Country of Origin: Iraq & Canada
I was four years old then. Yet I still vividly remember feeling the ground shake beneath me, the windows shattering during every air strike hitting our area, leaving our house barren and unrepaired. I knew beyond doubt that we would be under the rubble any time soon, buried with the memories and dreams of a life that once was.
April 9, 2003, marks the day when many Iraqis’ lives changed forever. After a month of constant cruise missile attacks on the country’s capital, Baghdad, the American forces completely seized the land and began a full-fledged invasion.
My brother and I slept in our parents’ bed the night Baghdad fell so that we either lived or died together no matter what happened. As children, we were only told that the “Americans were invading.” We were not spared any further explanation – leaving our imagination to make up the political story that later dictated every aspect of our lives.
What was once a country that harbored family, friends, free education, quality healthcare, historical monuments, and most importantly, a sense of belonging for its citizens became one of the most dangerous places in the world—all in a matter of months.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, many Iraqi families in neighboring countries, like Syria and Jordan, sought refuge and better lives. Even then, continuous political turmoil and unequal opportunities in the region forced many of these displaced Iraqis to move to Western countries for only the chance of a more secure future.
After miraculously surviving three years of terrorism, internal conflict, and a debilitating embargo, my parents decided to take us and finally seek refuge in Jordan–shortly after our elementary school was attacked. After that, my family and I moved to multiple countries, including Jordan and the UAE, before settling in Canada. But ever since then, I have not had the chance to revisit my homeland and childhood home.
Instead, I always wonder about other Iraqis’ refugee stories and where they are today.
One such story is Omnya’s, a colleague of mine in a student-led UNICEF society at our university. She, too, was born in Iraq and left for Syria when she was only two years old during the 2003 war. Syria’s beauty and nature became her home for about seven years until 2010, after which she and her family immigrated to Canada through her aunt’s help and the UN’s family sponsorship program.
With long-held dreams of attending university and advocating for minorities, Canada was the perfect place to make the achievement of Omnya’s goals possible. Surrounded by an academically oriented family, Omnya was heavily influenced to pursue such a learning path – especially since her father was a university professor in Syria. Currently, she is in her fourth year of the Global Rights program at the University of Western Ontario, a degree that wouldn’t have been as easily attainable if she hadn’t moved to Canada. Moreover, because of Canada’s strong political influence and vast advocacy opportunities, no action is too trivial to create a change, however small, toward the positive. The only thing that Omnya needed to fulfill her dreams of protecting vulnerable populations and advocating for her community was the initiative. She certainly had plenty of that.
While most Iraqis had high hopes of making this venture, their lack of opportunity to move abroad had them lose complete access to quality healthcare, safety, and education as they stayed back in what had now become their poverty-stricken homeland. Unlike this large majority, Omnya luckily had family in Canada who helped sponsor her travel and settlement there.
In contrast, many others only dream of being able to pursue a better life in the West.
Recognizing this major obstacle in the lives of immigrants and refugees alike, Omnya aspires to make the immigration process easier than its currently daunting state. She plans to enact this change by increasing the availability of family sponsorship programs across the country.
As an active member of the London Cross-Cultural Learner Center, Omnya and her team have made strides in helping immigrants with community integration and settlement, especially given the language barrier and cultural shock that a lot may struggle with at first. This was a difficulty that faced Omnya upon her move to Canada, often feeling inferior and disconnected from her classmates due to her limited English proficiency.
Through the challenges, she became the Project Development Director at RefuHope, a non-profit organization aiming to integrate new refugees. She was the current co-president at UNICEF Western, operating under UNICEF Canada. Omnya has made significant accomplishments in advocacy and support of refugee and immigrant integration. She plans to continue working to reach the ultimate goal of “living in a world where we don’t feel the need to protect one another.
Despite the devastating loss of her father, her biggest role model, to COVID-19 early in the pandemic, Omnya’s resilience to “keep going forward,” as she eloquently puts it, has never been stronger. From the early days of leaving her homeland and moving countries to learn to adapt to new environments and recover from hardship, which really tested her strength. Omnya is a notable example of perseverance. She learned to cope with her challenges by seizing every opportunity and giving back to immigrants whose shoes she was once in.
Such is only one of the success stories of the Iraqi underdog, who, despite the political turmoil and displacement, still made the most out of themselves and helped others. In short, it truly is inspiring to witness the many stories of immigrants and refugees rising from the ashes – an admirable feat, if there ever was one.
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