A life on the move
Mike Mohammed, 13, arrived in Canada three years ago. Before Canada, his family lived in Syria, to which they fled from their native Iraq. Even after settling in Canada, the Mohammeds, like many refugees, struggle to find a long-term residence they can afford
Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail
This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings
Mike Mohammed is surrounded by boxes. Some are stacked against a wall near the TV. Others are on the dinner table, with clothes poking out the top. Mike's room has boxes piled near the foot of the bed. The teenager sits on a couch in his family's Vancouver apartment – after taking a couple of minutes to politely tidy up for a reporter.
It's been just three years since Mike and his family arrived here as government-assisted refugees, but they will soon be moving into their fifth apartment. Refugee advocates say finding stable housing is a familiar struggle for refugee families throughout this country.
Before Canada, Mike's family lived in Syria, to which they fled after getting death threats in their native Iraq. During their six years in Syria, Mike says he lived in eight or 10 homes. He's never been able to stay put for long.
Here, his bedroom walls are bare – there are no posters of sports or music idols. The boxes are the only constant and the family is again readying to shuffle on.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says that housing refugees is difficult across the country, but it can be especially tough in Vancouver, where rents are high. "They have such a limited amount of money when they arrive," Dench said.
Rafal Gerszak/for the globe and mail
Canada has long been criticized for charging refugees for their travel to this country. Most must take out loans and Canada is the only country in the world to charge interest on those loans. Advocates have called for the forgiveness of such debts.
Mike's brother, Jaekob, 23, says each of the family members was charged close to $2,000 to fly here.
Jaekob says the family is looking for a new apartment because nearly all of the money that comes in goes toward the monthly rent of $1,500. Jamela, Mike's mother, is on disability and Jaekob has started his own moving company, One Step Moving.
"You're happy when you come here. First year, you feel you're safe," Jaekob says. "After that, you realize you can't do anything. You need money. You feel life getting hard."
For Mike, 13, there's always been a need to adjust – even when it comes to his name.
When his family arrived in Canada, a landlord – who was also Muslim – told Mike his legal name, Abdulqader, might be difficult for other children to pronounce and suggested he go with something else. And so Mike chose Mike.
"It was supposed to be for Michael Jackson," he says, laughing. "I just chose Mike because it was smaller. I was a beginner – I didn't really know how to spell my full name." The nickname has grown on him, though, and he expects to use it for the rest of his life. It did, however, take some getting used to. "The first day I went to school, my name was Mike. It was pretty strange."
Mike spoke little English when he came to Canada. "I did not know anything," he says, articulating every word for effect. He says it took four to five months to feel comfortable speaking in English and credits his teachers and friends with helping him along. Today, his spoken English is strong, though he says he still struggles at times with writing.
Rafal Gerszak for the globe and mail
The ninth-grader's favourite subject does not involve much reading or writing – it's woodwork. He's currently making a clock and next year plans to construct a table. He enjoys working with his hands and is considering a career as a mechanic. He loves soccer and has, like many teens in this country, caught the hockey bug. He shows off a scar he picked up above his eyebrow during a hockey game. The culprit wasn't a high stick; instead he tripped and fell on a fence.
When asked for his favourite Canadian memory, Mike says he doesn't have one: His family hasn't had much cause – or money – for leisure, or travel. "Not a lot of really cool things happen to me," he says.
But a few weeks later, in early November, something cool does happen.
Mike is one of about a hundred middle-school students – he was chosen by a school counsellor – attending the B.C. Lions Skills for Life Summit. Held at a community centre in Vancouver's Olympic Village, the summit offers students an opportunity to attend workshops on the importance of making positive choices and respecting others. There are Lions players, past and present, on hand and they begin by taking the microphone and asking the obligatory "Are you guys excited to be here?" The question does succeed in raising the children's energy level, even if is then almost immediately lowered by speeches from provincial politicians and a corporate sponsor.
The workshops are held on a Sunday while the kids are still buzzing over the previous night, when they attended a B.C. Lions football game. Mike is sporting the new team hat and backpack he was issued. In addition to the workshops, which feature lessons on erasing bullying and understanding the impact of violence against women, there are games to help students enhance their teamwork. And at those games, Mike's presence is hard to miss. The teen is a soccer striker and looks eminently comfortable in all things sport.
The first game involves catching footballs and placing as many as possible into a tub within three minutes. Mike makes several catches, including one that he drops to a knee to snag, but his team comes up one point short of the win and must do 10 push-ups. The second game asks students to pretend the floor is lava, and that the only way they can rescue a stranded teammate is to strategically lay down floor mats. Mike is the person on his team who has been stranded and once his teammates reach him he must quickly put on B.C. Lions equipment – including shoulder pads and a helmet.
Mike's team finishes last, but is the most entertaining. The white team jersey and orange pants he's been forced to don are far too tight and he hams it up as he tries to get them off – a process that requires a few minutes and the assistance of one of the Lions players.
I approach Mike after the game to see how he's doing, but after a quick round of pleasantries he disappears back into the crowd. He's having too much fun to talk.
Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail
Mike has told me his favourite food, perhaps not surprisingly for a teenage boy, is pizza. And so, for a follow-up interview, we've ended up at a place called Super Great Pizza. Despite its boastful name, Super Great Pizza is not the first pizza place we considered. But it's the one we landed on after Jamela raised concerns about the deliciousness of the first place we walked past.
It's a short walk from the family's apartment, near the street that separates Vancouver from the city of Burnaby. The lineup is almost out the door, the crowd largely made up of teens of various ethnicities. We sit at a table near the entrance. Mike eats a slice with beef, while his mother and I choose vegetarian.
Jamela pulls out her phone. She, like the teens nearby, has photos to share. Jamela has six children in all – three are here, while two are in the family's native Iraq. The sixth is in Syria, as is her husband. Mike is the youngest of the children. Jamela has a look of pride as she shows off pictures of three of her grandkids. She hopes her family members who are still abroad will some day find their way to Canada.
When asked who he's closest to, Mike says his mother. "She's always there for me." The lessons Mike has received from his mother – say, when it comes to politeness – are always evident. But the conversation soon shifts to what Mike is teaching Jamela: how to improve her English.
Jamela, who has knee trouble and cannot work, has not had the same opportunities to learn as Mike. And so, when Mike comes across material that might be of help, he passes it along to his mother. Other times, including tonight, he serves as a de facto translator.
At one point in our conversation, Jamela describes prewar Syria as "cute."
"She means nice,'" Mike suggests.
At another point, Jamela is discussing the conflict in Kuwait in the early 1990s but struggles to find a particular word.
"War," Mike says.
Mike remembers little about Iraq, but Jamela says her brother was killed there after working as a translator for the American and British militaries. She says her family fled after receiving further threats.
When asked what he remembers of Syria, Mike's voice goes quieter.
"I saw a lot of fire. People dying," he says. "They shot people and then they're asking for help. We couldn't do anything." Those memories, he says, are sometimes hard to fight. "It comes sometimes. Like, I keep thinking about it."
Near the end of our final interview, Mike, who has patiently fielded dozens of questions by this point, asks one of his own. Of the people I've interviewed, he wonders, who had the toughest life? I tell him of people who've lost loved ones tragically. I then ask whether he thinks his life has been difficult.
He pauses, but does not acknowledge hardship. He gratefully says others have had it worse.