Today is World Refugee Day

Dear friends,

In a world where one in every 113 people have been forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution, it’s vital we the global community dedicate a day to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. Today is World Refugee Day, and since so many of us in the west are far removed from the devastation facing so many refugees, I decided to share a story from Lebanon. My intention is not to play to your sympathies. In the same way that you’ve read stories about people climbing everest, you will read this woman’s story of life in Beirut, because her life is no less significant than that of a world class climber.

Statistics and numbers are desensitizing, and bad-news fatigue breeds apathy. I literally started this paragraph with numbers and figures, and when I caught my mistake I decided to leave the opening sentence the way it was to acknowledge my mistake. Let us take a moment, and do an exercise together. I want you to say “Mariam” out loud. That’s it, “Maariiiaam,” make sure you enunciate! She is a person, like you and I. We are of the same make, though her story may suggest otherwise. Mariam is in the situation she is in not because she was born into poverty, lazy, uneducated or unintelligent. She’s in this situation because 5 years ago, the Syrian war made its way into her hometown, Daraa, forcing her to flee to neighbouring Lebanon. She’s in this situation because of a series of unfortunate events… events that could have happened to you or me.

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Living conditions are as tough for urban refugees as they are for rural. Syrian refugees living in Beirut are harder to locate, and therefore harder to reach with aid and support services. Urban refugees are also expected to pay astronomical rent prices for substandard living conditions, and are often times confronted with a hostile host community (especially in Lebanon because of a complex history between the two countries). This is especially true for 30 year old Mariam, who lives in a concrete factory just outside of Beirut with a 9 month old baby boy, 4 daughters, and her husband. 

This factory is also home to 4 other Syrian families. Mariam’s husband worked in the concrete factory before the war in Syria began. Once the war was underway, he continued sending money home, while his family moved around Daraa for safety. At one point, Mariam and her children were living in a 1- bedroom apartment with 5 other families, which she described as “literally being piled on top of one another.” She didn’t want to come to Lebanon, because she had hope that the war would soon end, but as we know, things worsened. Her husband decided that bringing his family to Lebanon was the only option for his family’s safety, so he and a few colleagues made an agreement with the owner of the factory to live on the premises rent-free with their families so long as they built the homes themselves.

Having a conversation without raising voices is nearly impossible in Mariam’s makeshift home. The noise from the factory, coupled with the copious amount of dust hardly makes this an ideal place for a family to live in, especially for her baby boy. The factory doesn’t pay her husband well, and what little pay he does receive goes toward food, which she says “disappears as quickly as it comes.”

There are much more details that Mariam shared with me, which are really horrible and will make you hate the human condition. Instead, I will stop here, and paint you a contrasting picture. Five years ago, she had a house in Syria, and the little money her husband made went a long way for her family. She lived well, and woke up worry free everyday. Fast forward 5 years, and she literally lives in the middle of a factory with a growing family, an unending war on her mind and an exceedingly desperate situation. She described her situation as being unbelievable to her younger self. Even so, Mariam counts herself as lucky since her family doesn’t have to pay rent. Lucky to live in a concrete factory. To think… this could have been me had my parents stayed in Sudan… had there been a war, this truly could have been my life. Would I ever count myself “lucky” to live in such conditions? 

Say this woman’s name again. Mariam. Acknowledge her, honour her, and remember her every time you walk on concrete. She is out here, living, breathing, the same way you and I are. When discussing refugees, never forget that they too are humans who love, fear, laugh, cry, and feel in the same way that you do.



Greetings from Lebanon!

I owe you all an explanation for my extended absence from this space. I haven’t written on here since I was in South Africa, which is due to several factors. First, my final 6 weeks in SA was a very strange time. It was important for me to wrap things up properly at work, with my friends, with the student I was tutoring and with my adopted family. I spent every last moment with people I cared about, and had little time to write about it. Second, I didn’t want to write about it. Those last moments with the country and people I’d fallen for seemed way too intimate to share online. Third, I wanted to be selfish. I relished living fully in those moments, knowing that I didn’t have to share them with anyone… that they were for me, and me alone. I dreaded my return home by the time December came around. After months of stumbling, I had finally found a rhythm to my work, my social life, and was tuned in to the local culture at the right frequency.

My contract technically ended after arriving in Canada, because of a week-long reintegration debrief in Victoria, BC. I knew I wasn’t ready to face an onslaught of family and friends in Toronto, especially since Christmas was quickly approaching. The thought of everyone asking, “SO, HOW WAS IT?” made me apprehensive… mostly to how I’d react, so I came up with a ploy. Under the ruse of travel, I convinced my people in Toronto that since I was already going to be in BC, it would be ridiculous not to stay and explore since I had the time off. So yes, I spent Christmas with a lovely Russian family, I rode the sky train to all the corners of Vancouver, and I spent a weekend in a cabin on the gulf island of Galiano with my dear friend Alex, her dog, and her gracious family. It was the perfect descent back into reality, and looking back, I would do it exactly the same.

There wasn’t much to write about after that, since I was home for 4 days before taking off to Australia for all of January. My flight was booked 9 months in advance, so the excitement wore off, and I was still on a BC high until landing in the Melbourne heat of January. I didn’t blog about my month down under because once again, I was treading on personal territory. All I will say is that my month was absolutely perfect… I caught up with my dear family and friends in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. It was honestly the most wonderful trip I’ve ever taken. My parents were with me for half of the duration, which facilitated a necessary catch up after 7 months of my absence. As for my friends in Gold Coast… what can I say? I truly believe that I won’t ever find such precious camaraderie anywhere else. No shade to my friends worldwide, but there’s something about my GC lot that makes me all warm and fuzzy every time I reminisce.

I made it back to Toronto, which according to my timeline, places us in the beginning of February. The first two weeks I was busy working on the two photography exhibitions I was co-hosting for international development week. I also created promotional material for 18 exhibitions across Canada, which I probably should have blogged about because it was an incredible Canadian youth effort! I’ll include a photo below, should you have a case of FOMO. The rest of February I was applying for jobs [mostly abroad], and interviewing. I kept a relatively low profile and only caught up with my inner circles (no cults!) after 8 months of being removed from Toronto life.

This went on for several weeks until I found myself in Beirut, Lebanon on March 23rd. I’m still not quite sure how I got here, but I can say with certainty that my internship in South Africa almost single handedly helped me land this awesome gig. I’m currently working for an International NGO that I cannot name (thank you, HR policy!) as a Project Manager and a Communications Advisor. It’s a 4-month contract, following the project duration. More on my job and life in Lebanon in the following posts, stay tuned!

Below I’ve shared one photo from each month of my why-I-was-absent timeline.

My last week in SA… I wanted to say goodbye to everyone so I hosted a farewell, which was meant to be an afternoon picnic, but went on till midnight. The three pictured are AJ, Percy and Troy, 3 strangers who hit it off like brothers. A few of the girls and I met AJ at a local concert, Linda and I met Percy at our friend’s birthday party, and I met Troy at a bar in Durban while I was on a tinder date with his buddy. #OnlyInSouthAfrica

One with the wind, after a beautiful hike to the cliff on Christmas Eve. #GalianoIsland

Surprise ambush by my Gold Coast family, after Rachael tricked me into thinking we were having an Aussie “Bush Tucker.”

One of the two photo exhibits for “CLICK!” an IYIP photo exhibition for International Development Week.

Greater Beirut as seen from my apartment. That’s the mediterranean in the back, and the yellow haze? That’s the smog. #noemissionstests