought to Canada while her mom worked on her PhD at the University of Alberta. Mpoe’s life story (even though it has barely even begun) fascinates me because she had been born just a year after the end of South Africa’s apartheid. Being black in a country that previously catered to the white, I was interested in how Mpoe and her family coped with the injustices of apartheid and the changes that were happening in her country as she grew up.

img_0490

When meeting Mpoe her striking beauty and genuine smile are features that most people will never forget. She is soft spoken but at the same time has an air of confidence that draws you in. Behind those big brown eyes and bright smile is a girl who has had to overcome her share of obstacles. Through it all, the one person who has provided her with guidance and who she considers her role model has been her mother, Reikokeditse Mogale.

 

 

Reikokeditse was born in 1963 in the rural town of Maijane, Limpopo. Reikokeditse’s mother died giving birth to her younger sister so at the age of 7 she became an orphan. Raised by her aunt, Reikokeditse was expected to take care of her cousins. Primary school was available to the children in her town; however secondary school was not well attended as it came with a hefty price tag. Reikokeditse had a passion for learning from a very early age, and thankfully her oldest cousin moved to the city so that he could help pay the school fees for the rest of the family. Reikokeditse was fortunate enough to graduate from high school and because of her education another door was opened to get a step further in life. As a high school graduate, one was allowed to become a primary school teacher. Reikokeditse took on this role which earned her enough income to eventually send her to college.

img_0494

Mpoe’s mother and role model ~ Reikokeditse!

limpopo-map
Reikokeditse’s hard work eventually earned her a job as a nurse and by the time Mpoe was born in 1995, Reikokeditse was tirelessly working 3 jobs. Mpoe was born in the township of Lebowakgomo, Limpopo. Lebowakgomo was established in 1974 with a population of only 115 people. It quickly grew and developed, and today the population is roughly just over 35 000. The closest city, Polokwane is approximately an hour and a half drive away. Because we are looking at South Africa I think it is important to look at the racial makeup of Lebowakgomo. In 2011 black Africans made up 99.3% of the population followed by 0.2% being coloured, 0.2% Asian/Indian, 0.1% white and 0.2% considered other. Mpoe grew up in a place where white people were an anomaly and she said that the only white people that were in her town were rich business owners who moved there temporarily to open up shops like grocery stores.  Surrounded by people like herself she didn’t feel discriminated or mistreated based on her colour, it was when she went to the bigger cities that she noticed the discrimination.

img_0485

Mpoe performing in a school play

Both of Mpoe’s parents are college educated which is not the norm for most people of their race and age at that time. Growing up her dad worked as a clerk for the South African Department of Health and as I said before her mom worked in three separate nursing positions. Mpoe’s mother was her rock and she knew from a very early age that her mother worked so hard so that she could support her family and give them a better future.

img_0483

Mpoe’s father Kutume and his family in Durban (he is the little boy)

When Mpoe was only 12 years old Reikokeditse made a huge sacrifice for the family and moved to Canada to work on her PhD in Nursing. Mpoe was left to be raised by her father and an older cousin who would live in the family home during the week to help out with Mpoe and her brother. It was a difficult adjustment for Mpoe as her mother and best friend was now on the other side of the world.

img_0486

After living apart for that year Reikokeditse decided to bring her daughter back to Canada with her while she finished her studies.  Mpoe started the eighth grade in a brand new country on the other side of the world with many that looked very different from her. Even though she was now a visible minority and most definitely nobody in her school spoke her first language of Sepedi, she felt that the transition was fairly easy. She expected people of colour to be treated like they were back in South Africa and was pleasantly surprised by how positive Canada seemed to be. Looking back Mpoe realizes that due to her naivety and innocence she didn’t notice the small micro-aggressions that people of colour face. Mpoe defines micro-aggressions as assumptions based on one’s appearance. Over time she has become aware that even though Canada remains a positive place she is not blinded by people’s racial ignorance.

mpoe-snow

A whole different world of winter with snow

As my discussion with Mpoe went on, it definitely veered away from what I originally thought my interview with her would be about. Instead of the cultural differences of her South African upbringing we soon dove into the topic of race and how that defines a person. She was quick to define herself as black number one; not a woman or a dancer or a scholar, but black. This really surprised me because when I look at others, their race is not what I choose to define them. After a lot of thought on this issue I have concluded that perhaps some people define themselves by a certain trait when that trait itself has been undermined in some way. For instance, if I lived in a country where woman’s rights were staggeringly different than they are in Canada perhaps I would feel more strongly by identifying myself by my gender.

Mpoe has opened my eyes to what people of colour face. I definitely realize that racism still exists but my discussion with Mpoe has made me question whether I see things through a clouded lens because I myself am white. I have family members of mixed race and some of my closest friends are of colour, so when I see others I do not distinguish or make judgements based on the colour of someone’s skin. I realize that not everyone thinks the same way as me, but I guess living in Canada in this day of age I truly thought that racism and bigotry were something of the past. It saddens me to know that in a very liberal, free-thinking country people are still being mistreated.

mpoe-race

Mpoe had a lot to say about her racial identity and I knew that if I paraphrased what she said I wouldn’t do her thoughts justice.  I asked her to write in her own words why she defines herself as black before anything else. Below are a few excerpts from what she wrote:

‘It was only until recently (around 2 years ago) that it hit me that I could have the same resources as these white women—live in the same neighborhood, drive the same car, attend the same school, be Catholic, be straight, etc.—but because of that one feature, my entire life and experiences would still be very different from theirs.

Before it used to be a “well I am seen as black so I might as well embrace it” kind of thing. This attitude has evolved to become a lot more than that! Much of my being is now surrounded around my blackness, the hair I choose to wear, the people I associate with, the music I listen to; they are all grounded in blackness. These experiences have therefore molded me into the person I identify as, a BLACK woman; and not a woman who happens to be black. It has taken the experience of far too many micro-aggressions for me to reach this point, but I want to clarify that it is not an end point; I am still learning what it means to be black. For now I understand blackness as described in Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star by a small girl “Black IS. Black is something to Laugh about. Black is something to cry about. Black is Serious. Black is a feeling. Black is us, beautiful people.” 

img_0493

My aim is not to make political statements but rather to expose us to different views. Race is a touchy subject and I wouldn’t want to offend anyone with my own words. I truly just want us to understand each other and embrace our differences. After sitting down with Mpoe and hearing about her stories growing up in South Africa and then moving to Canada I am truly grateful for what she has taught me. As a white woman from Canada I am rarely discriminated against. Yes, I have felt lesser being a woman in some of the Muslim countries that I have visited, but I was a visitor in their country. Perhaps if I was treated differently in a place I call home based on something I cannot change my thoughts would be very different. Maybe I too would embrace that quality that makes me different and identify with it with pride, just as does Mpoe.

It was a complete honor to sit down and listen to Mpoe Mogale. She is incredibly beautiful inside and out and I hope that by sharing her story we can perhaps understand each other a little better as humans.

mpoe-pin