It was somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean when I woke up from my not-so-deep nap. I pressed the service button to ask the flight attendant for a glass of water. My mouth was parched, and I could feel my shrivelled lips. It took me a second to dry the glass out, maybe less. I worked hard to get back to sleep cause I knew I was going to be fidgeting if I was wakeful. But how could I not be nervous anyway? I was about to step into Canadian border and do something monumental for my life. That would be the first time ever I’d walk into a country neither as a citizen nor a visitor.
“What’s the purpose of your visit, Sir?” asked the immigration guy at counter 20, Toronto Pearson International Airport. It was a bearded white man who, I was certain, just washed her face a few minutes ago. His face looked refreshed and there were some water drops on his right cheek.
“I’m claiming asylum,” my voice cracked.
He looked deeply into my eyes. “Against what country?”
“The Republic of Indonesia.”
“On what basis?”
“Welcome to Canada, Mr. Fahd,” it was rare that someone pronounced my last name correctly, “I don’t know what you’d been through, but I think you’re being very brave.”
Brave. Ha! He didn’t know I was scared as fuck and had been practicing this scenario a million times in front of the airplane’s washroom mirror. He then told me where to go: an interview room where some other asylum seekers were stationed.
I had to report to a border agent named Choudry. I was sure he had either Indian or Middle Eastern background. He looked a bit intimidating with his lush beard and brawny biceps.
I looked around. There were three single mothers with seven whimpering toddlers. One of them was white, French-speaking, with a baby boy on her back and a slightly older girl she breastfed. She looked exhausted. Two others wore hijab, spoke no English, tried so hard to calm their kids down. There was also a man around my age, Latin-looking, with a pair of jeans he wasn’t supposed to wear anymore. A very old Chinese man sitting in the corner was accompanied by an interpreter, and two black women who’d been holding hands now wept each other’s tears.
Choudry called me to the photo room. After taking pictures and finger prints, he started the interview. He was kind enough to offer me either an interview in Indonesian language or an interpreter, which I refused.
Him: “So what happens in Indonesia?”
Me: “Indonesian society, including the government and authorities, is dangerously homophobic: ministers & the Vice President had released statements condemning homosexuality; LGBT people had been physically attacked by radical Muslims and publicly humiliated by the police; and the parliament is finalizing a new Criminal Code which criminalizes gay sex.”
Him: “If you return to your country, what would happen to you?”
Me: “I could get harmed by the conservative Muslims, or sentenced in prison for five years when the parliament finally enact the bill next month. There’s an increase of radical Muslims callings for the public to attack LGBT community, including when they said, ‘Your blood is halal,’ meaning that to kill LGBT people is religiously allowed in Islam. Many neighbourhoods, including mine, even installed banners saying they’re anti LGBT. The only way to avoid such mistreatment is by never having neither sex nor relationship. And by hiding myself forever in the closet.”
Him: “You could ask any authorities, such as the police, to protect you, couldn’t you?”
Me: : “I couldn’t. The police is on the extremists’ side as they always ignored calls from LGBT groups when they were threatened with attacks. Despite the absence of the law, they even announced they had created a special task force to crack down on LGBT community. Last year only: two consenting adult men were publicly whipped after being caught in bed together; women with unfeminine appearances were evicted from their private home as the police suspected them to be lesbians; and 141 men were detained after a raid at a sauna, forced to strip down and see the reporters, resulting on their faces and naked bodies being published nationwide hours later.”
That night after taking my initial statements and verifying my identity & criminal records, Choudry let me go and I set my feet for the first time on Torontonian snowy soil. I stayed at an airbnb house in downtown. Toronto looked black and white to me, no colour, cause I was too nervous to face an examination on the next day. There would be a more in-depth interview with another officer, and they’d examine if my answers were truthful.
So on my first day in the city, I was nervous and decided to distract myself with movies. I watched three movies in a row at a theatre in Yorkville area: Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. All three were magnificent, and successfully did their job to make me forget my own problems. When I went back to the immigration office for my appointment, I felt so powerful. I realized, in this kind of country, I won’t be judged by the society. I can wear whatever and blow whomever I want, just like my spirit animal Samantha Jones once said.
So I held my head up high and walked into the examination room with pride. I saw two familiar faces.
There were the black women I saw during the interview. They were a lesbian couple of three years, fleeing from the Bahamas. They told me how LGBT people face difficulties there, mainly caused by conservative Christians. The discrimination made it hard for them to find good job, and even fired after find ones.
Then I’d ask them, “So I saw you crying the other day. What happened?”
“Obviously it was a hard day for us both. We is in a new country where we ain’t been before, ain’t know a single soul, left our friends and family in the Bahamas… well, I sure you know how it feel,” one of them answered (can’t remember her exotic name).
The other one added, “I cried cause I knew it was hard for my family to see me go. Momma cried that morning, my sister cried. But my life is harder than they’s.”
“But we lucky tho,” she continued. “I mean, we two and you. We ain’t experience what the war refugees did. Remember the two Muslim women with kids the other day? I heard they from Syria. Bet the husbands dead. I ain’t flying to Canada with three kids with me. And the old Chinese man… thank Jesus we speak English. We can afford hotels, many of them stay in cramp camps. And we young. I’m 28, she 26. You, how old?”
“I’ll be thirty in a few days,” answered me, right before we three were summoned to go to the examination rooms, separately.
An officer named Luu, who I believed had a Chinese background, asked me to sit before him. He was around my age, bald, average-built, and very friendly-looking. He spent about an hour to learn my personal history in the last 10 years (my occupations, employers, travels, and addresses). He ended up asking the same questions Choudry asked me, with an additional one: “How long do you intend to stay in Canada for?” in which I answered:
“Intend? Forever, Sir. One should live a life one’s proud of. I would’ve been proud of mine if I was born somewhere in a sane place like Canada, but too bad I was raised in a country where love is illegal. I can’t change where I was born and raised, but I can decide where to grow old and die. But I can’t do it without the help from your government. I have endured too many years of insult in a culture broken by Muslim supremacists. But I believe in one thing: time, for me too, is up.”
He nodded, and asked me to come back the same time the next day to see his supervisor. His supervisor would decide if my claim against Indonesia was verified and if I had a genuine intention to be in Canada. If one of or both answers are no, they’d have to send me back. And that’s the only thing I was scared of at that moment. I went back to the city, counted every second in worry.
I went back to the same place the next day. The friendliest officer ever, Tardiff a.k.a Choudry & Luu’s supervisor, met me. She was very tall, and I liked her blonde wavy hair. She kept addressing me as “my friend” as we spoke, unlike her inferiors who called me “Sir” or “Mr. Fahd”.
“We’ve verified your case, my friend, and you’re eligible to defend your case before the immigration board on May 31 at 12.30 PM.”
I exhaled in relief. “Oh, I thought you were gonna send me home today. I barely slept last night.”
“No, my friend. I hope Canada is home.”
As I took the train back to the city, I read every single document Tardiff gave me. I had my temporary resident card, healthcare, and many other things I had to guard with my life. There was also a form stating the immigration people would share my data, skills & expertise with potential employers to help me find a job.
I couldn’t believe I was officially a refugee claimant now.
I suddenly remembered my conversation with the Bahamian ladies the day before. They were damn right. I thought I was powerful enough to be able fly from my country, leave everything behind. But countless refugees, not just in Canada, had to carry extra luggages with them: kids, sick parents, wounded spouses… and even many of them flee without a privilege of buying airplane tickets. Many of them took undersized boats where their family members drowned and died after big waves attacked.
And they survived it. But not only did they survive it; they took the trauma, the hurt or whatever it was, and used it to fight.
I wonder what kind of power they’ve got.
It mustn’t have been just a power.
It must have been superpowers.
So I lift a glass to my fellow refugees who are very brave to fight for lives they deserve. I applaud everyone who has decided to live a life bigger than themselves. Everyone who decided to slay those dragons and say, “My dream burns brighter than my fear.”
I salute you all, and I am honoured to be your fellow refugee.
Being in this position really opens my eyes toward current immigrant & refugee issues. I respect every government and society, like Canadians, who’ve been letting us in with their arms wide open; and condemn President Trump and his supporters for making immigrants’ lives even harder. They had no idea what it is like to lose a home at the risk of never finding one again.
As I’m writing this, my mind is with those DACA Dreamers, TPS Holders from Haiti and El Salvador, and queer refugees in the United States. If you read this: America is your home. With our superpowers, we’ll resist & persist together.