Hasib Pezerovic delivers more than mattresses to newcomers. Photos by Johnny Cullen.

OLD MEMORIES, NEW FRIENDS

BY JOHNNY CULLEN

It takes them nearly an hour. Not to move the mattress in, that’s the easy part. But simple human interaction, verbal communication; now that part is tricky.

English and Arabic? It might as well have been Klingon and Elvish; these guys aren’t on the same page. One thing the Syrian boy and the Simmons mattress delivery guy have in common: they don’t have wi-fi, meaning their translation apps aren’t working.

Somehow, soccer comes up in the clash of dialects that could somehow (maybe) be referred to as a conversation. Now we’re cooking with peanut oil. The boy’s brother intervenes, knowing just enough English to help the new pals exchange contact information.

The Simmons guy is Hasib Pezerovic, “Pez” for short. He remembers what it’s like immigrating to a foreign country where they speak a foreign language.

He plays in an indoor soccer league in the city, and he’s trying to figure out a way to bring his new friend along to one of their games.

Pez never let the language barrier stop him from making friends as a kid, and his new Syrian pal isn’t either.

Not when there’s soccer on the line.

Not when Pez recognizes that 22 years ago, he was standing in this Syrian boy’s shoes.

•••

Bosnia, 1993. Ethno-political conflict between Bosnian Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Serbs launches Bosnia and Herzegovina into a violent civil war lasting three years.

Pez’s dad, Ibrahim, witnessed the horrors of the war first hand as a soldier fighting for the Bosnian Armed Forces. He and his wife, Mevlida, wanted a safer life for their family, so they moved to Canada.

“My parents had enough money to decide if we should stay or leave – just in case,” Pez said. “When we left, I was just about five years old.”

His parents took English courses for adults, and the kids – Anisa, Aldin and Hasib – learned English at school.

Pez remembers learning English by trying to mimic the sounds his teacher made as she pointed to pictures of animals on a sheet of paper.

“Chi… cken. Chi-cken. Chicken!”

•••

I meet Pez at Read’s on Queen Street. He waltzes in a couple minutes late – just as I finish squeegeeing a puddle of spilled black coffee off my table.

He realizes he doesn’t know who he’s looking for, so as he approaches the counter, he slows his pace and does the classic “fake” phone check we all do when we’re not sure what else to do but don’t want to look lost.

I’m sitting at the far end of the café, scanning the magazine racks, ignoring the low hum of the pop cooler, and trying to look like a reporter to ease his confusion. Notebook and pen, check. Recorder armed and ready to rock, check. Half-spilled cup of coffee – we’ve already been over that.

He looks up. Our eyes meet.

“Pez?” I ask. He smiles and makes his way over to the table.

•••

If you ask Pez, he’ll tell you he feels like any other average Canadian. He grew up in Fredericton, went to school with Canadian kids, played hockey. He loves Canada and he loves Fredericton. But human beings stay attached to their roots, and there’s always that instinctive, intuitive desire to connect with our heritage.

There’s no denying the differences between “Eastern” and “Western” cultures. Social norms, religious beliefs, technological gaps – the list goes on. Pez says that when he goes back to Bosnia, these differences make for a bit of a culture shock. It takes some time to adjust, but eventually he adapts.

Now he’s seeing hundreds of immigrants come to Fredericton who are trying to do the same. Adults who have decades of life-experience have to re-learn skills, strategies and philosophies in different languages and different cultures. Kids who left behind everything and everyone they know are in search of a safe place to grow.

He remembers the uncertainty and anxiety. But he also remembers the excitement.

A Canadian couple sponsored the Pezerovics’ when they arrived in Fredericton. They didn’t tell them how to live, but they showed them where things were around town – where to get groceries and things like that. For Pez, the fondest memory of his family’s sponsors is the day they brought over a Nintendo 64 to keep him and his brother Aldin busy.

•••

Pez got his job at Simmons through a friend. The job listing was for “Warehouse Manager,” but his boss calls him more of a “Logistics Manager.”

“We’re not at the volume for me to just sit at a warehouse and do warehouse duties, so I’m on deliveries, which I actually enjoy,” he said.

The majority of the multicultural community does their bedding business with Simmons. They typically order a basic and affordable model called ‘rainbow’ mattresses.

“They’re not looking to spend $4,000 on a king mattress,” Pez said. “They’re just looking for somewhere to sleep for now.”

These may be affordable mattresses, but their delivery is an important moment. When you have a bed, you have a home.

There are two delivery guys at Simmons, but Pez’s boss usually sends him to the homes of immigrant families since he can relate. On a personal level, he knows very well what these new Canadians are going through. But he can also relate to many immigrants on a spiritual and religious level.

That’s because the Pezerovics’ are Muslim.

In certain branches of Islam, it’s custom for a man to have his wife move to a different room if a stranger is in their home. When Pez arrives for a delivery, that’s often the standard procedure. But once he uses his translator app (he bought data to avoid another “no-wifi” incident) to explain he is also an immigrant and that he’s Muslim, the whole atmosphere in the house shifts.

“As-Salaam Alaikum,” he’ll say. It means, “Peace be upon you” in Arabic.

Suddenly, the family becomes more open and warm.

The man will introduce Pez to his wife and shake his hand. There is more genuine rapport from that point on, despite the language barrier.

Pez takes pride in being able to develop that bond with these new Canadians. He feels like he’s responsible for welcoming them to Fredericton. Aside from providing excellent delivery service, he goes the extra mile by offering advice and lending a helping hand where possible.

“It’d be different for me if I was meeting them in Syria,” he said. “But the fact that they came here and I came here makes me feel like there’s a connection.”

He understands what it’s like to be new.

He also understands that immigrant families are busy, so it’s important to give them space and allow them to settle in. But that doesn’t mean not giving them a friendly Fredericton welcome when the opportunity is there.

“Don’t treat them like refugees – and it’s not like you have to say ‘Salaam Alaikum’,” Pez said. “But if you would say Hi to your average Canadian, why not say Hi to them?”

IMG_1923-2
Hasib Pezerovic. Photo by Johnny Cullen.