By Hammam Farah
When I was eight years old I lived in a small oasis city in the desert, where the palm trees hung over a verdant landscape covered with date groves and natural springs, and enfolded by sand dunes of varying texture to the north and east of the city.
Farms of all sizes surrounded the city and produced a staggering amount of salad produce—tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and even strawberries.
A limestone mountain with hot spring spa pools at its base overlooked the city from the southeast, shielding it like it was the world’s best-kept secret destinations.
A group of white villas sat next to each other and formed a large circular-shaped neighbourhood, leaving only two roads leading out onto the main street. One of those villas was ours, and the others belonged to other families with children my age, more or less.
And so when we all went out to play, the heart of this circular neighbourhood would come to life.
We played in the sand and on the street, and our families had large lively gatherings in the evenings and coffee and gossip between the housewives in the afternoons.
I had played a central role in the daily activities of the children, from organizing games, sports, and setting out on various adventures and feats of exploration, to searching for the thought-to-be extinct dinosaurs under the sand, or picking up broom sticks to wage a months-long “war on bees” as we tore down a bee hive invasion that plagued the palm trees in our beloved neighbourhood.
I was known as a troublemaker. Like the time my friends’ older brothers surrounded me, carrying sticks with sharp ends, threatening to kill me if I continued to teach their younger siblings dirty words.
Or the time when I placed a grasshopper (or was it a cockroach) in a makeup kit and had my younger sister give it as a gift to the stuck up girl next door. I can still remember her mother barging out of the house yelling at us as we scurried away.
But then there was the other girl. The one who pulled me away from the rest and gave me a glimpse of what it meant to feel alive.
We were taking a walk around the neighbourhood’s circular road under the starry night when she confessed a childhood crush that stirred strangely arousing butterfly feelings in me for the very first time.
“Kiss me,” she commanded as we huddled closely behind one of the villas on a hot summer day.
Drawn by her intensity, I willingly complied as I held her hand close and pulled her closer into me, feeling the warmth of her waist and the moisture on her lips.
“That’s the big dipper over there,” I’d point to the constellations as I held her hand in the night. “And the little dipper there.” I was a lover of space, having learned the names and shapes of the planets and stars when I was four.
It didn’t take long for the kids in the neighbourhood to talk about us. But that didn’t matter. The neighbourhood was mine by that point. And I was invincible.
But as we learn as we get older, things often have a way of blindsiding us and turning our world upside down.
We were moving. All the way across the world. To Canada.
I remember it quite vividly. She stood there, almost numb.
“So this is it,” my voice shook.
We stood outside in front of the house. At any moment I’d be called back in so we could depart.
I held her hand and stared into her eyes, only to be met with an anguished emptiness.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said as I embraced her in my arms and kissed the softness of her neck.
The last thing I remember was being in the back seat of the car with my sister, looking out the back windshield and waving our hands to the chorus of the children of the neighbourhood as they poured out of their homes to wave us farewell.
In the years that followed I developed a childhood depression, filled with anxiety, and my adult personality was largely shaped by the experience of childhood immigration.
I was a stranger in a cold land, having to rely on supportive teachers and sympathetic classmates when I wasn’t facing the bullies and their racist remarks on the playground.
Eventually I succumbed to my new role as stranger and follower. I became quiet and withdrawn. My imagination became my solace, my books my escape.
And wherever I went, the neighbourhood in the oasis city lived in the back of my mind, and in the depths of my heart.
But as hard as change was for me, it would be change that would drive me forward; the desire to understand myself and improve, to do the work that would be necessary to become the person I am today.
I developed an interest in psychology, which became one of my majors (the other being political science). I read tons of books and articles. Sometimes it felt like I was starting from scratch.
But nothing impacted me as much as when I began my training in psychotherapy.
It was there that I learned the value of relationships and the importance of a special kind of self-awareness.
And I had to experience psychotherapy as the client before I could become a therapist myself.
There was a point in my third year of training when I realized I was seeing a different side to life that I had been blinded from: that of relating to another person on a deep emotional level.
I developed the capacity to listen deeply to another person and become attuned to them, to truly understand them.
I felt that I had been living my life in black and white, and now someone had taken a paint brush and filled it with colour.
In the entries that follow I will write about these lessons in the hopes of sharing them with others struggling to understand their relationships and themselves in the context of their relationships.
Today, I am a therapist in training, practicing and studying the approach of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapy. I have also worked for a year assisting Syrian and Iraqi refugees with their re-settlement process.
I saw my own struggles in theirs.
Many of us are familiar with the experience of exile, of being disconnected from both our communities and ourselves.
But we must empower ourselves to seek help and guidance when we need it. There is no shame in that. There is also no shame in sharing your story and talking about your experiences.
Everyone has a story. No matter who you are, you have a story to tell, whether you tell it to yourself or to others.
Many of us have experienced different degrees of trauma and dissociation. How do we reconnect with the part of ourselves that was lost?
And how do we make connections with others who have similar struggles, and those whose struggles are different?
Because those with different struggles have something to offer; they have experiences we can learn from, experiences that add to our understanding of our common humanity.
When I immigrated I lost my world, and I lost myself. I became dependent, anxious, silent, disconnected, and dissociated.
Palestinians refer to their displacement from their homeland as the “Nakba,” the Catastrophe. Leaving the oasis city was my own personal Nakba.
On some level I struggled to make sense of the changes that were happening around me and within me. I was overwhelmed with separation anxiety and feeling robbed of my agency.
Probably the worst part was that I was too young to know these labels and identify what was happening to me.
But now I have taken my life back into my own hands. And it’s time that I shared it with you in the hopes that if you could relate to my struggle, even a tiny bit, you could also take matters into your own hands.
Change became my nemesis. Little did I know it would also become my ambition.