War Refugee or Fire Evacuee: Carrying Your Life with You

When massive wildfires threatened to engulf northern Albertan communities in early May, residents of several municipalities such as Fort McMurray and High Level were faced with total evacuation. Families sometimes only had a few minutes to gather up everything they could before being forced to make the long trek out of the city and into an uncertain reality. What do you bring with you? Where will you go? When will you be back?

There have been a few humorous posts online about how, in their panic, Fort Mac residents packed ridiculous items like watermelons and snow pants in an effort to leave their homes as quickly as possible. And as funny as they are, and as welcome as such posts are in such a bleak time, they point to something much more stark in reality than simply being silly in a moment of crisis: these moments signify a lack of preparedness for disaster.

And perhaps we can count our blessings that we are so unprepared because disasters which threaten the loss of life and property are so infrequent here in Canada – and, if they occur, they are usually natural. One can only imagine what goes through the mind of someone who imagines that their home and family might go up in flames, and especially when it’s at the hands of other people.

For some evacuees, this was the not the first time they experienced total exile from their belongings and sometimes loved ones. Some residents that were evacuated were newly-arrived Syrian refugees and refugees from other parts of the globe – individuals who had experience losing everything (not just preparing to lose it) and who now know that it is most important to get out with your life and those of your loved ones intact. Refugees have made harrowing journeys with almost nothing on their backs and sometimes little to no hope of having anywhere to go, as doors continue to slam shut in their faces. For those experiencing the double exodus of Fort Mac, it must have been both a cruel reminder as well as a deeply unfortunate chance for the communities who welcomed them to have a small glimpse into their journeys.

An organization out of Edmonton called The Green Room (a branch of Islamic Family Social Services) recently started posting an online photo series depicting the meaning of ‘home’. The photos show each individual’s most valuable possessions – what they might take with them if they had to leave in a hurry. The question asked and answered through the photos is: If your house was burning, what would you take with you?

Recently, we moved to a new apartment building in the south-side of Edmonton. While I was preparing the iftar (fastbreaking) meal one Ramadan night last week, the fire alarm went off. I initially thought it was only in our suite and that something in the oven had caused it and continued what I was doing. Despite frantic waving of a towel over the smoke detector, it would not turn off. That’s when we realized the alarm was going off in the entire building. When we looked outside, we saw people walking out of their homes saying that there was a fire in the building on the fourth floor. Within a few minutes, the sound of fire trucks wailed in the distance.

I immediately though of The Green Room’s project and felt grateful for it because when I first saw it online, I had made a mental inventory of where all of our important items are so that I would be able to grab them in case of emergency.

As a result, I got my daughter dressed and out the door with my husband while I walked around the house filling my backpack with the following items:

  • Every Qur’an we own
  • Our phones and chargers
  • My laptop and charger
  • Passports and documents from Morocco and Italy
  • Pull-ups and Wipes
  • Snacks

In less than three minutes, I had the essentials in a bag and was walking out the door. On the threshold of the patio, I hesitated for a second and thought of all the new furniture I had just spent a couple weeks building by myself, of all the beloved books, of extra clothes (surely I would need more than one hijab?). I thought of every tiny item I had carried back and forth across oceans between Canada and Morocco over five years. I thought of my daughter’s toys and stuffies. Of all her irreplaceable drawings. An image formed in my mind of a Syrian family I had seen walking through Europe with a couple of backpacks and a sleeping child in their arms. I dismissed my hesitation and just kept walking, grateful to get out with what we had.

In the end, it was a false alarm and five fire trucks arrived to turn the switch and send everyone back home. We walked back into our home where our dinner table was laden with an iftar meal that would otherwise have gone up in flames, looked around us at our possessions and smiling at each other.

Breaking our fast never felt so good. Whether an evacuee or a refugee, having to carry your life with you in emergency situations is common ground for all of us. Learning that, at the end of the day, our lives are primarily comprised of our loved ones, the bare essentials and methods of communication shows that we have a lot more in common than we think.

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