I had just boarded the ferry at Horseshoe Bay in Canada when my cellphone rang.
The line crackled and it took a while to realize who it was.
“Is that you, Mohammed*?
“Yes! I am here! I am so happy – everyone is so kind.”
“Where are you?”
I learned he was finally in Salt Lake City in the western U.S. It was the end of five long years in limbo in Turkey, desperately waiting to find a country that would take him in.
I first met Mohammed in the dusty desert capital of Khartoum in Sudan. It was 2007, and I was teaching English there. He was one of my more advanced students, always working hard to improve his English.
I left Sudan and the school later that year but kept in touch with Mohammed by email and Facebook. He completed his studies at Sudan University of Science & Technology, but had a difficult time in Khartoum and his time in Darfur before that is his story to tell, not mine.
The next thing I knew, it was 2008 and he’d fled to Turkey as an asylum seeker. Two years later, he received formal recognition as a refugee. However, Turkey only gives temporary asylum to refugees from non-European Union countries. So, like many others, Mohammed was stuck waiting for another country to take him in.
I tried to get him accepted by Canada, but had no luck with the United Nations refugee agency in Vancouver. In the end, it was the U.S. that accepted him.
Last week, five long years after he fled Sudan, Mohammed arrived in the United States to begin his new life.
Welcome to North America, Mohammed, and may your future be bright.
*NOTE: Mohammed is not his real name
[Posted by Alison Bate on Sept. 29, 2013]
Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson has just posted my guest blog about the Hanoi Writers Collective: Following the muse abroad. It starts out this way:
Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.
The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes….
“You won’t get any thanks for this, you realize?”
My brother-in-law John is talking to Mickey, a Gabriola Island buddy with a 35-foot sailboat and the willingness to tow us home.
“Not the damsels-in-distress routine, you mean?”
“God, no, that’s not going to work. Won’t go over at all well.”
Gill and I are on her veteran Martin 29 sailboat, with a dead engine and limping in light to zero winds back to Degnen Bay after four nights in the Gulf Islands in Canada.
The rusty but usually reliable Volvo engine, circa 1974, had a couple of starting hiccups before we set sail. But nothing that Gill – my twin sister – didn’t think a good engine run wouldn’t solve.
The first day, we beat south on “Pelegrin” from Gabriola to Prevost, a quiet island opposite Saltspring. A steady five-knot SE kept us sailing and happy all day, before dropping anchor in Glenthorne Passage around 7pm. The biggest decision of the day? How much carrot cake to eat.
Our engine woes began the second day. Continue reading
Liz, one of my colleagues at work, asked me last night what I’ll miss about living in Hanoi. It’s the people I’ll miss the most when I leave next month, of course. But I’ve also grown to love, in a strange sort of way, the following:* Motorbikes in the living room.
* Jockey-cap motorbike helmets designed to fall apart at the slightest accident
* Tall thin houses
* Impossibly thin motorbike cops
* Just throwing the garbage in the alley for the recycle ladies to collect
* Cafe sua da – good iced coffee for under a dollar
* Fresh pineapple for sale with all the hard work taken care of – cut up and ready to eat
* Fresh fruit shakes made out of bananas and pineapple
* Students with the same name in one class: three Thao’s, three Hoa’s, two Nguyen’s, etc
* “When my grandpa was a boy, He was a lot like me…” and other Family and Friends gems
* And, of course, the rat in the photocopier
I live in Au Co, near the orchards and flower market, and the main road right now is a manic mess of motorbikes, flower sellers on bikes, and walking and moving trees.
It’s just days before Tet and everyone in Hanoi is buying a kumquat tree for good luck in the coming Lunar New Year. Kumquats look like really cute baby mandarin orange trees, and according to one of my Vietnamese colleagues, it’s very important the tree has “good posture”. Not standing up straight, but a pretty shape.These trees are typically carried to their new homes by stern-looking motorbike drivers, miraculously balancing them on the backs of their bikes.
The branches of pink-blossomed peach trees are also popular and I’ve even seen heavily-bonsai’d dragon fruit trees on the move.
More and more lilies and chrysanthemums are emerging for sale in little side lots, along the sides of roads and as a sideline. Even the juice bar near the school I work at has started selling small trees and flowers out front.
By Alison Bate
I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.
Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a long, tortuous but entertaining ride.
Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. I’ve ridden my Yamaha Nuovo daily without a license and without insurance; I’ve carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. All because that’s what the Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.
It’s a nerve-wracking experience at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. After a while, though, you get used the rhythm of the traffic and learn to never look back.
I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.
But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.
Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.
By Alison Bate
The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.
“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.
Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.
“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.
We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.
“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.
After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.
The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.
“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.
Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.
Here’s a short selection from the hundreds of shipping articles I’ve written while covering the waters of California, Oregon, Washington State, B.C. and Alaska:
MY SHIPPING BACKGROUND
I edited two maritime magazines (in Canada and the U.S.) and wrote a regular column on maritime safety for three years. My articles have appeared in The Globe and Mail, BCBusiness magazine, Marine Digest, The Journal of Commerce, Maritime Magazine, Shipping & Trade News, Containerisation International, among others.
Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.
Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street
The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.
Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.
But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.
Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.
The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.
(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)
A fine mist filled the bay, as we went kayaking near Cat Ba Island in northeast Vietnam. Most people go to see the spectacular vertical mountains dropping into the sea, but actually I spent more time looking at the boats.
Cat Bay harbor itself is full of colorful wooden boats flying the Vietnamese flag, and in Lan Ha Bay, I enjoyed seeing this guy rowing with his feet. It was also a lot less touristy than nearby Ha Long Bay.
We also saw loads of fish farms, each with a little hut on it and a long pier guarded by yapping dogs.They guard the crop while the family is out fishing, often overnight, and seem to harvest lots of mussels and other shellfish and catch giant jellyfish.
(Posted by Alison Bate, Marhc 24, 2012)
My Sudanese friend Lubna Abdelrahman is a very enterprising lady.
In the last 18 months, she has set up an organisation to help immigrant women and their families and is also busy writing articles for and promoting the new Alqalam Arabic newspaper in the Vancouver area.Her new outfit, Bitmakaly Women’s Association, hosted a community fair at Edmonds Community School on Feb.25.
One of the guest speakers, Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Kathy Corrigan, told the audience that even though Canadians believed in equality, Canadian women still only made two-thirds the money that men did.
As a result, it was even more important to encourage immigrant women and their families and help them settle into their new country effectively, she added.
Lubna described new workshops she is setting up to help women with a Middle Eastern, Sudanese or Somalian background set up new businesses and learn more about financial institutions in Canada.
“I know it’s very hard. Most new businesses don’t know how to sell their products. You are not alone. We will try to help you,” she said.
Lubna worked for the Ministry of Health for UNICEF in Sudan before moving to Burnaby, B.C. with her husband more than 10 years ago.
Since then, she has worked as an outreach worker, community health worker, program coordinator, translator and hosted numerous workshops. She is also kept busy raising two young daughters.
Bitmakaly Women’s Association (also known as Bitmakaly Women’s Empowerment Organization) can also be contacted on 778-919-1208 or via their Facebook site.
Everybody loves a good storyteller and I’m no exception.
Last week, I listened to some of the live streaming of the Enbridge hearings from Kitimaat, the First Nations village a few clicks outside the company town of Kitimat in northwest B.C.
Now I’ve been to nearby Kitimat, and my memories are of a blue-collar town dominated by the blazing hot furnaces inside Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan); the Eurocan Pulp and Paper mill spewing God knows what (now closed); and touring around Methanex (also closed). To be honest, I never even saw the native Indian village, on the east side of the Douglas Channel.
I’ve always known Kitimat and nearby Prince Rupert as shippers of the “dangerous and the dirty”. If Enbridge has its way, shipping bitumen and condensate through the long fiords embracing the Northwest Coast will continue that tradition, managing to combine the worst of both worlds: the dangerous (for the environment) and the dirty (heavy oil).
But Chief Ellis Ross and other members of the Haisla Nation took us back eloquently to the time before the “dangerous and the dirty”, before pollution wiped out the eulachon runs and when whales chased herring all the way up the Douglas Channel.
It seemed an indelicate way to arrive at a religious ceremony. We bumped in, out and around gravestones set in desert scrub, before pulling up in the minivan in front of a huge circle of men in white robes.
The pounding beat got louder as we walked to the edges of the circle and saw what they were all watching: green, red and leopard-clothed mystics swirling and dancing in a hypnotic fashion in the middle of the circle.
Their faces told the story: blissful is the only way to describe it. The bumpy ride forgotten, all things forgotten but the compelling dancing, chanting and smiling faces.
It was Friday evening in Omdurman and I’d never seen the Sufi dancers before, despite living in Sudan for five months in 2007. At the time it seemed too touristy, and a long way to go on my one day off a week. Big mistake. Continue reading
By Alison Bate
The capital of Sudan feels a little lost and empty these days.
The distinctive Dinkas – the impossibly tall, thin Southerners – and their fellow compatriots have mostly left Khartoum for their new homeland and the deadline for the rest to leave is just months away.
After April 9, 2012, any southerners remaining will become stateless or, if they are lucky, have to get work visas like other foreigners.
The new country of South Sudan, born on the 9th of July, has taken with it the biggest chunk of Sudan’s oil revenues and Khartoum seems totally unprepared for the loss of all that money.
It will have to find new ways to make an income and meanwhile the residents of Khartoum and its sister cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North are hurting as prices shoot upward.
“Everybody want to leave Sudan. Why you come to Sudan from Canada?” asked one resident, only half-joking.
The price of a sheep shot up to between 400 and 700 Sudanese Pounds (SP) for the Haj earlier this year – the religious occasion when every family buys a sheep.
Translating this into US dollars is not even easy, as there’s a huge gap between the official exchange rate and what you can get on the black market. Continue reading