Nelofer Pazira in Syria. Submitted Photo.

MEMORIES OF WAR HAUNT THOSE WHO ESCAPE

BY OSCAR BAKER III

When Nelofer Pazira landed in Moncton, New Brunswick, she was 17. She came with her brother and sister and parents from Kabul, Afghanistan, escaping war and the Russian invasion of her homeland.

“We arrived, and I say this quite proudly, we arrived with the basics and we had $50 to our name,” Pazira said in an interview. That was more than two decades ago. Today, Pazira is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently covering the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Pazira hopes Canadians address the mental state of the 25,000 refugees who have arrived in recent months, along with providing them with a new home.

“Memories are one of those things that you can’t just shut it out, and put it away, and forget about it,” she said. “They will come back all the time to haunt you if you have experienced war and atrocities and tragedy. And whatever name you give it, psychologically it lingers on. We don’t have anything built into in our system to deal with that.

“We left because we knew there was no future. My father was very aware what was happening in the country, that it wasn’t going to go back to anything that was normal.

“In so many ways the odd thing is now, I just got back from Syria, and families I meet there are saying the same things my parents would have talked about in the 1980s.”

Her mother and brother knew a little French when they arrived in Moncton. Pazira remembers soon after arriving in New Brunswick she was suffering from abdominal pain. Her host family took her to the doctor but they had trouble communicating.

“I could die, so I thought I better learn the language,” said Pazira.

Armed with a dictionary and a new friend a doctor finally found Pazira’s problem and diagnosed her. With the help of her new Canadian friends, she and her siblings learned English quickly.

They weren’t prepared for the Canadian winter. Their neighbours bought the family winter coats, boots and gloves. She remembers one snowfall that buried their apartment.

“I said to my mother, ‘We didn’t die from the war in Afghanistan but we’re going to get buried under the snow.’ ”

A neighbour came and shovelled out a grateful family.

Her brother was enrolled in a French school and is now a surgeon in St. George, Que. She and her sister, now a teacher, were placed in English school. Pazira said her classmates were always curious and asked questions about her homeland and seemed interested in learning about her.

She said she’s talkative so she wanted to learn English just so she could talk more. Pazira said she was able to speak some of the language within six months.

That’s why she warns newcomers to Canada to avoid “ghettoizing” themselves. Pazira says far to often immigrants or refugees tend to go where things feel familiar to them; they’ll go to an immigrant community because it feels easier. She insists they resist that temptation and move to other communities within Canada.

“In the beginning it may seem harder for them but in the long run we’re benefitting them.”

She says moving into those ghettos only reinforces the language problems. Newcomers don’t learn to speak English or French as quickly or at all. She said this creates problems for the generations that come after.

“If you happen to end up in a place where they’re far more conservative, then you’ll start to become far more conservative,” said Pazira. “Even if you weren’t conservative back home, you’ll become more conservative to fit in that community because you don’t enjoy the life outside of it. But if you’re exposed to the life outside it more and adjusted to it, you don’t care about fitting in that little set of expectations.”

She recalls stories of people moving here who were more secular in their home country, but in order to conform to the immigrant community, they became much more conservative in their religious practices. Pazira thinks these communities can harm the younger generations because they can land jobs within those small communities where they only need limited English. They never fully integrate in the greater community and remain on the margins.

She thinks Canada can combat this in a number of ways. First, immigration officers should encourage them to integrate in other communities. Second, community programs like the multicultural associations should continue to do the work they do and integrate them into community events exposing them to people in the community. Finally, she hopes everyday Canadians continue to be welcoming. Like the families and neighbours that helped her family transition, she hopes other families can do the same for the new comers.

She said programs like Google translate and others like it are helpful in the early stages. But newcomers always need friends to help manage difficult transitions, and Canadians must remember that the decision to relocate is never easy.

“You look around and you feel the world you knew, which had peace and stability, is disappearing and there is no hope of that returning. And that is the moment you decide that you have to go some place else.”

Pazira remembers many nights hearing her parents fighting about whether to flee their home or to leave everything behind in search of peace and stability. She says its always a heavy decision to leave the country you love for a chance at a better life.

“We bring those problems with us. It’s not like a suitcase. You can’t just leave it at the door.”

She said its quite common for Syrian refugees to have witnessed extreme violence. The war has stripped away peace. People have lost so much and others are starving. Pazira said these people can suffer PTSD, depression and many other psychological problems.

“One thing we do not do and haven’t built it into the system, the actual psychological aspect. I only realized it later myself, especially when I moved to Toronto,” said Pazira. “And I started to work and spend more time with the community, with the refugee community here. I discovered that there are a lot of problems within the community. And one of the reasons is when they arrived they somehow never had or nobody ever discussed the problems they might have suffered from.”

Each person may suffer in different ways. One man, she remembers, had a hard time adjusting and ended up abusing his wife. Pazira said in order to tackle these problems Canada must be aware that these issues may arise.

Pazira is working on a documentary about the war in Syria and she’s hopeful Canadians remain curious and welcoming.

“If people go about it with a general curiosity then that might help to open communication.”