For the first 30 years of his life, Ahmed Barbour was stateless. Originally from Palestine, he was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, where he studied marketing and worked in business development with brands like Blackberry and Apple.
“Not all refugees grew up in war, and I am proof of that,” he said. “I grew up in Dubai. You’ve seen the pictures– it’s fabulous. I was working there, having a good life, but if I traveled somewhere, I was automatically treated as a refugee. I’d feel normal, but then I get stopped at every airport and border for hours.”
“I had to bring an extensive collection of documents when applying for visas. Because I was a Palestinian refugee, countries were always worried that if I came in, I’d never leave.”
Whenever his friends tried to plan a trip, he had to remind them that he needed months of advance notice in order to apply for a visa.
“When you’re a refugee, you don’t always feel like you’re at war,” he said. “You feel normal, like you just want to give your family a normal life, but the world isn’t letting you.”
After fleeing the war in Palestine in 1948, Ahmed’s family lived in multiple countries. His grandparents moved to Syria, then his parents relocated to Libya and eventually settled in the United Arab Emirates, where he was born and raised until he turned 30 and married his wife, Sawsen.
In 2015, Ahmed and Sawsen came to Canada as skilled workers after his three older siblings settled in Maryland, Texas, and Alaska. While Ahmed loved his life in the United Arab Emirates, he knew he had to immigrate elsewhere and obtain citizenship.
“I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with the same documentation problems I had, the same life,” he said.
Before Ahmed was able to bring his mother to Canada three years later, she would often get upset that all of her children had moved so far away.
But Ahmed found a perfect metaphor to explain what was driving him: “Our life is like a relay race in the Olympics. I’m not going to do the same 200 metres that my parents did. I’m going to continue the race.”
In the same way that his parents had looked for better opportunities for the family, and their parents did before them, he continued looking for better opportunities for his family by moving to Canada and obtaining citizenship.
“There’s a race in life, and I just felt like I wasn’t allowed to enter the race,” he said. “Now, I can enter the race along with everyone else.”
Ahmed was first introduced to the Together Project by his wife, a Saudi national. As a Welcome Group volunteer, Sawsen connected with refugees by talking about how she’d seen how hard it was for Ahmed to travel with her.
She had such a positive experience with her first match that when she received her next match with a single mother, she asked Ahmed to join her Welcome Group as the Team Lead.
Afterwards, Ahmed was matched with refugees from his family’s refugee camp in Syria. They knew where his family’s house was, and they even knew people in common. And although the match is officially finished, they are planning on bringing their families together for an iftar meal during Ramadan.
For Ahmed, it was a natural fit to join the Together Project as our Volunteer Coordinator.
And when he introduces himself to volunteers and refugee newcomers, he knows how meaningful it is to share that not so long ago, he was a refugee, too.
“They feel like they know me,” he said. “They can say, ‘This guy, he’s one of us, he used to be a refugee and now he’s a citizen!’ And for them, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
As Together Project’s Volunteer Coordinator, Ahmed Barbour will be the first point of contact for many of our Welcome Group volunteers. To connect with Ahmed, contact him at email@example.com. To sign up to volunteer, click here.
Interview by Jennilee Austria