My year of travel has been fun– and frivolous. I’ve learned a lot about different parts of the world, met many people, had my eyes opened. But it has begun to feel very self-indulgent. Apart from me and the people who take my money, who benefits?
I always talked about doing aid work overseas. As a teacher, my skills were in demand, and my ex was a forester, which would also be useful in many parts of the world. Don never said never, but when we talked it was always the wrong time. The kids were too small. The kids were teens and moving them would be too disruptive. So the vague plans settled on after retirement and perhaps drifted into the land of might-have-beens.
My travels are voluntary, yet too many people around the world are forced into journeys. UNHCR reports almost 26 million refugees and another 41 million internally displaced (still in their home country) at the end of 2018. Over 13 million were newly displaced last year.
As I plan for hiking the Inca Trail in Peru at the end of the month, I think of a Syrian Canadian family I know, who hiked through the mountains between Syria and Turkey, with small children, their grandmother, and suitcases with all the belongings they could take when they fled Aleppo.
My involvement with Syrian refugees began before I realized it, on a trip to Europe in the summer of 2015. On the ferry from Santorini to Athens, I gazed in amazement at all the foot passengers who boarded at the islands we stopped at on the way. Throngs of people, adults carrying small children and large suitcases and bags, older children carrying their own loads– either packs or younger siblings– and trying to keep up with their parents. I thought they were Greeks.
Later, leaving Hungary for Austria, I was surprised at all the people at the train station. The plaza outside on the lower level was lined with people, children sleeping with their heads on the laps of their mothers, many of whom were wearing the headscarves that I later learned were called hijabs. Young men walked back and forth. In the station upstairs, police were checking documents, although they did not question me or the other affluent-looking travellers in the cafe.
On the train our tickets were checked, and I noticed that police came through and demanded travel documents, but only of those with dark hair and eyes. The train halted on the Hungary-Austria border, at a station that was not on the schedule. Outside our carriage, eight or ten young, dark-haired men who had been taken off the train were under guard. I asked people around me but just got shrugs, I assumed because they did not speak English. I jumped to the conclusion that the men were stow-aways who had not paid for their ticket, or perhaps a gang of thieves.
And I continued my holiday, unaware that I had followed the path of the early waves of Syrian refugees, just days before the stream became a desperate flood, as Hungary began to close its borders to them.
When I returned home, I was shocked into awareness by news coverage. And then, as I was preparing for the new school year, I saw the photo of little Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach.
Like people worldwide, I was horrified, and galvanized. Within hours, I had found out about a Canadian program of private sponsorship for refugees, and committed myself.
My husband insisted I do nothing for a month, hoping that my emotions would subside. But I was not the only one impacted. By the end of the month, Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis had become an election issue, and the government website that had said there were no Syrian refugees who wanted to come to Canada now had names. Groups were forming throughout the country for private sponsorship.
The next two and a half months were a whirl. I found a group of like-minded people. A young woman who had immigrated to Canada from Syria when she was a child came to a meeting with a binder full of pictures of relatives: this family in Lebanon, this one in Turkey, another in Cyprus. We raised money. I did a lot of paperwork- the final package was nearly two inches thick.
And then we waited. Only two weeks until the application was approved. Another 6 weeks until the family was interviewed and processed in Turkey. And then three more months before they received their Visas to travel to Canada.
Writing this has brought back not just the joy of our family’s arrival, but the satisfaction of what we accomplished, through a process that was full of frustrations, setbacks, and the immense kindness of friends and strangers. Strangers became friends.
Thinking of where I might travel next year, there are many places I still want to see. But I know that some of my time will go to those who have no choice about leaving home. That will truly be my brave travels.