I would never say I had a bad childhood. Every Tuesday I would learn to play the piano, and Saturdays were for painting. English lessons with my mother were often punctuated by loud raps at the door: my friends looking to kick the ball around until the sun went down. It was a good life filled with good people. However, there was a shadow that even the sunniest day couldn’t hide. As a member of the Baháʼí faith, we were always second-class citizens. My parents knew better than I did that there was not a peaceful future ahead of me in Iraq.
People of my faith were not permitted to get a higher education than high school, their businesses were taken over, we were not presented with equal opportunities; hate permeated the very air we breathed.
I came to learn that it was neither safe nor fair for me to stay in Iraq. As a member of my faith, I was not permitted a passport at the time, so alternative measures had to be taken; my parents arranged for human smugglers to take me to Pakistan. Once there, I could make my plea for refugee status. However, this did not happen as soon as I would have liked. What I hoped would be only a few weeks of waiting turned into a year and a half of washing dishes and waiting tables to make ends meet. Having left Iraq before receiving my high school diploma, there was little else I was qualified for. During this time, I made my case to the UN for refugee status and waited for a verdict.
My salvation finally came in 1997 when I was directed to a plane headed for Canada. Fortunately, my aunt had already immigrated here some 10 years prior and gave me guidance and assistance throughout the process.
I felt like an orphan left at Canada’s front doors: I was taken in and accepted for who I am and what I had to offer. Having been offered every opportunity since arriving here, I could not be more grateful. I was given a chance to make something out of myself - an opportunity I had been sorely lacking back in Iraq. Words can’t even express the wonder and freedom I felt at being in Canada; it was such a simple joy. Back in Iraq, bananas were a rare and expensive delicacy. I can still remember walking into my first Canadian Superstore and seeing that I could buy a bunch for a few dollars. It’s been 25 years: I drive a Mercedes, have a beautiful home, and have the financial freedom to purchase what I please, but nothing compares to the pure and simple joy of buying bananas for myself at age 17.
There were many more adjustments beyond buying bananas that I had to make. I was fortunate enough to finish my high school diploma here, but there were many conventions I was not yet aware of. I remember walking into my first day of high school with a briefcase and my nicest clothes, only to be surrounded by jeans and beaten-up backpacks slung across one shoulder. Slang, how to ask someone out on a date, and pop culture were other areas in which I struggled with its unfamiliarity. I also missed the deep sense of community in Iraq, I longed for the cuisine that I grew up with, and I wished at times the sense of familiarity that I lacked in Canada.
Strange as it is, looking back I have no bad memories. Sure, some days were more difficult than others, but I wouldn’t take back a single day of it. The greatest challenge for me throughout my journey was trying to find purpose and meaning in my new life here; I was initially motivated by what was the easiest and most lucrative path, but I soon discovered that my own fulfillment comes from helping others instead of full pockets. Now working as a family physician, I feel that I am finally in a place where I can help others every day. I feel good about what I do and my ability to improve others’ lives. There is no greater sense of gratification for me than giving back to the country that took me in and aided me in a time of need.
If I could give a piece of advice to fellow refugees and immigrants, it would be to get involved in some way with the education system here: you will not find a more supportive, loving, and understanding environment for you to flourish. There is nothing holding you back from being exactly who you want in Canada. I was given a second chance at life here; I seized wholeheartedly and you can too. Set the bar high, believe in yourself, and you will get there.
Please note that certain facts have been altered for anonymity
This story is a collaborative effort between Skye Baxter and Taha Khanjar