In February 2019, Uniterra – a WUSC and CECI program – called for volunteers from multiple universities to participate in its 2019 International Seminar in Malawi. The purpose of the seminar was to bring together a diverse group of 15 post-secondary students. The group was to be made up of five Canadians, five Malawians, and five student refugees living in Malawi. Together, these young would learn alongside one another and deepen their collective understanding of issues and opportunities facing young refugees and host communities in Malawi.
When I found out about this opportunity, I was eager to participate. Not only did it align with my interest in working with my peers to address complex global problems, but it would also give me the chance to return home. Now, I am always grateful for my Canadian residence, my welcoming campus and the comforts of living in a place like London, Ontario – a place so far removed from a village that held very little promise for me. But, for me, as I believe it may be for many refugees, the longing to be amongst the people, smells, landscapes and sounds, which raised you, never becomes drowned out – no matter how much your new circumstance washes over you.
But more than any familiar sight I missed, it was a brand-new one that I most wanted to see. And, that is you, Elvin. No picture or video can ever do justice when a father has yet to meet his baby boy, and it has been a long time coming for me to finally hold you and count your ten fingers, and ten perfect toes. I am sorry I was not there when you were born, and I have become more sorry with each passing day that I have not been there to protect you and show you how much you are loved.
If you’re reading this and you find me, yet again, far away. Just remember that you, my son, will always call me back home. Now, I can’t promise your home will always look as it does today. Perhaps, as you’re reading this, you are huddled under a blanket, fending off the biting cold of a Canadian winter. Or, maybe we will have found sanctuary, happiness and love somewhere we have yet to even imagine. The location does not really matter though – for, no matter where you go, you will always be loved.
I must say, it’s hard to stay on track with a narrative when your pen is in combat with such an outpouring of emotion.
I should not have kept so many of these thoughts and feelings bunged up for so long, and now I am hear packing all of my fatherly advice into the pages of a book I haven’t a clue as to whether or not will ever see the light of day beyond the bookshelf of my baby boy. But, that is neither here nor there, and I am getting in the way of reaching the most exciting part of this story – the part where I meet you.
After hearing about the volunteer opportunity in Malawi, I immediately made my interest clear, and once again, a combination of hard work, my experiences and good fortune came together beautifully to allow for me to see you for the very first time. But, of course, this trip cannot be all about our bond and much hard work had to be done to ensure the altruistic vision for the mission was fulfilled. That is, at the very least, when I feel I owe to my Malawian comrades, who did not make it across the sea, deserve – so one day too, they can write books to their sons with more happy parts than difficult.
The research process for Uniterra went as such: students were guided by an academic advisor from a Canadian post-secondary institution and an academic advisor from a Malawian post-secondary institution. The seminar’s theme was on “Youth Leadership for Refugee Self-Reliance” with the general goal of improving the lives of refugees who live in Dzaleka. These people include all my loved ones; my grandparents, my uncles, friends and all those who contributed to raising me into the man I am today. Perhaps you will raise your eyebrows or crinkle your nose when you see your uncles listed amongst my desired benefactors – after all you’ve read in this book about our trials and tribulations – but no matter what, they remain my family and I still hold onto the thought that they truly did the best they could have, for who they are and how life had reared them.
On June 28th, my partners in this philanthropic research endeavour and I boarded the long flight to Malawi. What an interesting contrast between myself and the Canadian students. After living somewhere entirely foreign for several years, a place I had grown accustomed to and grown to love, I would be returning to a place that I knew like the imprints on my own hard-worked hands. On the other hand, my Canadian counterparts were leaving their homes, families and all things familiar to become immersed within a community and culture that would be far removed from the close-knit campus of Huron.
We flew with Ethiopian Airlines all the way from Toronto to Addis Ababa, and then from Addis Ababa to Lilongwe. I was afraid on the plane, I thought maybe I would not make it to Malawi. While aeroplanes are said to be the safest mode of transport, at times they can be cruel. I am not sure if it was my contemplation of the technical ineptitude of the plane that frightened me, or perhaps, I had just grown up to learn not to trust comfortable circumstances. Throughout my lifetime, many things that were supposed to be safe and keep you that way turned out to nothing more than snares disguised with an idealized cloth. But, when you’re thousands of feet up in the air, with nowhere to go except in your mind, one can feel a little foolish exposing their apprehension to their peers – those who are happily chatting about upcoming adventures, breathing deeply as they doze off or snorting with laughter at an airplane movie you can’t quite see. Despite my intermittent heart palpitations and the dark thoughts, which threatened to overshadow the sunny day I could see glowing through the oddly shaped plane windows, I kept calm. Whenever those disturbing thoughts crossed my mind, I promised myself all was well. After a total of eighteen hours suspended in the air, we neared our final destination. I was meeting you the next day.
I arrived at Kamuzu International airport in Malawi around noon on the twenty-ninth. After methodically passing through the customs, I looked around. I was immediately jerked out of the humdrum flow of the airport because, it was at that moment, I saw your mother waving. In her arms, she held a beautiful bouquet of fresh roses, but what stood beside those long red stems was far more captivating: it was you.
My young man, how handsome you looked! Without consideration of the people around me or the weight of the bags restraining my arms, I ran towards you. I sunk down to hug you, unhesitating and overjoyed, and guess how you returned your father’s embrace? You shrugged me off, pulled away and clung to your mother! I understand why you did this, how were you to know me from Adam? I tried not to take it personally, and I turned to hug your mother. While, after many long and lonely years, she welcomed the embrace, you – Elvin – remained obstinate. You would not allow me to even lift you up, let alone kiss or hold you. I was surprised you could not recognize me after I had called and seen you via WhatsApp so many times over the past years. But, despite my efforts to maintain our connection the best ways I could, you made it obvious I was a stranger to you. I tried again to carry you, but you wouldn’t let me. The more I sought to be near you, the quicker you moved your little feet away from me.
I guess what makes a parent’s love for their child different from the other types of love out there, is that even when it breaks our hearts, we do what we know is best for our children. So, although it made my heart ache to see you pull away, I understood you needed time to process all that you were witnessing. You needed time to get to know me, to get used to me, and perhaps to trust me. However, despite all that I was happy to have finally met you. But, I can tell you this, it is not right for a father to have to meet his son when he already has legs that can run away from him. My hope for you is that when you meet your little boy – or little girl – it is within that first instant they come into the world. I want you there, in that moment, holding the hand of your wife, wrapping your new baby in a swaddling cloth, and seeing exactly how miraculous it is to bring new life into this very strange, but beautiful world.
After I ripped my eyes away from you, my stubborn little man, I was more able to take in my surroundings. I was flattered to see my grandparents, uncles and some family friends were there to welcome me. After all these years, they were excited to welcome me home and hear all about my time in a place they could barely imagine. Unfortunately, it was not long before you and I had to slip back into the routine of being separate from one another, as I could not go home with you from the airport. My Canadian colleagues were waiting for me to drive to the Malawi Institute of Management (MIM) where we would be staying in the accommodations provided for us through the program.
While I longed to remain with you and your mother, and to make up for lost time, life seems to frequently tear us away from the things we love – or, at least, that has been my experience thus far. I had no time to convince you I was not a threat, but your father. This bittersweet circumstance was all wound up with a tremendous opportunity I could not neglect. After all, I was there on a work mission and I had to comply with the rules that guided my contract. Before I had to depart, I was given the time to take photos with you, your mother and all of my other loved ones who came to see me. It was such a feeling to see their beaming faces. I wish I had more time to tell them about who I was becoming, so they would know their sacrifices and support had not been wasted. However, I take comfort in the fact that the smiles, captured within those photos, seemed to suggest they already knew.
I could tell the briefness of this encounter was felt by my family too. They were upset that our embraces could not last longer and they would be denied a satisfactory update about all that I had been doing and what I was ripe to do now. Fifteen minutes is not enough to grab a snack, let alone catch up with everyone you’ve ever loved, under the iridescent lights of an overheated and unforgivingly public airport. However, we all found solace – me most of all – in the fact that now I was in Malawi, I would be able to use every moment of my weekends to spend time with all the people I had left behind to pursue my dreams of a better life. Isn’t it funny that my motivation to stay near to you and your mom had to be directly countered by my desire to build something better for us? Even as I stood in that airport, I was nailed to the spot by my love for you and simultaneously pushed out the door by my commitment to Uniterra’s mission and my promise to fulfill it. This mission not only represents my hope to make life better for all our people, but also to better myself – personally and professionally – so I may continue building the type of foundation that will provide you with security, freedom and happiness.
I wonder if you will see that. Will you come to know that all of the moments I have lost with you, the distance that has prevented me from partaking in playtime and the reason I was nothing more than a man on a screen to you was all because of you? I hope so because the alternative, the consuming resentment a young boy may have for the father he feels abandoned him, is too heartbreaking to even consider. I should know because so much of my life was infected by those thoughts. God help me if all my good intentions paved only a road to hell, away from the ones I love. One day, I will ask you all these questions that, for now, lie merely as black and white blots on a speechless page. I pray you will have not only forgiveness but pride in your heart when we discuss how our paths crossed again. More than that, I hope not too long passed before they intertwined permanently. I think threebirthdays is already too many for a father to miss, and I hope by the time you read this book, I have already made up for them. But, we are nearly done, my son, so let me dry my eyes and move forward with the last piece of this convoluted puzzle, so we can go eat dinner, play catch or do whichever activities you and I have grown to love together.
The next day after our airport encounter, your mom brought you to MIM after work. I am happy to say, that is the day you and I became friends. I lured you in with my attentiveness and, as any parent knows works best, a couple of games. It was that day you called me “dad,” for the first time since I arrived. What a feeling! In that moment, I felt such a surge of emotion, like I was really, truly your father for the first time. With that one syllable word, you confirmed what I had always known, but perhaps had not yet fully digested yet: You were counting on me, and I had a responsibility to walk you through life; to raise you to become strong enough to persevere through the adversities that, no matter how hard I try to protect you, I am sure you will encounter. It was also on that incredible day, I learned about your love of sport (soccer) and music. I never imagined such simple pieces of knowledge could bring such a smile to a man’s face, but I suppose I never realized what it is like to get to know what is already one half of yourself. I noticed you were quick and a fast learner, and I was instantly proud of the potential I knew you already had.
The three hours I had with you went by fast, and then it was time for you and your mom to go back home. I wished you stayed longer or I went home with you, but I was obligated to fulfil my contract, and more than that, I knew the work I was doing would help me become the type of man who would be better able to show you how to walk in the light with your head held high. I dragged my feet as I guided you and your mother to the bus station. I frequently paused to kiss you and admire my little son. We waved goodbye and the bus pulled away, carrying with it the two people I love most in the world. I could not move. I was grounded to my spot, weighed down by the unbearable amount I already missed you, although I could still see you in the reflection of the window. My eyes burned with regret at the thought of letting you leave without me. With blurred vision and a broken heart, I headed back to do the work I had been called to do.