Exploring the Slippery Meaning of Home

There is no single refugee experience, and conceptions of home may be ever-changing. Kalthum Alshehabi was first a refugee from Palestine in 1948. In 2014, she was forced to leave Syria, and came to Canada. Last month, Alshehabi lost her sister living in Syria, and two weeks ago she lost another sister living in Sweden. Her grandson booked her a same-day flight to Sweden so that she could attend the funeral with the rest of the family, knowing that the European Agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees allows her to enter Sweden without a visa, and knowing also that she would be traveling with her recently acquired Canadian Refugee Travel Document. Despite all of this, she was refused boarding by Icelandair, in Toronto, because she is a stateless Palestinian.

This interview was conducted in Arabic, with the help of Hsain Al-Shihabi, her grandson. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Zainab Ramahi: Who are you? What do you think it is important about you for others to know?

Kalthum Alsehabi: I am Kalthum Alshehabi. Palestinian. I have lived in Syria and migrated to Canada. [Hsain: A Palestinian refugee in Syria and a Syrian refugee in Canada.] Yes, I am originally Palestinian and I lived for 65 years in Syria. I got married and had eight children in Syria. They got degrees, and also migrated, just like me. One is in Pakistan, one in Bulgaria, one in Germany… each went to a different place.

I came here to Canada and I could not get permanent residency. I miss my kids a lot! Two of them are in Qatar, and it has been five years since I have seen either of them. My desire is to get permanent residency so that I may see my kids. I don’t have much family here in Canada, but I am happy here with my grandson.

ZR: Is KW “home” for you? What does home mean to you?

KA: Yes, definitely. This is my home. I am trying to learn English and now that many Syrians have come I have some company. Since Canada brought the Syrians I now see people with whom I have things in common. Before, I was very uncomfortable because I did not know the language. I try and I try, but I learn slowly!

This is not my country, but I feel safety here. There is nothing like one’s country. I grew up in Syria, but there is safety here.

ZR: What do you love about KW? Have you felt supported?

KA: I love the safety, there is safety here. The people are respectful and the society respects people. People have value and dignity here. Even small Canadian children say hello to you!

The weather in the winter is difficult a bit, but the spring and the fall are lovely. But I wish my kids would visit me. I wish so very much that one day, one of my kids knocks on my door. May God bring my family closer to me. I do not mix much with Canadian people. Just “hello, hello, how are you?” But the Arabs here definitely support me because they know I am alone.

“If there were no people in Paradise itself, who would want to go to it?” [Hsain: an Arabic proverb.] I don’t want to be alone, but everyone is busy!