Filmmaker: Lynn Raineault

This year is the 60th anniversary of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UNHCR) and it is marking the occasion with a new campaign called One is too many.

There are currently 15 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the world - that is 15 million stories of upheaval, dislocation, want and misery. 

Filmmaker Lynn Raineault has documented the stories of four of the luckier ones - those who found a way out of danger and despair and who have demonstrated incredible courage in rebuilding their lives. Here is her account of the making of the fourth story in her series - that of the Tayem family's journey from Iraq to Vancouver in Canada.

In the autumn of 2010, I was hired to do three profiles of refugees for the UNHCR. The stories were destined for a site that would commemorate the organisation's 60th anniversary.

I have to say I drew the long straw. My stories were meant to counterbalance some of the others - those of futility and hopelessness. My stories were meant to show that when enough people take the time to care, when enough people make the effort to intervene, lives can indeed be made full and useful again.

I met Lem, a teacher from Sudan who, realising that his language skills would not allow him to be a teacher in Canada, put himself through school again, working nights to support his family. He bought a house, then he bought another one and today, he, his wife and their three beautiful sons in their hockey jerseys, are the most typical of Canadian families.

I met Edwin, a doctor from Colombia who was forced into hiding when as a member of a team who uncovered illegal gun sales from the police to paramilitary organisations, he became a target of those organisations. He has had to work as a care giver, construction worker, Spanish teacher, landscaper and office cleaner to keep his family going. Today he is the manager of a cleaning company and spends every spare hour studying to qualify as a doctor again.

And I met Shyrete, a housewife from Albania who walked through the night to a camp in Macedonia carrying little more than a bag of diapers, her toddler and her baby. Tears fill her eyes when she describes having to put her hands in her children's mouths to keep them from crying out and giving away their location. After six months of calling a tent in a refugee camp in Macedonia home, today home is a pretty house in a pretty suburb.

With each story my wonder at the absolute resilience of individuals given a second chance grew.

And then I found the Tayem family who had endured the longest and most arduous journey of them all; out of an embattled Baghdad through two months in no man's land on the Jordan/Iraq border, three-and-a-half years in a bleak camp in the Syrian desert to what they thought was their final - and totally unexpected destination - peaceful, idyllic Vancouver on Canada's west coast. 

I could see the story unfold in my mind. It would be told by Ihab, the fourth son and unofficial spokesperson for the group. Through him viewers would be introduced to the family and to the sponsors from the Christian churches who had taken the time to care and made the effort to intervene. Viewers would meet Nermeen Nammari, herself a Palestinian immigrant, who took the Tayem family under her wing. And we would all mingle with the newest sponsors, the B.C. Muslim Association who threw their support behind the Al Hol project as it has come to be  called. 

Well talk about those best laid plans. 

Never has a story I have worked on changed so fast and so often.

Just days before I arrived in Vancouver, I learned that Ihab was in fact leaving the city. He was going to Edmonton, Alberta to take a job. It was only for three weeks but our paths would intersect for only one day.  The scenes I had carried around in my head of a Tayem family barbecue - which I had been told they love - of Ihab at prayer with his father and brothers in the Al Salaam Mosque, of Ihab taking his children to the local pool, of him speaking in churches on behalf of the refugees, all just evaporated.

It took me a couple of days to realise that the new story was perhaps a truer reflection of the refugee experience. 
 
Ihab had not been idle during his sponsorship. He had learned to speak English with remarkable fluency. He worked overnights in a factory to earn extra money. He learned a trade in the hope of earning even more. 

But now that sponsorship was at an end and he would be forced to go to wherever the best opportunity for his family presented itself. For now that meant Edmonton. Family barbecues and pool time with his children just had to take second place. A television documentary was an easy third.

What I regret most about this new turn of events is not having the air time to introduce you to some of the people you would have met in the original story. 

People like David Starr, the principal of Edmonds Community School in Burnaby, part of the Greater Vancouver area. It is where Ahmad, Ihab's son, attended first grade.  

A third of the students there come from refugee backgrounds - from some 48 countries. I am convinced David can call each of the 325 students by name. And his pride in them is unmistakable. He tells me that when they reach high school anywhere from 50 to 75 per cent of their grades are A's and B's and that they have a pass rate of 93 to 94 per cent on average for their classes.  And just as important for David, children who would otherwise be enemies in their own countries become friends in his school. That is a story I plan to look into.

Shawkat Hasan is the vice president of social services for the B.C. Muslim Association (BCAM). The organisation's main mission is to build mosques - 12 large ones on the lower mainland - and schools. It does some charity work but until the Tayem family, no humanitarian work. A lot of people at the BCMA helped make that decision, but I have to think that Shawkat is one of the drivers. A Palestinian refugee, he is, he says, a product of refugee camps and the UNHCR school system. 

His back story would give fairy tales stiff competition. As a refugee in the camp, he often received parcels of used clothing. In the pocket of one of the garments was this message: "If you receive this, write to me at this address." It was an address in Vancouver. Shawkat wrote to its residents.

Not too long afterwards, a man from Vancouver and his son came to visit Shawkat in the camp. From that time, he says, until he graduated from university in the US, Shawkat received financial assistance from the family.

"I know what it means when you become a refugee," he says. "I've been through this. And I know what it means when someone helps you. So I feel deep in my heart that I want to do something for the refugees."

Muthanna Tayem faces a different kind of challenge than his brothers. He must scale the largest barrier of all - that of professionals whose credentials are not recognised in the western countries they have either emigrated or fled to. Muthanna is a chemical engineer and he aspires to be one again. Right now he is working in the same factory that Ihab once worked in and looking for an opportunity that will let him use the education he earned.

He is a thoughtful, intelligent man who, more than anyone in his family I think, understands the cultural implications of their move to Canada. "It's an open society," he says. "All I can do is teach my children what I think is right, what I believe, but ultimately they will make those decisions for themselves." Even if those decisions constitute a break from their past.

Muthanna was the driving force behind the family's escape from Baghdad. If they were going to die, he says, at least they would die on their own terms and not in some targeted act of violence against nameless Palestinians.

And you would like Feryal who, in spite of her fears and her worries, is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She was witness to the killing of her husband and son on the feast day of Eid ul-Adha. 

She admits to crying a lot - and to bouts of depression - but, taking her youngest children, she nonetheless joined that first group of Palestinians who made the dangerous journey to the Jordanian border in search of safety. 

Today she is coming out of her shell - slowly and tentatively - but coming out nonetheless. She now swims on ladies day at the local pool. And she cooks - fabulous Palestinian dishes that she insists even the most casual guest share with her. On the first Sunday of every month, she makes lunch for the members of the Unitarian Church in North Vancouver. The profits from the meal are helping to pay off the travel loan she owes the Canadian government.

She is helped in all of this always by Nermeen Nammari, a Palestinian immigrant to Canada who has become godmother to the entire family but who has a particular relationship with Feryal who she describes as "very special".

There are clearly political dimensions to this story that I have not explored. There are questions that have not been answered. I, for one, would like to know why the Canadian government, having vetted and cleared the entire family for entry into the country, then refused to pay for their passage and relocation. Why did private sponsors - the Christian churches and the mosque in Vancouver - have to undertake the responsibility shouldered in so many other cases by the Canadian government?

I cannot answer those questions because for me, this time, it was not about the politics but about the people. 

I agree with Heather Macdonald, the driving force behind the Al Hol project, that it is going to be difficult for them - but not impossible. My money is certainly on them.

 



Click here for more on Witness

Source: Al Jazeera