For emigres, birthdays are a reminder of the price of a dignified life abroad

New lives overseas often mean separation from loved ones, but they are still worthy of celebration
A view of muslims after Eid al-Fitr prayer, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque in Cairo, Egypt May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

This week was my wife’s birthday, and the month before was my two-year-old son’s. The celebrations were muted, owing to the times we live in – at an open playground, with a few close friends, and at home with cake, pizza, and conversation. It was a far cry from the heyday of gatherings of friends and family back home, from the songs and warmth of familiar embraces that we had known all our lives.

Lonelier birthdays in unfamiliar homes abroad always trigger in me a pensive mood, one that reflects on the choice of leaving everything we knew behind to immigrate. My wife and I moved to Canada from the Middle East in 2018.

As we whiled away the evening hours, I thought of our lives back home. She was involved in refugee aid and peacebuilding work that addressed fundamental questions about how communities at war could ever live together once again, how the pain of past trauma could one day be healed.

I was a correspondent covering the Middle East, and I thought I was quite good at what I did too, and I loved hearing and telling stories. Thanks to my work, I made incredible friendships, visited one of the oldest libraries in the world, contemplated life’s great questions, and lived what, to me, was a very interesting life.

But we were also close to our loved ones. My brother could make a surprise visit to see me in Beirut for my birthday. I was a short plane ride away from my mother. My wife’s family were across the border in Syria, but they could occasionally come visit us too. The world was a smaller place.

My mother and siblings have not seen my son since he was born. My wife’s family in Syria have not either. I confess, I feel sorry for my son. When I remember our lives growing up in Dubai, surrounded by uncles, aunts, family friends, by a community, and going back home to Egypt every summer for months; the family iftars during Ramadan, the long phone calls back home to wish our extended family a happy Eid; smushing together with my cousins in the huge beds at our home in the village, homes filled with laughter and joy and card games and football matches and a hearth-like warmth, with no flame in sight, I wish he could have that too. We are doing our best. But how can we be a whole village? Is it worth it, I wonder, for a chance at a better life, free of the burden of our passports?

A day spent in Ramadan among Sinai’s Bedouins. Courtesy Yusri Mohammad

But then these sweet memories are crowded out by more recent ones. The humiliating visa rejection letters from western embassies that decided my profile fits somebody who is likely to overstay his visa and claim asylum and welfare – because I apparently failed to prove that my decades in the Middle East had left me with meaningful relationships that I would want to go back to. Or the withering stares of passport control employees and their inane questioning, with the subtext that you are not welcome here.

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Goodbye is not forever, and we will go back, one day

When I think of these humiliations, I realise that I have not felt at home in years, not since leaving our family home.

And the hurtful recollections are plenty: my wife standing in line for hours and days in the scorching sun outside the Syrian consulate in Istanbul to renew her passport, along with Syrian compatriots who were subject to insults, disdain, and the occasional spittle by Turkish passers-by, in the upscale, secular neighbourhood where the mission was located.

Or standing in line outside the immigration office, under the petty whims of a security guard who, when irritated, decided to close down entry for the day; the bemusement in the eyes of a visa clerk seeing an Egyptian and a Syrian coming in to apply for an EU visa so they can go on their honeymoon; the idea that we might have nowhere to go if we suddenly had to leave, certainly nowhere to go to together, until Canada said yes; the idea that our son would be saddled with the same dilemma, with the same disregard for you as a person simply because your passport is the wrong colour; when the whims of every petty officer or person of whatever minuscule authority rule your life.

At our home in Canada, as we blew out the candles and put away the dinner plates, I felt lighter. Dignity is worth it, though it is sad that many of us have to leave and belong somewhere else to realise that.

Goodbye is not forever, and we will go back, one day. My son will go back one day. And it will be worth it, even if pangs of loss pull at the heartstrings in the background on these special occasions.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National

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Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada