Last month, while I was glued along with everyone else to Twitter following the US presidential election returns, I got an email that I knew would change my life. Its anodyne title began: "Confirmation of Permanent Residence." I was now officially on the path to becoming a Canadian.
I moved to Montreal a little over two years ago with my wife, who was already a permanent resident. Our son, who was born here, is already a Canadian citizen. I applied for residency in January 2019. A process that usually takes around a year lasted 22 months because of the pandemic. Exhausted and burned out by months of social distancing and overwork, it was not quite jubilation that I felt. It was like letting out a breath that I had held for almost two years.
I was incredibly lucky that I even had the opportunity when others had to brave the high seas and risk the lives of their children only to drown or find cold hearts on the European continent. But years of reporting in the Middle East had left me with one, tragic truism – that in much of the region, the value of an individual human life is worth nothing to the forces that shape its geopolitical destiny. I had hoped to stay anyway because I wanted to tell all the stories I'd heard. But it seemed irresponsible, if I were to have a child, not to give him or her every opportunity at a better life.
I began working on all the paperwork. There were forms to be filled, letters to be printed and mailed out, photographs to be taken, health insurance to apply for, French classes to sign up to, Canadian history books to read. The overpowering drive I felt was a sudden and instinctive sense of belonging that appeared to well out of nowhere.
I never really lived in my home country of Egypt for any significant length of time. As a child I was raised in Dubai to parents who were doctors, and who took us back home for months every summer holiday. I lived in the Netherlands, Lebanon and Turkey, reported from Syria, Jordan, the Gulf and Morocco.
There was a strange transience to that existence. There was nothing that was quite “mine” in all those places. It felt like constantly standing a little apart in the family photograph, like a guest who was always respected and made to feel welcome, but not quite too welcome that he might overstay his visit.
It felt equally strange to be suddenly told that I was welcome here. That I could stay for as long as I want. That I could be a part of it rather than apart in every sense of the word. That I could count on this and would never have to leave if I didn’t want to.
Even from afar, I often longed for Egypt. It was a sensation that had little to do with what was happening in the country at any point in time. It had to do with the knowledge that, if the world entire closed its doors, I could go back home, to my mother’s apartment in Alexandria overlooking the Mediterranean, or to our family home in our Nile Delta village, and be embraced and loved.
Now there is another place like that. It is not exactly home yet, but it’s pretty darn close, and it will be soon. Its door is not ajar but wide open, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National