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A love letter to Winnipeg

Globe-trotting correspondent 'just wanted to live a normal Canadian kid's life'

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In her seven years as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Nahlah Ayed was deeply committed to reporting on the experiences of ordinary people in the midst of turmoil.

Her personal drive to humanize stories was instilled in her, she says, when she was displaced from her beloved hometown of Winnipeg as a young child.

"I felt it was important to talk about people," the Arabic-speaking Ayed says about her often-dangerous assignments, from 2002-09, in hot spots such as Tehran, Beirut, Baghdad and Gaza. "That's the kind of journalism I do."

Ayed, who is 42 and single, is now a Toronto-based reporter for CBC-TV's The National. She tells her story in the new hardcover memoir A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter's Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring (Penguin Group Canada, $32).

She will speak and sign copies at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Monday at 7 p.m., hosted by CBC Radio's Terry MacLeod.

The author and her three siblings were born here to Hassan and Nariman Ayed, Palestinian refugees. The family lived a comfortable life on Archibald Street while her father worked at a restaurant.

But in 1976, when Ayed was six, her parents took the family back to live in a crowded, United Nations-built refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. They felt it was the only way to connect their children to their heritage.

"My parents were not religious people," Ayed says. "But they were quite worried about us getting to know our culture -- our language and values -- and our (extended) family.

"It was probably the biggest culture shock of my life. . . . We always kept asking, 'When are we going back (to Winnipeg)?'"

After a couple of years in the refugee camp, the family moved to a stable neighbourhood and the children adjusted well. But Ayed's father could never find enough work in Jordan. When she was 13, they re-immigrated to Winnipeg.

They settled on Ashland Avenue in Riverview. Her parents ran a convenience store, and later a Mr. Sub outlet on Pembina Highway. Ayed enrolled at Churchill High School.

Though she was academically ahead of her classmates, her English had eroded. "I couldn't even say my name out loud," she remembers. "I was painfully shy."

Gradually, she came out of her shell, getting involved in band and choir. There was only one other Arab family that attended Churchill.

"I just wanted to live a normal Canadian kid's life," she says. "I wanted nothing to do with the Middle East. I didn't want to hear about it."

That perspective lasted a long time. Ayed earned a science degree in genetics and a master's in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Manitoba. She fell in love with reporting while working on the student paper, The Manitoban, and moved to Ottawa in the 1990s to study journalism at Carleton University.

In 2008, U of M awarded her an honorary doctorate for her distinguished achievement.

Earlier this year, she returned to her high school to do a story for The National about immigrant teens. She found that, in contrast to her own parents' urging (once they resettled here) that their kids integrate fully as Canadians, many of today's teens feel pressured by their parents to maintain culture-of-origin identities.

"I felt as though the kids I met at Churchill were more divided than we were, about who they are."

She's grateful that her parents made sure she could speak and read Arabic, because it proved vital to her career in the Middle East. She stresses that her mom and dad, who now live in Fort Richmond, are proud Canadians.

After the Gulf War started, she recalls, an agent from CSIS came into her dad's sub shop, more than once, to question him about the Arab community's view of the war.

"Implicit in the question was that my parents somehow would be more loyal to some other country, than to Canada. My parents are very, very loyal to this country, and they were quite offended."

A Thousand Farewells includes something of a love letter to the city that shaped the author. "Winnipeg was family, despite the fact that we had not a single relative there," Ayed writes.

"Winnipeg is the safest home I've ever had," she adds. "It's beyond home."

 

See Melissa Martin's review in today's Books section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 G3

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