At first, Maya Kabbani thinks her snow boots are part of a costume. Growing up in Saudi Arabia and then living in Syria, when Assad comes to power, she is not allowed to state her thoughts or engage in debate. As a refugee in Canada, she finds her voice again and revels in the opportunity to express herself. Her boots are no longer a costume. They are her new self, a self that continues to fight for peace and justice.
On my second day in Canada, I took a picture of my new Canadian snow boots. I thought that they were just part of a costume. But it went far past simply clothes. I grew up in a very conservative, loving family in Saudi Arabia, a very religious country. All my life, I thought and acted as I had learned to in school. When my feelings ran in opposition to my culture and the habits I had been raised with, my community forced me to conform. No matter what discussion I started on any topic—religion, politics or education—whenever I said what I was thinking, they told me, “Stop discussing, Maya. It’s a sin.” When I said what I was thinking, they told me, “Stop thinking, Maya!”
We moved to Syria in June 2000, arriving one day after the funeral of Assad’s father. His son became a president without an election. We hoped he would change Syria. The Damascus spring movement started, but he didn’t respond to what people wanted.
By then, I had stopped discussing. But I had not stopped thinking. I read and wrote notes to myself. I recognized that the problems were because we had a political dictatorship. I had a dream of democracy in Syria and of a real home where we could live freely.
In March 2011, my dream came true. The revolution started. We wanted to make Syria an advanced country with better education, health care and justice. It started as a peaceful protest, but the Assad regime responded with weapons and military. Revolution became armed conflict. Day after day, the number of the dead grew. Every day we faced new crises: arrests, bombs, rockets, hunger, civil war and refugees.
But I didn’t give up on my dream. I wanted to stay in Syria. Early on Friday morning, September 20th, 2014, I woke up to find that five rockets had fallen around my house. I was very scared. I called my father and told him, “I want to leave immediately.”
The next morning was the last one I spent in my home. At 6 a.m., the sun was red and rising, and the clouds around it were red, mixed with black smoke from explosions. It was the last scene of my city! It was days later, when I got out of Syria, that I started recognizing what had happened. Where am I? I lost my country, my dream, memories, diary, and everything in it, my records, my record player, and my pink bed sheet. I lost long nights on the balcony with my family, laughs with my friends, and my passion. I fell into a depression. I was anxious. I was hopeless. I gave up.
When I moved to Canada as a refugee, I went to a therapist to ask for a prescription to remove the sadness and fears from my heart. She told me, “There is no prescription for that.” But I became a good support. I started meeting people, trying different food. But the most important thing was that I started to think again! In Canada, I can think about and discuss any topic. I participated in loud debates. There is no sin in this, and no one judges me if I don’t hurt anyone.
So, the snow boots, the gloves, mittens were not just a costume. They were a new self. Every night I write in my diary. I remember my past and why I am here. I ask myself: Was the Syrian revolution the right decision? My mind says yes—we needed it. My heart says I am sorry for all those who lost their lives. And so that it will never happen again, I am going forward with my dream. I am not giving up getting Syria freedom with better education, and I will continue to share our story with people like you to avoid another crisis.
MAYA KABBANI comes from Syria. She moved to Canada in 2017. For her, moving to Canada was a turning point in her life.