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As a refugee, I hated Canada until one specific night. Now I see this as a stage in a journey

This is a First Person column by Syn Amanuel, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, see the FAQ.

Two years after I arrived as a refugee in Canada, I returned to Africa to get married and to visit the rest of my family, who were refugees in Sudan.

I was telling everyone who asked that I hated Canada — the winter and how difficult life was — until one specific night, when my brother came to wake me in the courtyard at 3 a.m.

“Wake up, we need to get inside.” 

“But I want to sleep outside where I can breathe freely.”

“Not tonight, a sand and dust storm is approaching.”

We rushed into the one tiny room where my mother and two brothers were living.

The wind started to blow furiously outside in the small, dirt compound. Inside, we sat in darkness with the windows shut and without even electricity to power a fan. The sound of rain outside was just blowing sand. I felt like I was buried alive.

When morning finally arrived, all I wanted was to pour water over my head, but that wasn’t available either. And the thermometer read 50 C, the maximum it could register.

Miserable, I sat under a tree in the compound.

And in that moment, the strangest thing happened — I actually wished for what I hated most. Winter! 

I longed for the snow of Canada and finally realized that as difficult as things were for me in Canada, they were far better than what my family faced in Sudan.

A woman cuts potatoes using a cutting board that's propped up on a bowl over the red dirt.
Syn Amanuel cuts potatoes outside the small room where her family stayed while they were refugees in Sudan. (Submitted by Syn Amanuel)

I didn’t know it then, but I’ve since learned there are specific stages that many refugees go through, similar to the stages of grief. The first is a honeymoon phase, with a sense of relief and accomplishment for having made it to a safe country. Then reality kicks in with Stage 2, a stage of grief and hardship.

When you are a refugee, you are a nobody. You’ve lost your identity. Everything that you once believed to be true and familiar is jeopardized and you’re rebuilding a life from scratch.

In 2001, my sister and I fled persecution in Eritrea and were among the first Eritreans to arrive in Saint John. And although the local community was incredibly kind, they had little idea how to help us. We learned by trial and error. We literally had to open many cans and bottles to taste if it was close to what we were accustomed to eating. I have lasting scars from frostbite on my legs, from when I didn’t understand how to protect myself. 

I was working two full-time jobs to support myself and my family back home, and to repay the immigration loan for my air ticket. I worked overnight shifts as a health care aide. My colleagues assumed I would sleep during the day, but that’s when I worked at Tim Hortons. 

My colleagues assumed I would sleep during the day, but that’s when I worked at Tim Hortons.– Syn Amanuel

I thought I knew basic English but I was lost when customers ordered a “double-double,” and the term “feeling blue” seemed completely unrelated to emotions.

I felt exhausted, overwhelmed. Only the support of my faith community kept me going. My beliefs were the reason I left home, and meeting with my spiritual family three times a week brought me a sense of belonging in the midst of the pain.

The third stage in many refugee journeys is adaptation and acceptance. For those first two years, this seemed distant and unattainable. I wasn’t even trying. 

Until the night that I experienced the sandstorm in Sudan.

It was my wake-up call, prompting me to reconsider my mindset. When I got back to Canada, life was still difficult but that spark of gratitude helped me transition into the recovery phase.

It took roughly six years, but I slowly grew comfortable with the new culture and surroundings. I moved to Hamilton, Ont., and took a one-year diploma course in medical administration, which opened the door to a better job.

My husband arrived and we moved to Calgary. Here, we were able to buy a house, and the city is so culturally diverse, I no longer feel like an outsider. I work in east Calgary, out of an office located amidst the many ethnic shops and restaurants of International Avenue.

A family of four wearing formal clothes pose together for a photo.
Syn Amanuel now feels settled and grateful to be in Calgary, where she lives with her husband Melaku and children Zema, left, and Amron. (Submitted by Syn Amanuel)

Plus, the rest of my family was able to come. That took 10 years but finally my brothers, sister and parents all live together in the same city again.

Today, I can look back and see those stages in my journey. I’ve seen these stages in the lives of other refugees as well. For 15 years, I’ve been first volunteering to help settle newly-arrived refugees and am now doing so in a professional capacity as a licensed immigration consultant. Many people get shocked by the scale of the challenges they still face. 

I want to share my story to give them hope, to tell them they won’t always feel like a refugee.

I also wanted to thank those who sponsored and welcomed me. Since I was sponsored by the Canadian government, that means my gratitude is toward the whole Canadian society.

Canada welcomed me with open arms 22 years ago, whether I was in a state of mind to appreciate it or not. And today I’m giving back to the community in my work and volunteer life; I didn’t let you down.

It’s been a long journey but now Canada is my home, even though I still hate winter.

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more pieces from our workshop at the Village Square library in east Calgary.

Check out our workshops and sign up for the waiting list, or pitch your story directly to the national team.

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