by Cindy Brown
They call me Aunt Sandy. In their language my name, phonetically, sounds like Sandy when it is spelled. It delights me to have this identity. No one else calls me Sandy. It is special. It is something I share only with them.
For me, this is what family is all about: sharing special connections with special people in your life. It has nothing to do with blood or relation but that unique bond you develop with another human being.
If only our world could focus on what we share and love about one another instead of what divides us and makes us different. It is a utopian ideal. An idea for a perfect world.
I visit my Syrian family, as often as I can. With them I feel all that is right with the world in the same moment that my heart breaks for all that is wrong in it. The family – my family – came to Canada in February 2017 after spending too many years as refugees in the Middle East.
Their youngest, a son, was born while refugees in Egypt. Their five daughters witnessed unspeakable horror, terror and fear as they fled the only home they knew. There was a period of time – thankfully brief – when they did not know if their father would return to them alive. On their way out, their food, meant to feed the family of 7 on their long journey, was taken from them. But they made it out.
And now they are in Canada, in a foreign country, in a very foreign climate with snow still piled high at the end of March. They must exist in a foreign language and a foreign culture with foreign food. And arguably they are some of the lucky ones as countless others from their country are still trying to survive in refugee camps or in Syria.
In a perfect world, I would not be Aunt Sandy. In a perfect world, they – and thousands of others like them now reassembling life in Canadian cities – would be in their homes in Syria, living their lives in the way knew and cherished. In a perfect world, they would not read news stories from home that tell of ongoing suffering and of the death of those who they once lived amongst.
In a perfect world, this family would be unknown to me. They would live in peace. Their girls and their son would grow up and go to school in a country where education was free at all levels. A language, a culture, and an ocean would separate them from me. I would not know Syria in the way they have shared with me. I would not know the sparkle in their eye or their tenacity and courage. I would not know how bright their eyes are or the jokes they make and the delight they take in each other, the world around them, and their friends.
It is not a perfect world. I have never been to Syria. They are teaching me to know it. I can almost picture the street they lived on. I am learning, word by scattered word, a little Arabic. My heart aches with them when they hear news from family back home or in other parts of the Middle East.
And, I am Aunt Sandy. I could not feel more grateful, and my fortune exists in their misfortune. I was given this gift because life as they knew it was torn away by men determined for war.
It is music to my ears to hear “Aunt Sandy” from six different voices when I am in their home. I try to honour the title of Aunt – a sign of deep respect of elders in their culture – by ensuring that I hear from all of them when I visit.
Two of the girls (the third youngest and the second youngest) are my language teachers and ensure I recite my lessons and progress. They curate my Arabic and express disappointment when I do not complete my homework before I visit. The oldest daughter is an inspiration in her courage and how hard she works at school. The second oldest – soon to be 13 – is so helpful, responsible and quiet but with so much to say. The third oldest is a quiet artist. The boy, as I have told him many times, may be the smallest but is the loudest of them all.
They take care of me in a way I am not accustomed to. I am a welcomed member of this home. I am not just a friend, I am Aunt Sandy. This unexpected connection with those who were once strangers from the other side of the globe is a blessing and the most precious gift in my life. It is not a perfect world but maybe this connection and the lessons we can all draw from it, is a step in the right direction.
This is family.
I am Aunt Sandy.