Bayan Khatib finds her true calling in helping Syrian refugees

Credit to Author: Vivien| Date: Wed, 14 Aug 2019 01:04:40 +0000

Syrian Canadian Foundation Executive Director Bayan Khatib knows what it’s like to feel utterly lost.

When Khatib was a baby, her father, a Syrian political prisoner, escaped and fled to the US with her mother, leaving her behind with grandparents. By the time they reclaimed her, the couple had three more children. Khatib’s brother, jealous of the new arrival, wanted her to know that she wasn’t welcome.

Shortly after reuniting with her family in Denver, seven-year-old Khatib followed her brother into an elevator.  Having grown up in Syria, Khatib had never encountered one before. Her brother pressed the up button and darted out.  When Khatib arrived at the top floor, she was completely disoriented, and cried until a resident took her back downstairs. “That exacerbated the sense of not belonging,” she says. “Even my brother (didn’t) want me.”

Her parents couldn’t help.  Her father, tormented by memories of torture, was “difficult,” while her depressed mother had little to give.  “I felt really neglected,” says Khatib.  The once exuberant girl withdrew into herself and barely opened her mouth.

An Arabic memoir about a Syrian political prisoner, ‘Just Five Minutes: Nine Years in the Prisons of Syria’,  galvanized Khatib into activism.  The writer, who had been in confined in the same prison as Khatib’s father, shook her to her core. “It was my first time being exposed to details of the insane human rights violations in Syria, that had affected my family,” says Khatib. The professional writing student spent the next five years translating the book painstakingly into English, to widen its reach.

When the revolution against the tyrant Assad erupted in 2011, Khatib became the media relations person for the Syrian opposition. “That was when I had to come out of my shell,” she says.

But it wasn’t until the Syrian refugees arrived in Canada that Khatib found her true calling. In December 2015, she entered the Toronto Plaza Hotel (where many were housed initially) to a scene of utter mayhem. Mothers clutching babies without diapers huddled anxiously in the lobby, while barefoot children ran around them, squealing.  Khatib understood what they were going through. “I remember … this new confusing world, you don’t know how to fit in,” she says.

Since the settlement agencies were overwhelmed, Khatib rallied the Syrian-Canadian community for volunteers to connect the newcomers with Arabic-speaking doctors, housing, and  ESL tutoring. The Syrian Canadian Foundation (SCF), co-founded by Kahtib, also focuses on empowerment through mental health education, women’s wellness programs, and networking dinners with potential employers.

The organization has more recently developed arts-based initiatives to foster self-expression. Khatib organized a creative writing group since writing has always been cathartic for her. “It’s like therapy – you put the pieces together and suddenly your thoughts make sense,” she says. Students read their stories aloud during workshops, and received constructive feedback. “The first step to healing is … to feel heard,” she says.

The SCF has also run theatre-based approaches for refugees exploring integration issues and taught youth photography through Flash Forward Photo Voice to help them document their adjustment to emigration through photos which were later hung at an exhibit.

While Khatib’s organization supports the most vulnerable refugees, it also champions extraordinary newcomers, like  Syrian wheelchair table tennis champion Dema Dahouk. Khatib raised over $10,000 to fund Dahouk’s participation in tournaments and to hire her an elite coach. Dahouk has already won two of these and is on the path to qualify for the Paralympics. “It’s important for Canada to see …examples of refugees ….contributing back to Canadian society,” says Khatib.

Khatib gets back as much as she gives. Her work with refugees helped her understand her own parents’ struggles and come to grips with her past. “I learned so much about my family …. just from watching the newcomers.”

Witnessing her organization grow from a handful of volunteers into a professional enterprise which has served over a thousand clients, has also boosted her confidence. “Seeing it come to life makes me feel that it’s possible to…achieve whatever I put my mind to,” says Khatib.

[Author: Vivien Fellegi]