With this project, I’m trying to find people whose stories take them past challenges others might be too afraid to confront. I’m hoping along with this organisation I can help in my own small way to present stories that inspire others to confront those same challenges and become stronger people for it.
One of the goals in presenting these stories of ordinary people who have overcome personal hardship is to provide a positive example that readers can take with them. Each of these stories is reported with a commitment to telling a person’s story is told factually with no embellishment or alterations. Any omissions are to protect the identities of those who have not consented to sharing the details of their lives, and to ensure that a person’s story can never be used maliciously against them, or anyone else.
These stories are not about the sordid details of a life, but how simple acts of kindness and compassion can make a lasting positive change to someone who needs it most.
As for the first story, my subject is an inspiring young woman from Syria who’s recently come to Toronto as a refugee and is following her dream of becoming a doctor. There isn’t too much bullying in her story, but it does speak to the importance of social programs and making someone feel like they’re a part of a country so that they can make the most of their lives.
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From Syrian Civil War, forced to flee to Turkey, to a new home in Canada, Hanan has lived a few lives in her brief 19 years. Although parts of her story are sadly common to the children of Syria, she’s chosen to follow her dream of becoming a doctor, rather than let tragedy define who she is, and who she’ll be.
Growing up in Aleppo, Hanan’s life was typical for a Syrian girl. It was like most other girls in grade 9, going to school and spending time with her friends. Her parents were raising her alongside five siblings: her sisters Aminaa (20), Hagar (14), and Elham (10), and brothers Mohammad (17) and Ali (12). However, when the Civil War broke out in 2012, she had to leave this simple life behind.
Fearing the dangers of the war, they fled from Aleppo to Kilis, a small town in Turkey with a population of just over 100,000 people. Only short two hour drive from Aleppo, Kilis has become a the site of a large refugee camp, filled with Syrians fleeing the violence of the Civil War. While it offered some safety from the violence, Hanan soon found life in Turkey had some restrictions that made it difficult for her to live the typical childhood she was missing.
“In Turkey…no one will help you with rent or anything else,” she explains. “Some people they’ll help with food, but it’s not for everyone…You can’t go to Turkish school.” Instead of the standard Turkish high school, Hanan attended a special school for refugees. While seemingly a generous accommodation for refugees, the education she received lacked the proper certification that would later let her move on her studies.
“I love Turkey, and I love the people there, but I can’t do anything there. I can’t study or be like other people.”
The difficulty of money came up as well, and parents who were ill, she began working to help support her family. She had learned Turkish during her time in the country, and taught it to women and children at an orphan’s association, specializing in helping Syrian children who had lost their parents in the war.
“I love Turkey, and I love the people there,” she goes on “but I can’t do anything there. I can’t study or be like other people.” Though she made friends, the label of “refugee” placed restrictions on what she could do in Turkish society. Special accommodations were made for her in Turkey, like the school for refugees, but it was those same special accommodations that trapped her, giving her an incomplete education that wouldn’t let her be anything more than a refugee, relying on the charity of others.
After high school Hanan wants to go to university to study medicine or pharmacology. On being a doctor, she simply says “it’s my dream” with a broad smile. That dream seemed unlikely until her family was given the opportunity to move from Turkey to Canada.
After four years in Turkey, she and her family had made some connections in the community, and the prospect of moving to Canada was a bit scary. They family was leaving behind friends and family, and travelling to a country where most of them couldn’t speak the language. Hanan had learned English in Turkey, but her parents and siblings didn’t have the language skills she had.
When the family arrived in Toronto in February of 2016, they struggled with their new surroundings. Although she completed high school at the refugee school in Turkey, she had to repeat the process in Canada to get a proper diploma that would let her go to university. And while at school she struggled to make friends.
Over the first few months, it seemed like everyone was afraid to speak to her. “I talked to my teacher and she said just talk to them, smile to them,” and the simple advice began to work. Albeit not without some difficulties.
Coming from Syria had a stigma attached to it. With the rise of ISIS, the perception of Muslims in the Western world, particularly those from Syria, has created biases in the minds of many. Hanan found some of her classmates weren’t immune to these prejudices.
“I don’t want to talk to you. You kill people,” Hanan remembers one girl telling upon learning that she was Syrian and Muslim.
It took time for Hanan’s kind personality to become more evident, but with some help from her teacher she learned how some of these biases are formed through the media, and how it sometimes presents conflicts overseas without the nuance they deserve.
Part of the confusion comes from the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an extremist group that has been trying to forge an illegitimate state in the wake of violence following the peaceful protests in Syria in 2011. Coverage of the event has given viewers the impression that ISIS’s religious views are in some way typical of the average Muslim.
Although ISIS fights under the banner of an extremist interpretation of Islam, it’s important realize that they are not the face of the average Muslim living in Syria, or anywhere else in the world, and that there are many people like Hanan, hoping to live their lives peacefully without adhering to that extreme ideology.
Soon Hanan was able to clear things up with the girl from her school, who apologized for her comments. She told Hanan “I got this idea from the news,” and meeting a real Syrian in person helped dispel some of the misconceptions she had about people from the area. It also taught Hanan not to blame people for their misconceptions, but to instead try to serve as an example to challenge them, and show them a more positive image of a Syrian person.
“I am not a refugee…I am Canadian.”
Now, as Hanan closes in on finishing high school for the second time, this time to get a proper certificate, she has her eyes set on university. She’s hoping to attend the University of Toronto, and has taken to living in Canada.
“When I walk in the street, especially in downtown, I feel like I’m in China or Spain or any place else,” she says. “You can see a lot of people, a lot of different faces. I love that.”
Although the diversity has helped her feel more at home, the opportunities within Canada, and feeling like she’s part of the country has given her a strong sense of optimism.
“I am not a refugee…I am Canadian,” she says proudly, “ I can do anything.”
There are still some challenges for her in the future, as she worries about her family being able to support themselves, particularly her mother who has cancer, and Hanan is considering working while attending university.
The difficulty of learning a new language has also proven a challenge, although her younger siblings have taken to English quite well. “My sister and brother,” she explains “they are [already] speaking more than me.”
Looking back to her time in Syria, she still has a heavy heart. “You fight your brother. You kill your brother,” she says, not knowing if the conflict will ever come to an end. But even from the tragedy she’s found a source of strength. “I learned from this war,” she continues “It didn’t kill us, but if we didn’t go to school and things like that, it would kill us.”
When she finishes her school, Hanan dreams of going back to Syria, when things have become peaceful, and to resume her work with children who have been orphaned by the war, hoping to give them a better future too.