Hadeel Ibrahim at City Hall, Fredericton, N.B. Sherry Han Photo.

ARMS LINKED IN EMPATHY

BY HADEEL IBRAHIM

It was freezing but it was beautiful.

Three years ago when I landed at the Fredericton Airport I never could have imagined myself marching in -13C weather, along with over 200 other people, against religious discrimination.

Those 200 people all took time off their day to link arms and chant “No ban, no wall, asylum is for all,” for hours.

As we marched some faces we passed by were smiling, some frowning and some indifferent. But the people marching were throwing their fists in the air; they were laughing, screaming and solemn all at once.

One week earlier, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries including my country of birth, Iraq, from entering the U.S. He also put a complete halt on accepting refugees for 120 days.

Not 24 hours later a man entered the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec) in the suburb of Ste. Foy, and began shooting. Six people lost their lives. They were in a place of worship, a place perceived safe.

All I remember from the few days following these incidents is losing hope and gaining it back, over and over again.

I was born in Iraq in 1995, and didn’t leave until 2006. The Iraq war started in 2003. My family and I moved to Syria then the United Arab Emirates. We lived in five different apartments and my siblings and I transferred to four different schools.

We made and lost friends, but we were together.

In 2013, at 17, I moved to Canada to attend St. Thomas University. It was the first time I was away from my family for more than two days. It took me months to discover who I was without them.

But the inside jokes and teasing remained. We have a group chat on WhatsApp where we share news of job offers and new haircut selfies.

In 2015, my family applied for asylum in the U.S. It was either that or go back to Iraq. We were geographically closer, but the ban made it seem like they were oceans away again.

It would dawn on me that I may not be able to see my family living in the U.S. for a while, and my eyes would well up. Then I would get a message from an acquaintance, a professor, a best friend, telling me they love me and they’re here, and the tears would overflow. A strange mix of gratitude and resignation would come over me every time.

And although the travel ban immediately became a court battle in the United States, I’m still acutely aware of the sinister effects of Islamophobia in both Canada and the U.S.

At the rally before the march, a man with a megaphone screamed intelligible things across the street. I heard “this is not Canada.” Some people reacted to his heckling, but the speaker kept speaking, louder now, and the rally went on. He eventually moved on, probably because not many people were listening.

As frustrating as that encounter was, I think his presence was important. He was a loud, in-your-face reminder that there is still a problem here. He was a physical representation of exactly why all those people were at the foot of City Hall.

I’ve met so many good people here. People who sacrifice time and money to resettle refugees, not expecting anything in return. People who reach out to their Muslim friends because they empathize and want to help.

I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have the constant reminder that I have supporters, people on my side.

But there are also people that believe Muslims are defined by the actions of violent criminals that kill under false pretences. Those people exist, and it’s not enough to block them on Facebook and pretend like they don’t.

I believe some people are losing the essential element of empathy. Without empathy, you can’t love. If that heckler knew what it was like to be stateless, floating between countries and borders with little control of his fate, he may have been a little kinder.

It’s so easy to underestimate stability. Sometimes I forget the burden of being a foreigner, then something happens, someone hands me an election flier, or a friend tells me about their March Break plans, and I remember.

But in order to love people need to remember to empathize. Reach out to your Muslim friends, show support, but also reach out to your ignorant friends. It is our responsibility to counter lies with facts, give honest and open conversation a fair shot, then we’ve done all we can do.

The march touched me deeply. I wrote to a friend “I’m glad so many people are speaking out in support. Makes me love Canada even more.” And she wrote, “We love you back.”

And that love was felt that day at City Hall.