March 15, 2016
It was yet another sleepless January morning, tossing and turning with no chance of being able to fall back asleep. For the past few months, I had been experiencing this restlessness, usually showing up at night, with my mind relentlessly going 100 miles a minute. As most mornings happened to go, I picked up my cell phone and began to ritualistically scroll through Instagram, Twitter, and my emails just to occupy my brain with something other than the thought of the unhealthy lack of sleep I had been experiencing. The first email to pop up was from an awesome alternative travel company I had begun following on Instagram, El Camino Travel. It came from the Founder and CEO, Katalina Mayorga, with the opportunity to join her and a small group of 9 others on an unofficial trip to the island of Lesvos in Greece. The basis would be to provide emergency humanitarian relief to refugees arriving on the island. I really don’t even remember what I replied back to Katalina that morning, I just instantly knew it was something that I needed to be a part of.
Step back 4.5 months to a short but forever moving trip to Istanbul this past August. I wrote recently on how inspiring I found this city, the friends I was so fortunate to make, and of the immense hospitality of the Turkish people. What I waited until now to describe in more detail was the heartbreaking images of Syrian refugees throughout the entire city. As I set out every morning by foot through Taksim Square and the rest of Istanbul, I passed mothers with small children cradled in their arms, and young children out scavenging in garbage cans and peddling whatever they could to tourists to make some money. I had been following the Syrian crisis through the media, but seeing the effects first hand in Istanbul made it all so real. I realized during that time that there were over 2.5 million refugees in Turkey from Syria alone, living in ghettos and camps, without the ability to obtain work visas, make a living, or for refugee children and students to be able to continue their educations. Ultimately, leaving most refugees in Turkey living a life of limbo. As I left Istanbul, I will never forget reading the news update on my phone as I boarded the plane back to Bucharest, with an article that moved the entire planet. The little Syrian boy, Alayn Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been found by coastguards washed ashore on the coast of Turkey. With plans to reunite with family in Canada, the Kurdi family had paid human smugglers to get them to Europe via the Aegean Sea just as hundreds of thousands of others have, and continue to do every day.
I returned back home to Canada a few days later with feelings of helplessness, frustration and the need to do something.
The refugee crisis has affected many people in so many ways, whether directly or indirectly. What I found most frustrating upon returning to Canada this past autumn in the height of it all were the negative and frightened reactions of so many people. Given at the time, Canada was in the middle of a federal election with islamophobia ad campaigns and anti-immigration rhetoric via the Conservative party in full swing. I saw friends and acquaintances posting fear mongering videos, non-reputable articles, and ludicrous statements on social media. So many people harbouring such anger at the prospect of a new Liberal government accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in the midst of a war on terrorism and ISIS. So much misunderstanding and even more misperceptions exist within our communities today towards cultures that are different from those that we have become accustomed to.
For me, this has constantly brought me back to when my own family was forced to immigrate to Canada. In their early 30’s, my parents left their lives, culture, and families behind for the unknown. We immigrated to Canada when I was shy of 5 years old because I was not able to receive the necessary medical attention in post-revolution Romania to an uncommon, life-threatening, but easily treatable condition. Following the same course as many immigrants and refugees, my father left us behind in Romania until he was able to secure work and papers in Canada so that we could go through the process of reunification. The bravery and immense sacrifices my parents made to start over in Canada gave me a second chance to live a life full of every opportunity. Not knowing the language, the customs or even the institutional processes in Canada, they knew that the only way they could provide a better future for their family was to trust that the place they were putting all of their hope and faith into would welcome them, teach them and introduce them to a new community and way of life. That is something that I have carried with me my entire life, and feel forever grateful and indebted to my parents, to Canada, and to humanity as a whole. My experience has always shown me and reminded me of what is possible. As this wave of mass migration continues on (the largest in history since WWII) what I notice many people forgetting time and again is that we are all humans, part of the same race, with our own hopes and dreams, separated only by drawn borders on a map. What we all seek, no matter our individual circumstances or motivations, is to live a full life of opportunity, peace and personal freedom.
As I write this, I am on the last leg of my flights on the way to Athens from Paris. I have opened my third airline travel magazine and have just read the third Editor’s note of my trip, all of which have addressed the global refugee crisis in one way or another. I think this speaks volumes, especially considering I have sat in the very seats of each airline on my way to do what I can to provide some sort of relief to the situation and the people who have suffered and given up so much in search of peace and safety. We can all do more to make sure that in the end, humanity is penned in the history books as being courageous, caring and most of all human. Not everyone needs to hop on a flight to Greece or Turkey or anywhere else in the world experiencing crises. The most important and impactful work is that which we can do within our own communities; making sure that newcomers are welcomed, supported, and provided with the opportunities to succeed and become part of a society that is proud to have them. As a Romanian-Canadian, I feel so proud to see my community in Ottawa doing exactly that. As I have been volunteering with Refugee 613, an organization set up to coordinate Ottawa’s local response to the global refugee crisis, I have witnessed the tireless work of an entire community coming together to make sure that newcomers are welcomed in the most Canadian way possible; with open arms and open hearts. That has been incredible.
I’ll leave you here, as my flight is preparing to descend into Athens, with a short but moving, and incredibly timely quote from the President and CEO of Air Canada in the latest issue of Enroute Magazine. Mr. Rovinescu himself immigrated to Canada from Romania at the age of 5, and in his letter addresses the current refugee crisis by recounting the airlifting of thousands of Syrian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon by Air Canada;
Be kind to one another, because you never know what someone's story may be.