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“Every year, you are one-thousand times good.” Scrolling through my Syrian friend’s birthday messages on Facebook, I click the translate button so I can understand the Arabic. “God willing, may you see 100 candles in your life.” A dozen people have posted similar greetings to her in Arabic, the poetry, warmth and faith in each transcending the awkward Google translations. How does an English speaking atheist match this, I wonder? “Happy b-day” seems a bit weak in comparison, so I throw in a couple of festive emojis to compensate.
My Facebook friend arrived in Canada with her husband and children last year, sponsored by some friends and neighbours. We often see each other face-to-face but, living on opposite sides of a congested Vancouver bridge, online communication has become part of our friendship, too. I’ve come to love texting apps since I met her, and we chat back and forth on Whatsapp regularly. One night, after leaving her place with a large container of Syrian food she had packed for me, I text her a quick thanks. “My kids love your rice! How do you make it?” An hour later my phone pings. It’s a Whatsapp video filmed by her husband, featuring her as both director and celebrity chef, frying grains of rice and vermicelli noodles in vegetable oil and crumbling in chicken boullion cubes before adding water. “Use halal boullion; it’s the best,” she narrates, directing her husband to take a few close-ups of the cubes and the bubbling oil. A few days later, another ping. This time it’s a still photo of a box of Duncan Hines Celebration Blondies Mix with a simple message: “What is this?” Good question. North American instant food culture is hard to explain (and apologize for) in a text!
Facebook is a big part of our online relationship, too, albeit a more indirect one, and it’s where I’ve found myself becoming more and more self-conscious over the past year. Before we met, my social-media habits were pretty conventional: occasional posts of the kids doing something fun, the odd share of an irreverent Beaverton article and loads of likes for friends' sunny vacation photos. What have I noticed my Syrian friend commenting on, liking and sharing over the last year? Posts from other friends who have left refugee camps and resettled in Germany, Sweden and other parts of Canada. “Thank God you are safe.” Posts from friends still in the camps. “May you have patience and trust in God’s mercy.” Posts honouring friends and acquaintances who have died, some of them killed. "Peace be upon them. May they enter Heaven.” Melancholy posts with photos of her hometown in Syria before the war. Angry posts blaming different world powers for meddling or doing nothing.
These posts pop up in my feed between posts from other friends skiing at Whistler. "Awesome pow day!” Out at hip restaurants. “Delish!” And celebrating family reunions. “The whole fam damily together again!” As I scroll through, I frequently find myself squirming at the contrast and overthinking Facebook algorithms. If I comment on this post from another friend celebrating her birthday in Hawaii with her extended family, will my Syrian friend see it in her news feed the same day she’s posting about air strikes over Afrin, her own family scattered around the globe? What’s the mental-health impact of seeing photos of privileged families enjoying carefree lives while your parent’s town is still at risk of being bombed?
And what should I do with this empathy? Help her bring more families to Canada? It can be an expensive undertaking, especially in a city such as Vancouver, where sponsors need to raise rent money for each family’s first year. I find myself buying lottery tickets, mentally calculating how many more families could be supported to come here with the winnings. I wonder whether playing the 6/49 is “halal” and google it on my phone, quickly immersed in inconclusive religious debate.
I speculate that she might face the same dilemma about what to post and comment about on Facebook. Her son is doing well in school here; her husband has a steady job. I know her phone pings everyday with messages from relatives and friends still in camps asking whether there’s any way she can help them get out. I wonder what she tells them. Mostly she’s quiet about her own family’s successes on her newsfeed, but the occasional celebratory post makes its way on to her profile, attracting likes and emojis from around the world.
These reactions to her posts are reassuring, I guess. More than I, she and her Syrian friends know how horribly unfair the world is. They've felt it palpably and intensely for years now and yet somehow still manage to be gracious about it.
Faith must have a lot to do with it. Not having grown up in faith circles, I sometimes feel clumsy and awkward around religious people, although our friendship and texts have made me more comfortable on that front, too. “See you soon,” I often write at the end of my texts to her. “Inshallah,” she invariably responds. God willing.
My phone pings again. She’s sending me a photo she has taken of her young daughter standing outside their apartment building in front of a bush in full summer bloom. “One thousand times good,” I’m tempted to reply. God willing or not, I hope she and everyone she knows will all see 100 candles in their lives.
Alison Dudley lives in Lions Bay, B.C.