I’m not Canadian. I share with Justin Trudeau a past as an English major, but that’s where my connections with Canada begin and end. I’m not Canadian. I’ve told them this now three times in three different tones, but they don’t stop: “We love Canada. It seems like such a peaceful place and we are peaceful people. There are many opportunities there to pursue education, and there is also a lot of land, and Canadians are such lovely people. Like you.” Yes, Canada is lovely. But I’m not Canadian. Wallahe, I explain, I’m really not Canadian. I’m just here to ask you a few questions about what it’s like to make a home here, in these tents, in this camp, not knowing when or if you’ll return to Syria. “We won’t. We are happy to make Canada our new home.” A refugee in a different tent had explained to me that there was a rumor going around that Canadian relief agencies would interview refugees that were being considered for settlement in Canada. As hard as I try to redirect the conversation, the father of this family continues to turn it back to Canada. Finally I acquiesce, in a way.
I’ve actually been to Canada. They perk up. Once. Just once. It was as nice as you describe it—as peaceful. I went to Montreal, where there are many Lebanese who resettled there during the civil war. And now Syria is having its own troubles, which bring you here. Can you tell me when you started decorating your tent? What made you begin to treat it as a home?
Silence and looks. What was I doing? Flying into Amman as I’d done every summer of my life, this time two things were different: I came with a mission, and also a baby. And they were intertwined. My not yet one year old son deserved a mother who took all that supposed firecracker energy of hers and did something with it; helped the world in some way slightly bigger than sharing a good poem with a good group of well-meaning, comfortably raised, 18 year olds. So what was I going to do? I was going to just walk into the refugee camps, and ask the refugees themselves what it meant to them to be homeless, and then I was going to fly back to my concrete, well-powered, well-watered, well-air-conditioned, house, mortgage, car, family, job, and write all about it—theorize it even. That’s cute, my mother, daughter of refugees, says, attending a “teach-in” about the crisis. That they think they can talk about it that way, with all that theory, that they think that does anything.
The father in the tent returns to Canada. “So you’re not from the Canadian government?” No. Wallahe- I promise, I’m not. “Do you know anyone there?” No, I’m sorry, I don’t. He turns to his wife, frustrated and embarrassed, wipes his face, and begins to speak “I thought finally…” She places her hand on his back. Syrian wives, known throughout the Middle East, for their ways of quietly controlling home situations, of being “the best” wives.
I ask her now, directly, “What is it like being a mother here, a wife, a sister?” We are sitting in the middle of the expanded tent—they have attached three tents together with corroded metal to create a sort of courtyard of their own for their family and their brothers and sisters who have also come from Syria. A village within the village that is Zaatari’s west side. The frustrated father takes this as his out.
“They know all about the raising of children, I’ll leave you to speak with the experts,” and walks out. My guide, also a man, walks out too, and I’m finally left as I wanted to be, mano a mano, madre a madre.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” the mother explains, “we thought you could help us out. We have been here almost 4 years now. We still think of going back every day. We left everything there. We expected to come here for a few months. We’ve been here for three and a half years. We still think of going back there of course. Most of my family is still there and nothing is complete without my family. We have freedom here, inside the camp, we can roam freely. But we don’t leave the camp. We tried, once, but they raised the rent in Amman and it wasn’t possible for many refugees to live anywhere but the tents. But they have been kind to us here. We are free to roam within the camps. Holidays feel like holidays. The schools here are not the best and we want an education for our children. For our sons. We hear that in Canada…”
If the tent had a corner, the teenage girl who is quietly watching me would be standing in it. There are sheets of cloth creating the semblance of a doorway between the metal and the attached tent, and she is standing in it, herself in sheets of cloth, like every single other woman here, hijabed, warm to me, and tending toward the plural pronoun. I ask her what she’d like me to write down, before I leave, back to the states, not to Canada. What she’d like for others to know about her and their lives here.
Her mother chimes in, “We want them to feel with us, and to think about us. We just want to go back home.”
I promise to write that down. This is a story—a very short one—not even a story really—the introduction to a story—that hasn’t been written yet, that aches to be penned by someone better than me—but can’t yet figure out how—can’t yet find a place for itself—is afraid it won’t—before it’s too late. I have spent two years theorizing, academically, professionally, socially, pedagogically, lyrically even, about why it is important to share the real story of the refugee camps. I’ve been asked by the world’s experts what this is that I think I’m doing. Is it an oral history project? Is this about testimony? Is this for American audiences? And when I am pinned and wriggling on a wall I just say well it’s all of those things, but mostly it’s real. It’s important.
Ma tinsounah, she says in that plural again: “you all, just don’t forget us.” She is engaged at no older than 15. She says this warmly, strongly, sadly, seriously. “They are already forgetting us.”
Not everyone is forgetting, I say, quieter than her. I have wavered today between insisting on not being Canadian, and echoing the century of camps mantra to never forget. I want her to know she is not forgotten, alive, in the cloth, but I also need them to know I am not Canadian, that I’m not the way out.
“If they aren’t forgetting then how are we still here? We must be forgotten.” How can I make a cowardly amends. For what she has said to me? We’re not all forgetting, I say, quieter than her, because she, 15, engaged, living in all kinds of cloth and no walls, no way out, no Canada, deserves the last word.
I thank them for their time, and look back at the girl in the sort of corner. “Zhoorouna,” she says. A single word that means, “come back and visit us when you’re next passing through.” “We will be here.”
Yasmine Shamma is a Junior Research Fellow at Durham University, where she is completing her second book project on Refugee senses of home. Her first book, Spatial Poetics: Second Generation New York School Poetry, will be published with Oxford University Press in Autumn 2018. She is also editor of The Aesthetics of Joe Brainard (EUP 2019), and creator of the poetry mapping mobile app, Stanza. She has lived worked and studied throughout the (east coast) USA, Middle East, and UK.