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WALKINGFREE

We are halfway up the stairs. Our hands are cold. The light of day is slowly hiding behind the orange clouds. My wandering eyes, still strangers to freedom,  gradually accept that the CN Tower is there. I no longer stand in the detention centre’s yard, dreaming of my freedom.



a hazara refugee
Picture: Javed Najafi

On a cold Friday winter’s afternoon, a group of friends -- all newcomers to Canada -- gathers at Jon’s apartment in downtown Toronto. Last week, we came across an Afghan supermarket on Parliament Street and bought the dried fruit of our homeland. Now, as we sit in Jon’s small apartment, the kettle is boiling, and there’s a bowl of dried mulberries and baked chickpeas on the table.


The presence of friends warms the room, turning the harshness of winter into the first of many friendly gatherings over a pot of hot tea. The sight of the mulberries in the bowl makes my mouth water.  


My thoughts remain collected, and calm;  my eyes are still fixed on the mulberries. I should be the person to take the first bite. I feel I’m tasked with some kind of duty. In my imagination, I’m back home, standing behind a leaf-bare tree. Its branches stretch out over the house and block the view from the living room window. My mother can’t see me.


I see her arms are half-full of chopped wood. She is in the makeshift kitchen, cooking over the fire. A thick smoke billows from the chimney, and the air smells like kidney beans and potatoes -- our special meal. A huge smile becomes my lips’ guest. Tonight, our usual menu of bread and tea has kindly agreed to give its place to a pot of delicious bean and potato curry.


I’m keeping watch for my younger brother Rohullah as he climbs the wooden ladder to the rooftop. He reminds me to whistle to warn him if my mother approaches. The dried mulberries are stored in wooden boxes under a thick grey tarp on the roof. He fills his pockets until they spill over. Nothing distracts me from my duty, because a little carelessness would mean heading down the hill to the lower village to play soccer, without mouth-watering mulberries.


As we head to the uneven soccer pitch in the playground, I notice my friend's mother. Her everyday routine was to sit upon the trunk of a fallen tree, sunk deep in thought, hugging her worry to her breast, wondering what to feed her children. However, her wrinkles from years of anguish seem to have disappeared from her face this afternoon. With her children in tow, she had fled Uruzgan, a province in central Afghanistan, after her husband was killed by the Taliban because he worked as a chef for the NATO forces in Kandahar province. 


Her kids are my age, running around the house excitedly, playing hide and seek. They looked happier because the smell of beans and potatoes had reached them. They had seen the smoke from our chimney and knew that she always shared half with them when my mother cooked something.


The boys’ laughter in Jon’s room interrupts my reverie; my friends dance in excitement around the house, anticipating the potato and bean curry from our homeland.

After spending nine years in various Indonesian refugee detention camps, Ali recently arrived in Canada and discovered a bag of candies underneath the desk. A small tug-of-war breaks out with loud laughter.  I had collected the candy on Halloween. My host family had sent me into the suburbs of Burlington, Ontario with a bunch of costumed neighbourhood kids.


How different it was, banging on the neighbours’ doors and collecting candies. I had become a complete stranger to the happy celebrations of children. The last time I took part in a celebration was the 2013 Eid al-Fitr, the feast that ends Ramadan. That night, my mother brought a bowl of Henna and my sister Latifa painted flowers on our palms. I stayed awake the whole night, waiting for the dawn to break so we could have a homemade breakfast cake with my family. Then, we lined up in the corridor as my mother heated a kettle of water for each of us to shower in the makeshift bathroom. Latifa was busy ironing our clothes with the heavy iron heated in the coals of the kitchen fire.


Before heading off to the village in our shiny shoes and new clothes to meet friends and collect gifts of sweets, almonds, and walnuts, we prayed tribute to our parents, wishing that God would answer their prayers. Then, our mother gave each of us one boiled egg as a gift.


That day in 2013 marked the end of my childhood -a childhood I had always dreamed would last longer. 

That day in 2013 marked the end of my childhood -- a childhood I had always dreamed would last longer. Instead, I was forced from my home country and spent the next eight years imprisoned in an Indonesian detention camp, listening to the sounds of fireworks and children playing in distant neighbourhoods. This past Halloween, however, I briefly relived my lost childhood collecting candies from my new Canadian neighbours.


All of us gathered at Jon's home are newcomers, who recently arrived from Indonesian refugee camps, where our lives were on pause and our minds in torment for eight years or more. Today, after tea, we will visit Casa Loma, a historic museum in Toronto. At the moment, everyone in the room is busy eating candies and dried mulberries as we wait for our friend, Stephen, to arrive. 


Among us, Javed is the photographer, self-taught on his mobile phone while in the detention center, waiting for a country to grant him immigration status. He found meaning in photography, which helped him survive the inhumane conditions of the camps. His photographs smuggled onto social media,  showed the world the injustice and inhumanity of the camps. At some stage of his incarceration, Stephen Watt became aware that Javed’s photography skills would be valuable to Canadian society. He formed a group of people to sponsor his refugee application to Canada. 


Stephen is an aware citizen of the world who, in his spare time, runs Northern Lights, a non-profit organization which has sponsored hundreds of refugees trapped in the bureaucratic limbo of the UNHCR to the safety that is Canada.


Jon’s telephone rings. “Stephen is waiting outside the building,” he says. We meet him outside Jon’s room, an eight-storey building located at the core of downtown Toronto, a city rich in opportunities and in the scent of freedom.


Every resident’s commitment to the city’s order, even if they are new here like us and coming from a place where disorder is the rule, shows the fundamental civility of this city, which is built on acceptance of its government’s laws.  As we leave the building, a middle-aged lady wearing a warm black winter coat holds the door open for us to come out. She smiles and thanks us before we get a chance to thank her. 


Stephen is wearing his puffy yellow winter coat. Casa Lama is about fifteen minutes' drive from where we stand now. He drives us to Casa Loma, where Javed takes everyone’s first Canadian winter photo. There are more cars on the street than on other nights. The stairs to the building are packed with people hurrying to take photographs. Stephen drops us off and heads off to find a parking spot.


We are halfway up the stairs. Our hands are cold. The light of day is slowly hiding behind the orange clouds. I stand to catch my breath at the top of the stairs, looking out at the freestanding CN Tower, the second-tallest building in the world. My wandering eyes, still strangers to freedom,  gradually accept that the CN Tower is there. I am no longer standing in the detention center’s yard, dreaming of my freedom, dreaming of walking free past the razor wire of the prison that had swallowed me and stolen my right to see the outside, where people lived an ordinary life.


Tonight, I am standing free on a hilltop beside this historic museum, looking at the promising city that offers me opportunities regardless of my refugee identity which once threw me into prison, questioned my humanity, labelled me an illegal immigrant, and cut me off from my basic human rights. The sense of freedom I feel now is extreme, touching my soul deeply. It is surreal and incomprehensible.  Many people who have never felt their freedom threatened to take it for granted.


My mind and body battle. My mind wins the fight by asking this question: Am I truly free? "My mind and body battle. My mind wins the fight by asking this question: Am I truly free? ."

I looked at my watch, and it was past 5 pm. I no longer see the muscle-bound prison guards holding clipboards in their hands. Instead, tonight, my friends are freely posing for photos. They are not rushing to form themselves into a long line, waiting for the guards to read their names, match their faces with their photos and lock them in their cells, while the guards settle themselves in the CCTV room, laughing at our desperation and relishing their power over us refugees who had fled war and have arrived in Indonesia searching for so-called protection. 


My turn to take photos arrives. Everyone, including me, likes our photos. We decided to walk from Casa Loma all the way to the Nan Kebab restaurant that specializes in Afghan cuisine. The restaurant is on Younge Street, the longest and one of the most alive streets in the world.  I’m wearing a red and grey toque with a white maple leaf on the front, and a long puffy jacket to protect my body, unaccustomed to the harsh cold of Canada.


Ali walks alongside me as we wait for the traffic light to turn green. He blows on his frozen hands to keep them warm. Ali doesn’t have a winter coat. He arrived in Canada in November from Indonesia, where there is no winter.


We are not worried about it being 5 pm already. We have begun to accept that there is no curfew. There are no guards monitoring us or tracking our movements. There will be no immigration guard standing at the camp’s gate with a baton to hit us. There will be no solitary confinement.


We arrive at the restaurant and line up to order food. Jon takes out his wallet, pays for his favourite dish, and my turn comes. I order Kabuli, a traditional dish of basmati rice, raisins, fried carrots and lamb. I smile as I take out my very own bank card and pay with the money I have earned. This is the fifth time that I feel human again. I work, earn money, and pay for my own food.


I no longer have to lie hungry, rubbing my stomach, yearning for morning to break just to line up and interminably wait for a few scraps of stale and mouldy bread. Instead, staying out late in this city is a testimony of the freedom we have gained. Even the city sings our liberation. Down the street, near the Eaton Centre, a group of street musicians play songs of freedom. The people passing the band give them money; the band members sing louder and their voices travel upwards to the balconies of a nearby condominium where some inhabitants lean out of their windows and raise their voices in unison with the band. 


The music touches my soul, and I imagine the sound borne upon the winds, passing over oceans and travelling thousands of miles to reach the ears of the guards in the refugee camps in Indonesia. It infuriates them to hear the sound of musicians playing a song of freedom for the people they detained for years, profiting from their misery, and purchasing cars with foreign aid funding from developed countries intended to help care for the refugees.


Nine years of incarceration after escaping a direct attack on my life from the Taliban at the age of sixteen have ended for me as I celebrate with friends tonight, but the unrelenting suffering of the 13,000 refugees still trapped in Indonesia continues.

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