Raya Sleka was with her friends at High Park when she heard something fly over her head, instinctively she ducked for cover, afraid. Her friends laughed saying “You’re in Canada now, it’s safe.”
“It ended up being an air show, but I almost wanted to cry, for me it wasn’t a joke. I just came from Syria. I struggled a lot with just the idea of feeling safe, there is a lot of trauma,” she said.
It’s been five years since Sleka, psychology student at Ryerson University, has been back home in As Suwayda, Syria. She remembers her childhood fondly, times far gone but never forgotten.
“I remember never feeling lonely, my cousins and my friends were always around me. There were so many activities to do,” Sleka said. “This is what I miss the most.”
A far cry from the Syria ravaged by civil war since 2011. In a 2021 report, Amnesty International concluded that a total of 12.3 million Syrians have been displaced since the start of the civil war.
“I can’t tell you how bad it is, people don’t have money, everything has become so expensive,” Sleka said. “Even a piece of pitta bread costs around $120.”
Before moving to Canada, she was an English literature major, taking a train to a city two hours away from her hometown to attend classes. In her second year, things became even more complicated.
“I decided to study law alongside my major and it was in a totally in a different city as well,” Sleka said. “Moving across three cities to attend classes — I did that for six years.”
She eventually came to Canada on a scholarship, it was her ticket out of a Syria she no longer recognized.
“My credits that I earned back home didn’t count when I came here so I was starting from scratch,” she said. “I also had to start working the second week I came to Canada so I got isolated from everybody. I didn’t contact anyone because I was just trying to survive,” she said.
Sleka has felt distant from her community in the city, as she battles her struggles.
“We came from war, even if we thought we were okay back home, when we came here, all the trauma comes in a different form,” Sleka said. “Even now I don’t have many friends around me — It’s hard.”
Ahmed Moneka is a performance artist from Baghdad, Iraq. He studied theatre for nine years in Baghdad, even performing in many productions across mediums. In 2015, one of those productions almost cost him his life.
“When I came to Canada, I had to stay here in order to save my life,” he said.
Moneka co-wrote and starred in a 2015 short film called “The Society” it tackled the topic of homosexuality, through the lens of two gay men living in Baghdad. The film became wildly controversial in Iraq, and Moneka began receiving death threats.
“It was shot in 2011, but we were scared to screen it until 2015 when we got an invitation to screen in Cannes Film Festival and TIFF, around this time is when it started to make the news back home,” Moneka said. “They threatened me by going to my father and telling him I’m not allowed to come back.”
If he was to go back he would be killed, with his body cut up at the airport according to the militia. So the choice — wasn’t much of a choice, many friends of Moneka weren’t so lucky.
“As artists in a warzone our jobs were to uplift and reflect our community, no matter what, we had to provide a light in the darkness — hope,” he said. “I was exiled but many of my friends were killed.”
Since arriving in Canada, Moneka among his many projects serves as lead singer for two bands Moneka Arabic Jazz and Moskitto Bar. Music has become his saving grace.
“When I came to Canada, music healed me. It was my opportunity to share who I am and to have the privilege to connect with a lot of people and communities,
“I’m grateful because I’ve been blessed, I work with two bands now, and they’re both talking about multi-culture and diversity.”
It wasn’t war or exile that pushed Siem Tekie to leave Eritrea. It was the excitement of the Western dream.
“I was in my first year of college and I kept hearing from all my friends living overseas how great their lives were,” he said. “So I thought why I’m stuck here alone, I want that great life too.”
Tekie grew up in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. He comes from a big family, and as the oldest, he always felt a responsibility to his siblings and parents. A responsibility that made the separation much tougher.
“It was extremely difficult to be away from my family, but when you’re young everything in front of you seems brighter,” Tekie said.
“I had regrets every day, I kept seeing my mother’s face in my sleep,” he said. “But if I returned, the shame of being seen as a failure — I didn’t want to return empty-handed.”
Tekie has lived in Toronto since arriving in Canada, he worked minimum wage jobs and eventually graduated from George Brown’s heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning technician program.
After many years of being unable to secure a job in the field, he now works as an uber driver.
“When I first came to Canada what I noticed was the lack of time, it was all about going from work to home and vice-versa,” he said. “I didn’t have much back home but I had community — I had conversations.”
In the long term Tekie plans to move back home, although he is grateful for Canada, he sees the dream he once had, as simply —- a dream.