Students fleeing conflict find new home on campus

Three refugees share their journey of arriving to Queen’s from Iraq and Syria

Bassam Al Hamidi is a third-year Politics major.
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As a child, Bassam Al Hamidi didn’t drink Coke.

It wasn’t because of strict parents—the soft drink was simply unavailable.

Years later, after fleeing conflict in his home country of Iraq and traveling across continents, the beverage seems to be everywhere. 

***

Al Hamidi’s childhood was marked by the economically punishing embargo the UN doled out to reprimand Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. 

For a child, it meant having limited access to resources for clubs and playgrounds, as well as products containing sugar. It meant no pop or candy bars. The scarce resources were unavoidable, even causing Al Hamidi to play soccer instead of basketball because it was cheaper.  

Coming from a middle-class family, and a Jordanian mother who would travel to and from Jordan to buy food and other supplies, Al Hamidi considers himself lucky—his childhood was better than the norm.

“She would go to her family and bring the ‘good stuff’ for us, and sometimes when there [was] extra, we would give [it] to the neighbours,” Al Hamidi said. 

His retired father’s salary for two months would only buy either 60 eggs or one kilogram of meat for the entire family.

“I don’t know how people really survived at that time,” Al Hamidi said.

As he and his siblings grew up, Al Hamidi’s eldest brother was drafted for Iraq’s mandatory military service.

“It’s more of a torture than serving the country,” Al Hamidi said about the mandatory duties.

His family “basically sold the house” to keep his brother safe and prevent punishment from superior officers.

During this time, they decided to leave the country for nearby Jordan. Al Hamidi’s parents wanted to prevent him and his second brother from being forced to serve. 

It was 1999 and Al Hamidi was 15 years old. Jordan was a culture shock, he said, with more open communication to the outside world. 

Al Hamidi was dumbfounded when he first saw a pair of jeans.

Jordan soon became home, and Al Hamidi didn’t want to move to the West—a decision that was becoming commonplace among his neighbours.

Every couple of months, a family in his new neighbourhood would leave, and the entire community would kiss them goodbye—knowing it would be the last time.

When he turned 22, Al Hamidi started to have difficulty living in Jordan. He couldn’t be a resident because of his mother’s citizenship anymore, and he couldn’t move freely around the country or find work.

He decided to move back to Iraq to work. He stayed only eight months. While he lived there, he couldn’t stay out in the streets past 5 p.m.—it was “a ghost city filled with monsters.”

Returning back to Jordan, his problems didn’t change. Anti-Iraqi sentiments made it difficult to find work and he faced constant discrimination.

He hatched a plan: he’d work for the American army back in Iraq as a translator, using his English and Arabic language skills. Since the United States would grant a visa to anyone who served for a year, it would give him a ticket out. 

After 16 months of risking his life translating for the United States army, the US government reneged on the deal: they wouldn’t give Al Hamidi the visa for his service.

It was his only strategy. While in Jordan to work on immigrating to the US, Al Hamidi was introduced to World University Services of Canada (WUSC).

Too old to be sponsored by the program—the maximum age was 25—Al Hamidi kept finding other candidates for the group to sponsor to go to universities in Canada. The organization then changed the age to 30, but by then he’d passed the age threshold again. 

Finally, after a friend noticed a 31-year-old sponsor that the group had, Al Hamidi applied again and was accepted to the program.

Al Hamidi came to Kingston on Aug. 24, 2017, and is currently in his third year of a politics degree at Queen’s. 

“It is home, and I feel happy that I am here,” Al Hamidi said.

He realizes how lucky he is—to have not only an opportunity at Queen’s, but a support system through WUSC from the very beginning.

Founded in 1980, the Queen’s WUSC chapter sponsors both male and female students at various academic levels. 

The club “has a long-standing commitment of sponsoring students whose families escaped from Sudan and who were born and raised in camps in Kenya,” WUSC’s former co-president Lyndsay Duffin said in an email to The Journal. 

Recently, she added, they’ve sponsored more students from Syria and other countries in the Middle East.

The group helps the students get signed up for courses, buy textbooks, and get computers. Generally, the club provides a sense of family and support to the new students who may not know anyone else in the country.

WUSC is supported by the fees paid by all Queen’s students. 

They’ll be on the Oct. 12 Fall Referendum, and hope to increase their funding—the money goes directly to the sponsored students. 

“You’re not actually supporting [the club], you’re supporting somebody who’s come to Canada and wants to further their education,” Sarah Bowie, WUSC’s administrative co-president told The Journal in an interview. 

WUSC only recently developed its Syrian Refugee Program. Syria has been in a civil war since the 2011 Arab Springs revolution.

***

The Journal spoke with two other WUSC-sponsored students, both of whom came to Queen’s from Syria. 

When rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade into his hometown’s city hall at 1 a.m., Ziad Orabi’s house was in the line of fire. His family knew then they needed to leave Syria.  

It didn’t help that his father had already been out of work, making life in Syria more difficult. During the 2011 uprisings, they gathered up any money they could from friends and acquaintances.

Orabi’s family made the same fateful trip as Al Hamidi to Jordan.

He skipped his grade 12 year in Syria, taking it one year later in Jordan. Orabi then received a college scholarship and started to pursue civil engineering. While he came to Canada through WUSC, Orabi’s family still remains in Jordan.

The weather in Canada is colder, and the academics seem more rigorous. Even though WUSC sponsors need to be fluent in English, adjusting to speaking it every day isn’t easy.

But Orabi is glad to be at Queen’s. He’s gone into the discipline of computer engineering, hoping to find a job in software engineering. 

While Canadian society is quite different than Syria or Jordan, Orabi was perhaps most struck by Canada’s natural beauty upon arriving. The greenery and lakes were a shock after only having lived in the drier climate of Syria and Jordan.

“Oh, I didn’t see [this], I was in a desert,” Orabi said.

***

Abdollah Altamer was studying in a Syrian university when the country’s protests began. Many of his peers opposed the Assad regime and participated in the protests.

Following the demonstrations, Altamer said students could be randomly accused of participating in the opposition. This threat of accusation, coupled with the same mandatory military service as Iraq, was what pushed him to leave.

According to Altamer, anyone accused could be captured, tortured or shot. 

He, too, left for Jordan. It was the next step for many refugees fleeing the crises in both countries, thanks to its proximity.

After leaving Syria in 2012, Altamer lived in Jordan for six years. He worked in technical support for a bit, then began attending a Jordanian university and finished his studies in two years.

He came across WUSC over Facebook, applied to Queen’s, and—shortly after—was accepted. 

For Altamer, WUSC is like a family. 

“Without WUSC, you know nobody,” he said.

Taking first-year Economics with some Global Development courses, he looks forward to finishing his Canadian university degree and perhaps going into accounting after graduation.

Thinking of his home, Altamer said even though he’d lived with it all of his life, he knows dictatorship isn’t normal.

“Syria is a country where dictatorship rules all the time, but it’s like normal life, with more difficulties than the typical life [should] be for humans.”

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Corrections

Bassam's last name has been updated to Al Hamidi.

The Journal regrets the error.

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