The day Canada and the UN changed my life
A U of M alumnus gives his first-person account of the transition from refugee to a Canadian citizen
Two years into the Iran-Iraq War, in the early hours of 25 November 1982 in Erbil, my parents rushed to the hospital as my mother was about to deliver her first child – me. The city was under strict curfew, shelling and gunfire. Miraculously, they made it to the nearest hospital, unharmed. They were willing to risk their lives to make sure I lived. At 7:20 a.m., I was born. Instead of a soothing lullaby, I am told the first sound my ears heard outside of my mother’s womb was a bomb.
Throughout the first nine years of my childhood, I constantly heard sirens alarming us to go into hiding. I recall rushing to the basement of my grandparents’ house, every day, hoping death would not find us. As a child, I was confused. Underground, where I thought people would go when they died, had become the safest place to stay alive.
The basement was full of people. Relatives and neighbours, who had no basements, would all come to us for shelter. It was scary, noisy and loud, but also reassuring to know that if we died, we would be together. Bombing continued, shaking the entire neighbourhood each time. Whenever a bright light was born of a massive explosion, it would ooze through our window cracks and alert us to the deafening sound that would soon follow. Sometimes, the light was so blindingly bright that I began to find comfort in the occasional darkness of that same basement I used to hate. The noise was so unbearably loud that any silence would sound like a happy melody to my ears. Pitch-black suddenly replaced white as my new favourite colour for peace, and my shadow became my new best friend.
In 1988, the news spread. The city of Halajba had been chemically-bombarded. Five thousand innocent Kurdish children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents and neighbours were all killed in just minutes. Many of them were from the “Jaff” tribe – mine. Iraq’s war was supposedly against Iran but when Iraqi Kurds were also attacked by the regime, my father and grandfather started to nail plastic sheets and sponges to the wall, sealing every crack in the tiny window and the metal door of the basement. They wanted to eliminate the possibility of even the smallest chemical gas leaking in. Fortunately, Erbil was not gassed.
Soon after the Iran-Iraq War ended, Saddam’s regime invaded Kuwait and another war broke out – the Gulf War. My childhood dreams for peace and calm were once again crushed. When that war ended with sanctions on Iraq, the government started bombing the Kurdish region and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, including my family.
We left Iraq towards Iran. With absolutely nothing to eat or drink, surviving the freezing-cold days and nights in the mountains was the biggest struggle. My newborn sister became so dehydrated that death seemed only a blink of an eye away.
My brave mother started to collect clean snow around the muddy roads, melting it in her hand, and dripping it into my sister’s mouth to keep her hydrated. By then, my sister had turned into what looked like a breathing skeleton. I peeked out from the back of the pickup truck to see if anyone had food to give us. Instead, I saw a young mother had cut open her finger and was squeezing out drops of blood into her infant’s mouth to keep the baby alive. Hungry herself, she clearly had no milk to breastfeed. My biggest wish at that moment was to see my baby sister look like a living being again without having to drink my mother’s blood.
Barely surviving the several days and nights of our journey in the harsh winter, on slushy roads of dangerous mountains, we finally arrived in an Iranian village. A generous family welcomed us and gave us one of the two bedrooms of their simple home. Drinking nothing but drops of squeezed orange juice for a couple of days, my sister finally opened her eyes. Hope returned. My parents smiled.
After a few months in Iran, we were told the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan had returned to “normal”. We headed Home for a new start. As a child returnee, my big wish was going back to school with brand-new books, notebooks, pencils, and shoes. Since we could not afford any of them, I was disappointed but went to school anyway. Soon, I was overjoyed to see school supplies were being brought to our classroom. I learned a new word: “Unicef”.
At first, I thought “Unicef” was the name of a person that I could ask to be my new best friend. I remember the shiny, blue notebooks, pencils, and sharpeners all had “Unicef” marked on them. For the next couple of years, I was always excited about going to school. The start of every semester made me the happiest child ever. But my happiness and hope were short-lived. Peace died. This time, a bloody Kurdish civil war displaced thousands of people, taking us back to where my life first began.
Trying their best to secure a better future for their four kids; my parents had no choice but to leave the country – again. In 1997, we became refugees in Jordan. Though homesick, we were desperate for another home, another life – a normal one. We survived a year as refugees in Jordan, with UNHCR as our protection.
One morning, we received the best news in our lives. The Canadian government had selected my family of six to immigrate to Canada.
Landing as newcomers in Winnipeg on 13 August 1998 was the instant that forever transformed our lives. My parents made every effort to give us the best life they could – at any cost. They taught us the value of our new Homeland, where we felt human. They taught us love, appreciation and respect for the country that took us out of hell.
Going from second-class citizens in our first home to first-class citizens in our second home was a transition that made us realize how fortunate we were to be living in a distant land, called Canada. Since we first saw Canada’s waters and skies from the air, and stepped our feet on its soil, our love for this wonderful Homeland has never stopped growing.
My father and my mother, who were previously a university lecturer and an elementary school principal, accepted any work they could get to help us be our best. They performed tasks they never thought they would be able to do; from a factory worker to a pizza maker to a taxi driver to a farm labourer. Only when all of their four children completed university did my parents return to school. At age 60, my father finally realized his dream of receiving a Master’s degree in Translation. And my mother, at age 45, received her college diploma in Early Childhood Education. They sacrificed their future and careers to guarantee ours. But their hard work, along with the opportunities that Canada has, since 13 August 1998, provided us are what continue to inspire me and my three siblings to always give back – to our parents, to Canada, and to those whose present resembles our past.
Twenty years after we arrived in Canada, the impact of my parents’ hard work and our family’s journey have taught me a life-long lesson: respect and love those who help and protect us, but go beyond and share that love and respect with those who need us.
The UN fed me knowledge when I was hungry to learn. The UN protected us when we were most vulnerable and helpless. And when we were homeless, Canada took us Home.
Today, working as a citizen of Canada for the UN may appear as a coincidence, but loving and respecting the two of them definitely isn’t. I have every reason to value them and those who need them.
Rébar Jaff graduated with a BA in Political Studies and English Literature from the University of Manitoba in 2007. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Comparative Politics at the University of Ottawa. First joining the UN as an intern in 2007, he became a staff member in 2010. He is now a Political Affairs Officer and Secretary of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
This first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.