We were at the airport in Kenya, our tickets in hand. We'd been there for two years — one in a refugee camp after fleeing Uganda, another living in the slums of Nairobi. It was the mid-1980s and I was nine or 10 years old at the time. There were six of us: my little brother Brian, my little sister Pam, my big sister Jackie, my dad, and my cousin Fisher. We were moving to Canada. A woman named Sidney Tebbutt had organized with her church in London and arranged to sponsor my family.
We kids couldn't wait to ditch the mangoes for apples, and we were taking our first plane ride. At the time, my father was still in his 20s, a former soldier turned single father. While my mother was still alive she wasn't with us: war creates chaos that weakens even the strongest of bonds.
I've never spoken to my father about this time. I just remember what I witnessed.
An airport official asked my father for our tickets. He looked at them and then at my father. He then said in Kiswahili that my father looked too young to have five kids. My father stayed quiet. Even as young as I was, I knew he was being asked for a bribe. The official took my father to another room and when my father came out, he told us that Fisher wouldn’t be coming with us. Until recently I thought the official gave my father an ultimatum: choose four out of the five of us. But this week I called my dad, and he admitted he knew before we even got to the airport that Fisher wouldn’t be getting on the plane, but that at the time he didn’t know how to tell us. He said that while he was in the room, the guard threatened that none of us would board the plane without an exchange of money.
There was a representative from the UNHCR to make sure we would be getting on the plane; unfortunately there was nothing she could do for Fisher. My father added that he did end up giving the guard the last money he had, 60 to 80 Kenyan shillings — the equivalent of a Canadian dollar in the hopes it might, against the odds, help Fisher leave with us.
Growing up in a war meant that I was often scared, but when I learned that Fisher wouldn’t be coming with us, I experienced a new degree of fear. I didn’t want my family to be split up. My father did the only thing he could do. He left Fisher at the airport. He was poor, a man without a country, and as he said to me today, “just trying to squeeze water from a stone.” Even though a UNHCR representative was there, the guard was on the brink of keeping us on the ground — power that, at that time and place, he would be able to exercise if he chose.
Fisher was not, by blood — though blood is not the only way of measuring these things — my cousin. He was the son of my dad’s best friend, Uncle John. Uncle had died a few years earlier, leaving Fisher an orphan. He had made my father promise to look after Fisher. And my father had. In every way that mattered, Fisher wasn’t my cousin, but my brother.
I vaguely remember the look of alarm in Fisher’s eyes when he realized he wasn’t coming with us. I’ve made my mind think of that day as a dream and he’s become a distant character in a book that I once read. Having grown up there, I know what life is like for orphaned children and it’s too painful to think of what he must have endured after we left.
There is a picture of the five of us shortly after we walked away from Fisher. It’s a black and white picture that was taken by the airport security and in it my face is full of anger. My father is composed.
My father was never the same after we moved to Canada. I don’t know if what happened with Fisher was the turning point for him, but he became a different person. He had to give up so much in exchange for the safety and security of his family. And I think it’s something that a lot of refugees experience. You’re so grateful to be alive and to have a second chance that you might feel as though you’re not allowed to mourn what you’ve lost.
You’ve lost your country of birth and have left people you loved behind. You’ve probably also lost your profession, many of your traditions, and your language.
When we moved here, we were told not to speak our languages — Kiswahili, Luganda, and Kikuyu — and to use anglicized names. And even as I write this, I feel guilty, as though I’m complaining. I’m not. I’m so grateful to live in Canada. If we hadn’t moved here, I probably would have ended up on the street or selling my body to survive. I live in a country that’s allowed me so many opportunities that I never could have had in my country of birth because I was born a girl and I come from a poor family. But I’m reminded of my otherness when I speak, when my tongue wants to bend itself in a different way because English is not my first language.
I was recently on CBC’s The Current, and host Anna Maria Tremonti asked me what I thought of the refugee crisis that made headlines this year. I said that for mothers and fathers to place their children into a crowded boat means that to them whatever they’re running from is worse than what they’re running to. Even though I was a child when we fled Uganda, and even though there were moments like the one in the Nairobi airport when I remember his composure, there are other moments I remember, too, moments of desperation crossing my father’s face. It’s a look I saw each time he was asked for a bribe, or whenever he would have to leave us alone so that he could find us something to eat.
But what I’ve only recently started to understand, perhaps because I’m now a parent myself, is how much he lost in abandoning everything he knew in order to keep us safe. I believe that not only is it important for Canadians to continue to welcome refugees, but we should also be mindful of how much they’ve lost. There’s a picture circulating on social media right now showing what Aleppo looked like before and after its destruction. Perhaps in acknowledging the sacrifices all refugees make in order to survive these horrific circumstances, we can honour what they’ve lost, and make it safer for them to admit those losses, too.
We never found Fisher again. We heard stories of the struggles he endured as an orphan in Kenya, but I’ve never seen him or spoken to him again. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.
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