‘God Knows What Canada Is’: What It’s Really Like to Be a Refugee
After the election of the Trudeau Liberals, Canada swiftly rebranded itself as a tolerant, open-armed society. But as alt-right sentiments seep across the border, how welcoming is the country? Omar Mouallem meets the refugees confronting racism, xenophobia - and the very idea of Canadianness
Photograph: Cooper & O’Hara
It was never particularly complicated. All Mohammad El Hindawi wanted for his family was a reprieve from the bed bugs afflicting his children. In the summer of 2015, while dealing with the vermin in their new home of Edmonton, he’d learned through a social worker that Canadians apparently loved camping, and so, as a new Canadian, he thought that perhaps this was something he should try. Camping was a new concept to this refugee born and raised in Hama, Syria, site of the Hama Massacre of 1982, when the military rounded up 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 people for execution (nobody really knows). His father and uncles were spared, but El Hindawi, who was six then, never shed the trauma and bitterness. His whole life has been a struggle, from his early 20s when he lost his first born son to measles, right up until November 13, 2014, the day he boarded a plane and flew to Canada—a country he’d never learned about in public school. His life remained a struggle, because he had six kids crying every night, a wife telling him they’d be better off on the streets, and a family panicking over a blood-sucking insect they’d never encountered before. So, yes, camping, whatever camping was, sounded like a great idea.
I met El Hindawi on the first sub-zero day of the fall of 2015, at a workshop at Edmonton’s Catholic Social Services, sponsored by the Government of Canada, to teach new Canadians about the ancient western art of roughing it in the woods. Along with his wife and kids, he was there to learn, and I was there as a reporter to tell a warm story about immigrants. The 43rd Canadian federal election was a month away and it seemed, at least in the moment, that more than global warming, health care, trade, taxes and pipelines, the most important issue to Canadians was Canadian-ness itself, and whether someone like El Hindawi, or his hijab-wearing wife, Nisreene, had and/or deserved the right to call themselves Canadian.
This debate, however, was all but invisible to the country’s new residents, who could hardly speak their new language, let alone read the news. If there was time between English school, job-hunting, and caring for an infant, three small children and two teens—all while relying upon a confusing public transit system—then that time was spent following the tragic unravelling of their homeland, not the comparatively minor issue of an election they couldn’t vote in.
An army of online commentators turned El Hindawi’s family into ammunition for an anti-immigrant campaign. “Ingrates,” “queue-jumpers” and “GO HOME!!!” were typical comments. “How about you go out and get a job Mohammed?” read another.
El Hindawi, a middle-class petroleum mechanic in Hama, was involved in anti-government activism for much of their last decade in Syria (against Nisreene’s wishes, who feared for their family). In 2011, when the rebellion began, he gave his vacant rental property to a group of rogue medical professionals who treated injured protestors. He believes a recaptured survivor was the one who ratted on him in March 2012, forcing El Hindawi to flee to Lebanon in a taxi with a friend’s ID. The driver returned two weeks later with the rest of the family, who paid border guards $200 to open the gate.
They lived in an apartment with sporadic water supply, surviving off a paltry United Nations allowance and the charity of a friend abroad and some Lebanese, though they found many of their new neighbours to be unwelcoming of refugees. It took eighteen months for the U.N. to resettle them. On a Wednesday morning, he got the call. They were going to Canada—the next day. “Sure, I’ll go to Canada, even though I don’t know what it is or where it is,” Mohammed would later tell me through a translator. “Good—I just want to bring my family to survive, and God knows what’s Canada.”
First impressions: Canada is cold, which he assumed when he was given a winter coat on arrival, but didn’t fully comprehend until the frost hit his cheeks outside Edmonton International Airport. Canada is also expensive; by spring their savings of $9,400 were gone.
But Canada is caring, too. An Arab business-owner hired El Hindawi on a construction site, though language difficulties and arthritis meant he was unable to keep the job. Insomnia didn’t help either, but a doctor diagnosed him with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s now receiving treatment for it. They were heartened by the generosity of Edmonton’s Capital Region Housing Corporation, which sheltered the large family at a subsidized rate of just $550 a month. But then came the infestation. Bed bugs. It made it even harder to sleep at night. It made the children miserable. It caused a rift between the parents.
Before leaving the camping workshop, El Hindawi showed me pictures of the red pocks on the back of his newborn—the first second generation Canadian for these first generation parents—and asked me to help. It seemed like a worthwhile human interest story for my newspaper, so I took his phone number to pass on to my editor. A week later, another reporter came to his home to write about their living conditions, which turned out to be quite complicated.
Numerous health inspectors who’d come to their duplex had deemed it safe. The landlord had sprayed repeatedly for vermin and the El Hindawi’s had purged the space of any possibly infested object (meaning yet another loss of worldly possessions). Still, the pocks returned. There were few affordable housing options for the family of eight, the most recent inspection found no evidence of bedbugs and the landlord had been taking the complaints seriously. When the facts were laid out in the story and published on the cover of Metro News, an army of online commentators turned El Hindawi’s family into ammunition for their anti-immigrant campaign.
“Ingrates,” “queue-jumpers” and “GO HOME!!!” were typical comments. “How about you go out and get a job Mohammed?” read another. The newspaper deleted and closed the comments section, but not before El Hindawi himself had them read to him. The malice was aggregated and proliferated by alt-right media sites such as The Rebel, owned by Alberta’s infamous and Islamophobic pundit Ezra Levant. The case of the ungrateful and troublesome El Hindawis was used by such sites as clear evidence that Canada needed to keep refugees out.
An Angus Reid survey of national attitudes toward religions showed more Canadians have negative than neutral views of Muslims, and it is a big gap down to the next religion on the list.
There were sympathetic readers, some of whom called the newspaper to help, but the harsh words still came as a shock to El Hindawi. “I’ve never cried in public, but when I read them I cried,” he said. “I lost my father and my son, but I never cried like that. They hurt me so badly. Their words just touched my soul.” This was not the fair and tolerant Canada the settlement agents told him he was bringing his family to.
But it is his Canada, our Canada, a democracy founded on and propagated through various undemocratic practices—cultural genocide, Papal bulls, bad-faith treaties—always with the white euro-Christian norm at the centre of the effort to safeguard itself from ‘the Other’, whoever that might be. Ancient Greeks called the others they encountered “barbarians.” Islamic crusaders then (and now, in the form of ISIS) called them “infidels.” In the U.S. and Canada, we have many words but generally adhere to the politest one: immigrants. Though the majority of Canadians welcome this Other, defend this Other and identify with this Other (because to be a land of one we must be a land of Others), they might still distrust this Other. And currently, no Other in this country is distrusted more than the one who looks like an El Hindawi.
An Angus Reid survey of national attitudes toward religions showed more Canadians have negative than neutral views of Muslims, and it is a big gap down to the next religion on the list. Prejudice against Islam is highest in Quebec, where two thirds admit to it, and where six Muslim men were gunned down in the middle of prayer last January by a White Nationalist who cultivated a pro-Trump fanaticism online. We can only speculate whether the massacre, which happened the weekend President Donald Trump signed an executive order enacting a legal version of his promised “Muslim Ban,” was provoked by the politics of the day, but such a tragedy was inevitable, Trump or no. Though hate crimes in general are declining, they are not declining against Canada’s one million Muslims. In fact, they have more than doubled between 2012 and 2014. These are numbers reported before Trump, before Brexit, before the Burka Ban and Barbaric Cultural Practises hotline. Before Nice and San Bernadino. Before Orlando and Berlin. “Someday something bad will happen in this country,” El Hindawi told me, “and as a Syrian refugee I’ll be in trouble.”
Photograph: Cooper & O’Hara
My father, Ahmed Mouallem, emigrated from Lebanon in 1970, when it was on the cusp of a civil war that killed four per cent of the country’s population and displaced another quarter. He was sixteen, but by the time he could legally vote he didn’t have to think about who he’d cast his ballot for: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the man who spritzed multiculturalism into the crisp Canadian air. Though the official policy felt fragile in those rare moments when he was called a “deport,” or when he overheard complaints of immigrants taking jobs from Canadians, you couldn’t convince Ahmed that Allan had an advantage over him. Or that Ahmed had an advantage over Aboriginals. “In Canada,” my father would tell me, “if you work hard you will succeed.” The lesson, as I interpreted it, was that labour and location were the critical factors; success had nothing to do with race, religion or anything else.
In August 2016, I asked my father to translate during an interview with Mohammed El Hindawi. As I drove from my parents spacious modern home on Edmonton’s north side to an aged pink row-house deep on the south side, I asked Ahmed, a businessman without a high-school degree who’d retired at 49 if he thought Syrian refugees would have the same shot at success that he had. He said that they have it even easier with so much government support; that kind of direct support didn’t exist in the early 70s. I recast my question to be generally about Muslim immigrants. “Maybe in the States they’d have problems, because of 9/11 and so many other things where the Muslim was involved. But right here, no,” he said. “I never worry because I have the best neighbours. We respect each other and always say hi, even the Vietnamese guy. So if you just walk straight, ignore what’s around you, work hard, you don’t have to worry about nothing. Just look at your future in the right way, and you’ll be OK.”
His faith in Canada was, and is, unshakeable. I parked and we stepped out of the car, but 10 metres from Mohammed El Hindawi’s front door, I began to fear that he had texted me the wrong address. A dreamcatcher was floating in the entryway of the town-home. I turned to my translator, concerned, but then we heard Arabic music wafting out an open window. Before I knocked, El Hindawi greeted us with his middle son, Wael, whose short stature and chubby arms reminded me of myself at twelve. El Hindawi, a thirty-nine-year-old with stubble on his chin and who dressed youthfully in an untucked pink polo, looked nothing like my dad, a man who’d been wearing dark dress shirts tucked into pleated pants for the thirty-one years I’d known him.
I asked El Hindawi about the dreamcatcher. He said he’d found it at the Value Village. “Do you know what it is?” I said.
A concerned look overcame Wael. “Haram?” he asked. Sinful. It was one of the two hundred or so Arabic words I knew.
“No haram,” I said. “This is from the original people of Canada. It’s one the most Canadian things you can own. It keeps away the bad dreams.”
“Good,” said El Hindawi, whose English had greatly improved in the last eleven months. He told me that he’d just returned from a weeklong trip camping to Sylvan Lake, a couple hours south of Edmonton. They drove there as a family, and it wasn’t even their first camping trip that summer.
During Ramadan in 2012, a missile landed directly outside the family’s home as they were about to break fast. His six-year-old daughter was hurled out a two-storey window by the impact.
He and his wife Nisreene, who was upstairs tending to their eighteen-month-old daughter, had spare time on their hands now that the children were back in school. Mohammed was still unemployed, and frustratingly so since he’d worked so hard to learn English, but otherwise he was noticeably more relaxed than when I’d first met him. The bed bugs were gone. The children safe and integrating. He felt more confident speaking up for himself. The newspaper article about his family’s dilemma didn’t just inflame the Internet’s fringe right, but it also sparked rumours in his largely ethnic neighbourhood. He said there was word going around that social services were going to take away his children. “But the last five, six months, better,” he said, smiling.
They welcomed us into their living room. His neighbour Sharef Sharf, was sitting on the couch. Like El Hindawi, Sharf had arrived from Syria via Lebanon, but he’d arrived post-election, after Canada had decided, with a resounding “yes”, to accept more refugees. Perhaps it was the relief of having brought his wife and three small children to safety, or maybe it was arriving in a rebranded tolerant Canada on one of the first planeloads of 25,000 promised refugees, but Sharf seemed to almost glow from the inside out. While Wael doted on us with an overflowing pot of sweetened Turkish tea, Sharf used a big smile and a patchwork of English and Arabic to weave the story of his escape from Syria.
Sharf lived in a village near Daraa, the spark that lit the Syrian civil war in 2011 when a group of boys aged ten to fifteen inspired by the Arab Spring spray-painted “the people want to topple the regime” on a wall in plain view. The boys were arrested, interrogated, tortured and, they believed, prepared for execution. Massive protests saved their lives. Sharf, who ran a construction company in Daraa, was hesitant to get involved in the uprising, given that the military violently and fatally suppressed opposition. The burgeoning checkpoints worried him, as did the rebel commanders who overtook those checkpoints, but, he said, as long as he could feed his children he had no reason to leave.
Then, on the seventh day of Ramadan in 2012, a missile landed directly outside the family’s home as they were about to break fast. His six-year-old daughter was hurled out a two-storey window by the impact. Outside, he scooped her up, a leg dangling backwards over his arm. With his family in tow, he carried her five kilometres to a hospital, where doctors wrapped sticks around her legs and sent them away. The next time he saw their home was in a picture, months later, after they had fled to Lebanon. “It was like gravel,” he told me.
Here was a middle-class man whose entire life was uprooted in an instant. I couldn’t fathom abandoning every thing you owned, almost everyone you knew, at a moment’s notice. I asked him how difficult that decision must have been, but he didn’t understand the question. I turned to my father to translate my question into Arabic, but he interjected. “It was not a hard decision,” my translator assured me, who until this moment was doing his job without apparent editorialization. “Trust me.”
I insisted he ask Sharf the question. He complied.
“It wasn’t even a choice,” said Sharf. “It is life or death. I am life after death.”
Sharf did not share El Hindawi’s worry about Canadians turning on him and people like him. It seemed implausible given the welcoming he received in Canada in January 2016. “This is my sponsorship family,” he said, handing me his phone to look at a picture of 20 people posing with his wife and children at the Edmonton International Airport, most of them Chinese-Canadians from a Mandarin church, as well as people of European and Indo-Asian backgrounds. Sharf lurched forward and flicked the screen. There was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his arm around Sharf and his son. When his children grow up, Sharf said, he’ll tell them that they can become doctors because of this man. “Justin Trudeau is our hero. A hero to my little boy.” As for Canada’s last prime minister, all Sharf understood about him was: “He made us wait two years.”
After the election of the Trudeau Liberals, Canada swiftly rebranded itself as a tolerant and open-armed society. Within months of the parliamentary exchange of power, the foreign press gushed over the nation’s treatment of refugees in stark contrast to most of the rest of the Western world. Canada has accepted a relatively small number of Syria’s six million refugees, but the Trudeau government continues to hail its comparatively small effort; within hours of President Trump’s recent indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and four month ban on all others, Trudeau tweeted a photo of himself hugging a Syrian boy at an airport, the visual message being that Canada was there to help. They would not, however, raise Canada’s refugee quota—or scrap a policy that blocks U.S. migrants from seeking asylum up north, forcing some asylum seekers to literally lose digits and limbs to frostbite as they sneak across our open borders. Still, for many of the migrants who’ve already arrived, the reputation is warranted. “Something I like very much here in Canada is they call us newcomers, not refugees,” said Daroo Karajoul, a cosmopolitan Kurdish Syrian with a gem ear piercing.
I met Karajoul at a central Edmonton Lebanese restaurant for hookah and shish kebab. Two other Syrian men, Basel Abou Hammrah and Morhaf Aldiri, joined us. Speaking demographically, the men I sat with ticked the boxes of the crude caricatures people create to represent the problems immigration brings. They are single men in their mid-twenties. Two of them are Muslim. All arrived thanks to the Liberal’s resettlement campaign that their Conservative opponents warned could allow for contamination by extremists. Yet they have found few, if any, indications that they are not welcome here. If anything, Canadians can be overly accommodating, said Karajoul, noting a visiting neighbour who worried she had offended him with her exposed shoulders.
“Here, they treat us as human,” said Abou Hammrah, a clean-shaven Arab Christian. “They encourage you to do things with your life.” Abou Hammrah, an accountant who moved to Edmonton with his mother and siblings (his father died of stress-related causes during the war), told me his experiences in Canada are starkly different from those in Lebanon, where they slept five to a tent and were interrogated at checkpoints outside the camp.
Aldiri, a student of French literature, echoed the treatment amongst his fellow Sunni Muslims in Jordan: “The camp was like a zoo in the middle of the desert. You can’t leave and there’s police around you everywhere.” When his family moved into an apartment in the capital Amman, they later learned that they were renting it at ten times the cost as their neighbours. Any complaints were met with, If you don’t like it here, go back! “Nobody saw us as a human,” he said. “Just as an economic problem. It was very racist.”
The treatment of his family and fellow Syrians wasn’t racist in the literal sense. Aldiri and his discriminators were of the same race, and likely the same religion, sharing more or less the same basic customs and speaking the same language. But they were stripped of their humanity and whittled down to undesirable objects. Subjected to everything that we’ve come to understand as racism. But it does beg the question: What, precisely, is racism? And how is it expressed in places typically known for being tolerant? Places like Canada.
Canada’s particular brand of prejudice might be called “democratic racism,” which is essentially how the sociologist Frances Henry characterized multiculturalism as a tool to rationalize racial disadvantages and keep “white dominance” intact. Other sociologists have dubbed Canada’s attitudes towards the Other as “polite racism.” Whatever we call the prejudice that flows under, and sometimes on, the surface of our society, it might be epitomized by the living conditions of indigenous people living in Canada, who have suffered “more hardship than the African-American population in the U.S.,” according to data analyzed by Maclean’s in 2015. Taking into account factors such as life expectancy, high-school drop-out rates and median income, the descendants of slaves in racially charged America are living better lives than our First Peoples.
Even as racism has been largely written out of Canadian law—ending the “Head Tax” on Chinese immigrants, closing Japanese internment camps and shuttering the last residential school in 1996 (though the Indian Act remains in good standing)—racism is given air in Canada through the right to hold and disseminate racist opinions. Canada’s current hate speech laws were formed in the 1970s to combat a surge of anti-Semitic incidents, but in 2014, a crucial law, Section 13 of the Human Rights Code, which criminalized hate speech online, was repealed. (Curiously, that same year, Bill C-52 cracked down on online recruitment and propaganda by Islamic terrorists.) But in the noble pursuit of protecting free speech, lifting the Internet clause has created a safe place for outlets such as Rebel Media, which has over half a million YouTube subscribers.
Karajoul accepts prejudice as a fact of life because, as a minority Kurd, he’s been on the receiving end of it everywhere he’s lived – Syria, Turkey and even Canada, where a man on Tinder rejected him with the message: “White is right.”
It has also taken the shackles off sites like Stormfront Canada, a popular white supremacy forum from the Internet’s halcyon days, whose users are “disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings” since 1995 (over one hundred murders between 2009 and 2014 alone), according to the U.S.-based Southern Poverty Law Centre.
Stormfront members and online spreaders of hate speech once hid behind screen names, but now Facebook commentators more often use links that identify them (all part of the ongoing validation of the views they represent). Irfan Chaudhry, a former criminologist and now a University of Alberta PhD candidate who researches racism online, says the unveiled nature of Facebook especially gives him access to real people using real names and real faces. He admits that data gathered from social media is imperfect and anecdotal, but it remains the most open pathway to gaining insight into Canadians’ sentiments on minorities. “The sentiment’s always existed, but it’s just now more visible,” he told me in the days leading up to the U.S. election. “The reality chips away at what some envision as Canada’s greatest strength—multiculturalism and the acceptance of others. When you start digging at the surface, we’re not very accepting.”
Karajoul accepts prejudice as a fact of life because, as a minority Kurd, he’s been on the receiving end of it everywhere he’s lived–Syria, Turkey and even Canada, where a man on Tinder rejected him with the message:“White is right.” It was no big deal. He always dreamed of a place where there are “no borders.” And Canada, to him, is the closest thing to it. “It’s like a garden of people. All these different flowers and smells.”
But snakes slither in this garden. Certainly, the White Nationalist movement could infiltrate the government, as it seems to have in America. There are also Islamic extremists who could reverse popular opinion, as they have in Germany, where the doors were thrown wide open early on but where there has now been a backlash. There have been protests of significant size, namely those staged by the Dresden nationalist group PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”). The Soldiers of Odin, a White Nationalist vigilante group founded in Finland less than two years ago, now has chapters in every major Canadian city, where they’re known to white-wash their intimidation campaigns by volunteering at homeless shelters or shovelling elderly people’s driveways. Polite racism indeed.
My request to interview a member of Soldiers of Odin was denied by the Edmonton president, but I was able to speak with Jenny Hill (a pseudonym), the president of PEGIDA Canada. She immediately recoiled at my use of the word Islamophobia to describe the sentiment of her group. “The term is a non-word,” she told me over the phone. “I guess you could say we fear Islam. I fear Sharia Law coming into Canada. In that case, you could say I am Islamophobic.”
As an outspoken critic Hill fears violent backlash. PEGIDA’s small Toronto rallies have been outnumbered by counter-protesters from the anti-fascist group Antifa, who’ve called them “Nazi scum.” On one occasion, police stopped their protest, concerned it would escalate to violence. Hill doesn’t doubt that her group has attracted some Neo-Nazis, and said she goes through great efforts to remove racist comments when they appear. (A cursory scroll shows either that “racist comments” is a relative term or Hill is having trouble keeping up with her workload.) Ironically, she was less fearful of Muslims than extreme leftists. She’s never had a negative encounter with a Muslim person, she admitted. “We are concerned about the ideology. The amount of Muslims that are killed by other Muslims because of a difference in doctrine or how they follow the Quran is huge and horrible. We think they’re victims of their ideology.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t so much try to reconcile my dual heritage as deny it. It was humiliating to hear my parents speak Arabic in public, and, to this day, I speak a fraction of the Arabic my siblings can. I avoided most of my parents’ food, rejected their dances, resented their chauvinism. Growing up in a small town in the conservative heartland, it seemed as a family—these funny-sounding Muslim pita-eaters—that we went through great efforts to Other ourselves. We held a relatively fine standing in the world, however, something I understood from the earliest jokes I learned on the schoolyard, like, “What do you call three Indians in a ditch?” (A sleepover.) Behind our closed doors, there was serious distrust of all the Others—whites, Natives, smaller Muslims sects, and especially Jews, though I didn’t actually meet one until high school—but outside our household doors my family wished to be accepted as honorary whites. And we were, even to the point of being embraced as such in our community.
And this is where a reader could reasonably expect me to write: “And then 9/11 happened.” But the truth is that 9/11 happened and not much changed in our immediate world. Yes, there were more people suddenly interested in my background and a few wisecracks (Omar bin Laden) that I laughed off. But we lost neither friends nor customers at our family restaurant, which was busier than ever thanks to an oil boom. The bigger change was within myself. Even if I didn’t feel like I was being treated suspiciously, I internalized the fear of radical Islam, and exercised any faith left inside me by joining a “skeptics” group and antagonizing street-preachers whenever time allowed it.
Some of the authors I was reading at the time (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) cautioned against all supernatural beliefs, and all religions, but when it came to Islam the message tended to be more heavy-handed. Many writers and thinkers I came across felt the Quran espoused misogyny, bloodlust and global domination, that Muslim immigrants are populating Europe so quickly and birthing so many babies, that by the end of the 21st century it will be a Muslim majority continent, or that Islam promotes a culture of conquest and its followers wish to impose Sharia Law (the first I’d heard of it). Most worrying of all was that these writers believed Islam was “incompatible” with Western values. In a sense, they feared Islam would conquer the West just as Christians did, systematically purging non-believers through genocide and indoctrination. The way PEGIDA’s Jenny Hill, an ardent Christian, felt about a religious takeover surely echoed what Indigenous peoples felt as they watched their practices and visibility erased from the landscape. Hill, after some consideration, agreed that it wasn’t so different. “I don’t want that oppression to happen again.”
She doesn’t appear to have much to worry about. The best demographic science suggests Europe’s Muslim population will peak at ten per cent and America’s at two per cent, according to The Myth of the Muslim Tide by journalist Doug Saunders. Children of Muslim immigrants do not have as many children as their parents and they secularize at rates roughly equal to that of immigrants of other minority religions. Still, as President Trump demonstrates daily, facts are simply quaint artefacts of a bygone era.
Today, there is no propaganda machine more effective than fear-mongering around Islamic extremism. With ISIS’s barbarism and attacks on the West ratcheting up the hysteria, Islamophobia has gone mainstream. Would-be Alberta premier and former immigration minister Jason Kenney tweets bogus images of religious enslavement. The National Post covers a dubious self-published study alleging extremist views in average mosques. Conservative MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch—whose selling point to the base is a “non-Canadian values test” for new immigrants (a clear dog-whistle about Sharia-hysteria)—defends the Trump Administration’s right to register Muslims, ban immigration from Muslims nations and concentrate their counterextremism efforts exclusively on Islam.
When our political and media figures adopt or endorse xenophobia, it gives social licence to the harboured racism of the segment of the general public that once kept such views under wraps. I began to see this clearly in the lead up to Canada’s 2015 federal election (and it hasn’t subsided). A balloon artist busking in downtown Edmonton, upon learning my name, joked that he’d create a “terrorist” for me (whatever that would look like). On Twitter, I’m blocking users spamming me with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab epithets like Whack-a-Mole. In full view on Facebook, friends touted “Canadian values” and decried settling refugees over helping “our own.”
A childhood friend recently posted a graphic video of a young straight couple being stoned to death by ISIS, supposedly because of their inter-religious relationship, adding a rant against letting any more of “these people” through our borders. Did it not occur to her that “these people” could have been the murdered lovers, not the stone throwers? That they were just newer versions of the Mouallems and Mourads (my mothers maiden names), who also left a war-torn country to build a better life. If you want to know what Syrian refugees want from our country, there are now 40,000 of them you can ask. “My dream,” Mohammed El Hindawi told me, “is that my kids will be doctors so one day they can go to Syria and look after the people and tell them about the life they found in Canada.” But even though Canadians elected Trudeau’s refugee-friendly government, repeated polls show we are almost evenly split on whether to take them in. And there is ample evidence to be found, without having to spend much time looking, that our welcoming attitude sits in fragile balance.
Because of the rise in women in headscarves who are being assaulted, and harassed, an increasing number of self-defence courses for Muslim women are being offered across Canada. I observed one, last fall, where fifty Muslim women in loose-fitting clothes gathered in an Edmonton school gymnasium. This course was organized by Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), which also created an “Islamophobia hotline.” AMPAC was launched after the Harper government proposed a ban on taking citizenship oaths under a niqab or burka. “That’s when things started changing,” Nakita Valerio, who sits on the council, told me during the self-defence course. “People I know started talking to me about how Islam is not like other religions, repeating things about the hyper-sexualization of our men, a lot of talk about the hijab. I feel like I’m under the microscope more.”
She had never expected this moment to come to Canada. Europe, where her family is from, yes, but not here. Six years ago, while in Florence, without any provocation whatsoever, a man grabbed Valerio by her head-scarf and whipped her into traffic while yelling at her to go home. Had he managed to tear off her headscarf, and not just chunks of hair, he would perhaps have seen that the Italian-Canadian Muslim convert looked no different from his daughter. It was Valerio’s first week wearing the hijab, and since moving back to her birthplace, Canada, Valerio has committed herself to countering Islamophobia. Last December, when a senior citizen was captured on video taunting hijabis at an Edmonton train station with a noose while singing “O, Canada,” Valerio and a friend returned to the scene of the crime to distribute flowers to women in headscarves for a day. The day after the Quebec City mosque shooting, she co-organized a vigil with close to 3,000 attendees braving the frigid Edmonton weather. The outpouring of support heartens her, but Valerio has a less-than-optimistic forecast for Muslims. “I worry that people will get lost and burnt out, and as a result lesson their ability to take action. A similar set of circumstances happened before the Second World War.” Valerio, who is a student of Jewish Holocaust studies, added: “As a veiled woman, I say, with no disrespect to the Holocaust, that we are today’s Jews.”
The comparison is jarring, but clear parallels between twentieth century anti-Semitism and twenty-first century Islamophobia are emerging. The uncapturably sickening treatment of Jews, not just in the last century, but throughout so many historical periods, is a pattern that appears to be finding a new modern expression. Frances Henry, a Jewish refugee of Hitler’s Germany, and co-author of The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society, recognizes the rhetoric coming from right-wing populism. “What are we to make of it,” he writes, “other than there is a new scapegoat?”
ISIS has, of course, simply carried the fear of the Other to its logical conclusion, an all-out global war, and is appealing to the disenfranchised abroad using the same online tools as white supremacists. This is how ISIS is winning over white men like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Aaron Driver, John Maguire and Alexandre Bissonnette, turning them into trophies. The more intolerant the West becomes, the easier their job. With every Islamophobic event another alienated Muslim is radicalized. With every terrorist attack, another alienated non-Muslim is radicalized.
Despite the various xenophobic undercurrents flowing through their new home, Mohammed El Hindawi and Sharef Sharf have nevertheless fully embraced the values of multiculturalism. Not that they are naïve about the precariousness of tolerance. Worried that another attack perpetrated by Muslim extremists will compromise his living conditions, El Hindawi told me, “If I find out that one of my neighbours is doing these things, I will take them to the police myself.”
By the end of our evening together, my father had all but given up on translating, and it became three men fervently debating in Arabic about Canadian cultural differences and the futility of Middle Eastern politics. It felt like a scene from my childhood, sitting quietly in living rooms, with abundant fruit, tea and sweets spread across a coffee table, being entertained by the impassioned discussions of adults. I overheard, in my limited Arabic, my father ask if they worried that their religion and culture would be seduced away from his children. Sharf said he wasn’t the slightest concerned, and he and my father debated over the importance of retaining their culture. “Don’t you want your kids to stay Muslim, marry a Muslim, and not say, ‘Get away from me’ to the parents?” my dad asked, apparently unconcerned that Exhibit A in this argument, his son, was beside him.
“No,” said Sharf, shaking his head. “We will just do what we can do.”
I interjected, and asked Sharf what he wanted from his new life. He paused, appearing suddenly emotional and silent, he thought about it with a blissful smile. “Don’t start singing now,” my dad joked, anticipating the man might break in out in song.
Sharf laughed. “Our goals are just to survive.” He looked at each of us in turn. “These are not big goals.”
After the election of the Trudeau Liberals, Canada swiftly rebranded itself as a tolerant, open-armed society. But as alt-right sentiments seep across the border, how welcoming is the country? Omar Mouallem meets the refugees facing racism, xenophobia and the very idea of Canadianness