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September 25, 2017: Ghada Alatrash,"Stripped to the Bone" Portraits of Syrian Women

Debbie Barry introduced our guest speaker. Ghada Alatrash is a Syrian-Canadian author and doctoral candidate and research assistant with the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. She has been profiled in several media presentations, including CBC, PBS, Aljazeera and Gulf News, among others.

She co-chairs the Syrian Women's Club of Calgary and has been a member of the Rotary Club of Calgary for the past 12 years, and a Paul Harris Fellow. She will be a presenting author at the 2017 Wordfest in Calgary this fall for her book titled "Stripped to the Bone — Portraits of Syrian Women". One of her life causes is to "amplify the voices of the silenced".

Debbie also introduced Aya Mhanna, a Syrian singer, composer and musician, who performs with the local Calgarian group "Hymn". Aya worked for the Red Crescent in Syria (a humanitarian aid society) and is a school teacher by trade. She provided background music on her OUD for Ghada.

"Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history," said Antonio Guterres, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees. In October of 2015, during Canada's Federal Election campaign, the government of Canada "committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 29, 2016." According to data produced on January 29, 2017, a total of 40,081 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada to date.

The Syrian Diaspora today is a complex topic that speaks to issues of dislocation, displacement, loss, exile, identity and a deep desire for belonging. Ghada's research today seeks to better understand these issues and the lived experience and human condition of the Syrian Diaspora who have become, within the past two years, part of our Canadian citizenry and local communities, as well as members of our schools and workforce.

Ghada's aspiration is to engage the notion of a "cultural verstehen of others," or an empathetic understanding of others, and to reflect on how it can act as an important tool in a process of "cross-cultural pollination" between Syrian newcomers and Canadian hosts, and as one method to understanding the human condition of Syrian refugees: to create a world like the one John Lennon imagined, a world where "there are no countries… nothing to kill or die for… no religion… all the people living life in peace… all the people sharing all the world."

She believes that this knowledge would give way to an emerged empathetic understanding and help in dismantling the walls that separate "us" from "them". After all, we all have the same color of heart.

In her fictional short stories, she explores, through her experience, the issue of identity as a Syrian citizen, as a Canadian national, as a woman, and as a human. Her identity reflects, in incommensurable ways, how pieces of her heart are scattered all over the world's map, some left in Syria, some in the U.S. where her family currently lives and where she once grew up, some here in Canada, and some along the way, here and there. She is deeply cognizant of the fact that her identity and her experience as a Syrian immigrant is very different from that of a Syrian refugee's experience.

It is of great importance to understand the difference between exiles and refugees.

Edward Said (2002) also speaks on the condition lived by refugees and explains that it is one "produced by human beings for other human beings; and that, like death but without death's ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of traditions, family, and geography." Said further goes on to highlight the difference between refugees and exiles, and writes, "Although it is true that anyone prevented from returning home is an exile, some distinction can be made among exiles, refugees, expatriates and émigrés. Exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment. Once banished, the exile lives an anomalous and miserable life, with the stigma of being an outsider. Refugees, on the other hand, are a creation of the twentieth-century state. The word 'refugee' has become a political one, suggesting large herds of innocent and bewildered people requiring urgent international assistance…"

Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, offers a definition of this complex word and writes,

You ask, What is the meaning of "refugee"?
They will say, One who is uprooted from his homeland.
You ask, What is the meaning of "homeland"?
They will say, The house, the mulberry tree, the chicken coop, the beehive, the smell of bread, and the first sky

The words in the poems speak of moments that are only intrinsic to the experience of a Diasporic body. They are moments that are rooted in the experiences of the Diaspora. They speak of the experience of homelessness and the longing for belonging. They can only be expressed by the pained bodies and souls of those who have lived such experiences.

In a poem titled, "And we love life," (Darwish, 2008) he writes:

And we love life if we find a way to it.
We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees.
For we also love life if we find a way to it.
And we steal from the silkworm a thread to build a sky and fence in this departure.
We open the garden gate for the jasmine to step out on the streets as a beautiful day.
We love life if we find a way to it…

Darwish also writes:

We are captives of what we love, what we desire, what we are.
We are not basil returning in spring to our small windows.
We were not leaves for the wind to blow us back to our shores.
We are not birds able to fly.

Today, as a Syrian-Canadian citizen, Ghada personally thinks of both Syria and Canada as two countries she is able to wholeheartedly call "my homelands" and, as she listens to the song "Home, sweet home", and sings it, she dedicates it to both countries, Syria and Canada.

Marlene Doherty expressed the thanks of the club and presented Ghada with our special Jubilee Boltman.

  • Marlene Doherty, Ghada Alatrash, and Ben Kormos Marlene Doherty, Ghada Alatrash, and Ben Kormos
  • Marlene Doherty, Ghada Alatrash, and Ben Kormos Marlene Doherty, Ghada Alatrash, and Ben Kormos

reported by Mike Carlin

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