Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
The world we know, the world we knew
MY husband Farouk, and I made Winnipeg our home in 1965, choosing a new land of hope and abandoning our Syrian homeland where Farouk’s brother had been executed for leading a coup d’etat and where our son had been targeted for assassination.
These are two very different worlds, you will agree. Allow me to tell you about them, starting with what we found here, and then what we left behind there.
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Hard-working Chinese immigrants, once banned, have risen to the highest echelons of Manitoba.
German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province.
Arriving in Manitoba in the 1870s unprepared for a brutal winter, Icelandic settlers and their descendants have left their mark on our province.
Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L’art d’arrangiarsi (the art of getting by).
It used to be the only time Prairie folks met Spanish-speaking people was when they vacationed down south. More often now, they're the people next door.
When the first Middle East families immigrated to Manitoba, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic. But now all that has changed.
A booming Filipino community nearly 60,000 strong has transformed Manitoba.
As the city's Indo-Canadian population experiences dramatic growth, its pioneers recall their warm Winnipeg welcome.
Scarred by Holodomor, the Ukrainian community helped shape Winnipeg's cultural mosaic.
Manitoba's history is built on a foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives.
In the spring of 1958, Farouk and I came from Damascus, Syria, to Winnipeg with our oneyear- old son, Louay, on a one-year UN grant for Farouk to study for his master’s degree in agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
During our stay, we met only one Muslim family. They lived in Fort Whyte, which was all farmland surrounding the sugar beet factory. We returned to Syria in 1959.
In 1965, Farouk received a scholarship toward a PhD. They gave us a choice of all universities in the world.
We chose Winnipeg mostly because of the kindness of the people we met on our first visit and their unconditional acceptance of us as foreigners.
In 1965, Winnipeg had grown a bit and our community with it, so much so that we made an agreement with the International Centre to use their facilities for Friday prayers, meetings and celebrations.
As the congregation grew we met at other venues for Eid dinners in church basements and halls. We showed cultural movies and entertained our children. In the first years of Folklorama, we set up modest displays at the International Centre.
Needing a place to gather and worship, we started fundraising: We sold tickets and cooked dinners for large groups. We rented a booth at the Red River Exhibition and sold home-baked Arabic and Pakistani sweets.
However, not enough funds could be raised.
In early 1974, my husband, who was an Islamic Association trustee, wrote to the heads of state of Jordan, Libya and Saudi Arabia requesting donations to build the first mosque in this "faraway land" called Winnipeg. To our delight, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia sent us a cheque for $25,000. Donations from the community flowed. In August 1975, we held our first prayers at the Hazelwood Avenue mosque.
The Manitoba Islamic Association contracted Glenlawn Memorial Gardens and purchased burial plots, thus creating the current Muslim Cemetery. We started an annual coed summer youth camp for the children at West Hawk Lake and then near Gimli. We had a very vibrant pan-Canadian youth association. We created our Arabic-Islamic School, recruited pupils and counselled youth.
In 1974, I received my BA in French and psychology. I was involved in the Arab Student Organization, which was politically active, and I became president. We organized folkloric fashion shows for four consecutive years as part of the Festival of Life and Learning.
During my husband’s sabbatical leave starting in 1975, I acted as an ambassador on behalf of our student organization. I met with ministers of education and tourism and various officials in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Algeria.
In 1982, I obtained a master’s degree in French. I kept active in the Festival of Life and Learning, where we set up displays of various Middle Eastern cultures.
I had suffered from race discrimination while I lived as a child in France. Unfortunately, my oldest son suffered from a lack of understanding from his peers as well as from the administration of his school. He was mocked for his proper use of the English language as was taught in a British school in Syria. He was accused of snobbery and became a loner. However, he became a very successful man.
Our second son, born in Canada, to my despair, followed the crowd. At that time, I wondered about the wisdom of migrating to Canada. I was torn between the two cultures: the traditional culture where children respected their parents and elders and that of the free-opinionated, self-experimentation culture. They say "it takes a village to raise a child" and I was yearning for the support, advice and counselling of my family and elders.
Striving to change the image of Arabism and Islam, which has been severely damaged by politics and ignorance, I have always defended and promoted my race and religion by countering extremists’ views from within and outside our community.
The discrimination we received abroad does not compare to what we suffered in Syria at the hands of the Baathist regime. Farouk’s brother, Hisham, who was a colonel in the Syrian army, was executed by them during a failed coup d’etat he led. As well, we discovered in time a plot to kill my oldest son, who was six, by the driver while driving him to school.
The only upside for us is that after Amin Al-Hafez seized power in Syria in 1963, we decided to stay in Canada and become Canadian citizens. In spite of my occasional past doubts, I am very happy to be a Canadian. I set up my roots in Winnipeg. This is my home.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Syrian civil servants were honest: There was a law called "From where did you get that" with severe punishment of the guilty.
Since the current regime took over, lawlessness flourished in all walks of life. In order to have any transaction done one has to bribe a so-called friend, a member of the party to get any work done to the point that the Baathists became de facto silent partners in most businesses. The cost of business included a bribe budget.
Higher-up party members became very powerful and above the law. The brother of Hafez Al Asad, for example, when he saw a beautiful girl in the street or at a restaurant, he would either kidnap her or have one of his ghouls do it. He then would rape her. Many of the victims disappeared. Teenage and young adult children of high-placed individuals would drive, hit and run, injuring, killing citizens, with no consequences.
I am sad about the suffering of the people in Syria at this time. I have lots of family there.
I learned stalking and kidnapping for ransom has now become fashionable. The citizens are terrorized: If you drive a luxury car, you may get stopped at gunpoint and robbed of it. There are many factions and many suspicious gangs but no one knows for sure who is doing what.
Common criminals? Offshoots of the government? There are no arrests or punishments.
Who is benefiting from this situation?
The losers are the innocent citizens who are asking for freedom of expression, rule of law and unbiased elections.
Laila Chebib is a French teacher living in Winnipeg.
(1 of 24 articles for this month)05/25/2013 1:00 AM 0