Faces of a revolution

Amira has had a busy year.

One day she is in Downtown Cairo, choking as everything around her is suddenly washed away into a haze of teargas. She ducks away from flying rocks and yells anti-regime slogans until her throat is raw. Her long, ebony locks whip behind her as she crouches away from an onslaught of bullets.

Another day her nose is buried in a politics textbook, her dark eyes seeping it all in. She tries to keep herself focused on graduating in a few months from the American University in Cairo.

Weeks later she is again in Downtown Cairo. Not scrambling for her life this time but holding helium balloons. She organized a rally to bring attention to an issue that breaks her heart. Street children are being killed in protests, an alarming fate to an alarmingly high number of children living homeless in the country’s streets. 

In many ways Amira is like many young Egyptian women today. She protests, being physically present in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egyptian protesting. She continually posts updates online as reflections from her Twitter and Facebook news-feeds dance in her eyes.

The 20 year old is ready to fight tooth and nail for a less corrupt regime, one where the rule of law is based on equality and dignity. She is politically oriented to the Left, is Western educated, is fluently bilingual and is an excellent communicator. She distrusts the military rulers and is ready to put herself at risk for a new system.

Amira seems to be another example of the Egyptians we hear mainly from in Western media: the liberal, revolutionary youth who are fighting for democracy.

Yet, in many ways she’s also different. Amira rejects the concept of Western democracy and the belief that it should prevail in Egypt. She despises capitalism; she is disgusted by the American Administration’s policies and furious at what she sees as Egypt’s neighbor, Israel’s horrendous atrocities and violations. 

Amira is also a hardcore Communist.

With the Egyptian revolution at the heart of the so-called Arab Spring, international media’s coverage has soared. Media has divided the population into two main groups: the liberal revolutionaries and the threatening Islamists.  The true diversity of a nation in political transition is embarrassingly missing from Western sources. Yet again, coverage painted an Arab people with general strokes and failed to acknowledge them as more than a group of stereotypes.

Yet, Amira is anything but general. Her opinions are strong, her beliefs firm. She represents one part of a diverse and active political-Left. They agree the system must change, but their perspectives, reasons, approaches and beliefs aren’t as aligned as it’s made to seem.   

 A System That Fails its People

When I talked to Amira over a combination of Facebook chat and a Skype call, the frustration in her voice is almost tangible.

The problem is a global one, and not just one that is unique to Egypt, she said.

“The way I see it is that this is a small part in a worldwide revolt against a system that enslaves us through creating classes and widening the gaps between them,” she said, “one that enslaves us through creating gender differences and convincing us that this is how we are created. Also through religion and institutionalizing it,” she said.

The real struggle is misunderstood, it is not between an Islamic or civilian state, rather, she believes the real problem has a class struggle at the heart of it. 

“I’m not only fighting a regime that’s corrupt but (I’m fighting) any form of fascism and exploitation,” she said. “My struggle now is against the social class that takes advantage of the others. This class consists of fascists: whether from the army or Islamists. They are both different sides of the same coin.”

The demands of the revolutionaries are still the same. The people who are protesting and those who are dying are not doing so in the name of personal freedoms, as it is frequently interpreted, but rather for personal rights that are political, social and economic in nature. There is a big difference she says.

“I won’t go down to protest and die because I want to wear what I want,” she says.

“They (the West) have the luxury to talk about personal freedoms. But this reduces what we’re talking about to something very, very demeaning,” she says.

What the people really need is basic necessities and rights, including the right to proper health care, to a strong affordable education, to freedom of religion, to an adequate minimum wage, and a maximum wage that caps the absurdly disproportionate salary senior officials receive, she said.

She is down there in the street protesting for the foundations of a society, she said. “Any political entity, whatever their ideology is, knows that the basic function of the state consists of: infrastructure, security and law and order.”

The laws in place, even the ones that guarantee a plethora of rights, are never implemented. The infrastructure is nonexistent or crumbling. She sites Egypt’s notorious transportation system as an example. The security situation is even more abysmal, she tells me as I hear a repeated click of a lighter.

“I want security but there is none,” she says before stopping to take a drag of her cigarette. She sighs. “In fact the police is torturing me and taking from my taxes to actually protect the people in power by beating me and torturing me if I stand up against them,” she said.

Destroy and Rebuild?

There has been debate recently in the political sphere about whether the events in Egypt can truly be called a revolution. Has enough really changed?

Amira thinks that it hasn’t and that the process is still at its very beginning.

“Revolutions mean you have to destroy something radically and build again. If you don’t destroy, then this is a reform movement and not a revolution.”  The true foundation of the corrupt regime is still firmly in place, she asserts.  

Others disagree. Dina, an instructor at the American University in Cairo and a member of the Al Adl (Justice) Party, thinks that what Egypt experienced is definitely a revolution.

“It is a dramatic and sudden change in Egypt definitely, and I think this is what a revolution is,” she said. “I don’t believe we need another one, we need to fine tune things now and fight for things. This the first next step.”

The problem isn’t what has changed and what hasn’t but what will come next, Dina said. “We need to act and mobilize especially regarding constitutional changes, I think the possibilities are there now, I think there is a way round it yet it is very challenging and exhausting.”

Dina does acknowledge though that remnants of the regime still exist. “You have to careful still because the SCAF is still there and they rule,” she said.  “One should question what did the revolution do: maybe we can now see what was hidden behind Hosni Mubarak all along.”

This is a sentiment which it seems many Egyptians share.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is still in power since Mubarak’s ouster. In fact, Egypt has been under military rule since 1952 with every president in the republic’s history coming from the military.

The Egyptian military is an institution within itself with vast economic interests in the country. Among other things it owns properties, tourist resorts, factories and production companies. Many Egyptians believe that the military would never allow its affluent place in the country and their interests to be compromised.

The main call from protestors now is against military rule and the SCAF. In return the state-owned media and the SCAF have started a smear-campaign against protestors trying to frame them as foreign agents or thugs looking to sow chaos in the nation.

Amira was actually a part of around forty students at the American University in Cairo who along with a professor were planning and promoting to be a part of a general strike that some groups were calling for to protest the oppressive military regime. The response was for the Admin of the military’s Facebook page to post accusations of the students being spies and foreign agents working for the American government to destabilize Egypt.

Amira believes that this proves they are scared of the revolutionaries and what they can achieve.

Some protestors have fought back with a campaign entitled Kazeboon (the Arabic word for liars) that aims to show the violations caused by the military. The military still continued to step up its attacks on protestors. But the more the violence increases, the more completely they start to lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the people, Amira believes.

“Every time you increase the violence, the circle of death becomes bigger and the closer to more people it gets,” Amira explains. For example a friend’s friend would die, then your friend would die and then you yourself would be next. “The bigger and bigger the circle become the more people understand what’s really going on.” 

As the violence grows, there will also be more casualties from different segments of the population, she predicts.  Usually the military attacks or imprisons people from a certain class in the country- that is the class without the capital. The military needs the financial support of these people to maintain its massive economic interest.

However, during the Port Said massacre, which many people blame the military directly for or hold them accountable for not preventing it, two people from the elite class were killed. Their death galvanized students from their universities, one student was from AUC for example, and became a rallying cry for anti-military protests from people at his university. When people in this class or their friends start getting killed, the people with the money in the country would be hesitant to support SCAF or their violent tactics, even indirectly.

However, the military will still have the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is the majority of the parliament and in fact whose leaders are quite wealthy, she theorizes.

A System in Transition

Many people on the Left of the political scale are deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood accusing them of being extremely power-hungry after decades of being forced underground by Mubarak’s government.

Dina, the instructor at the American University in Cairo feels that other parties need to be careful about the Muslim Brotherhood. “The challenge is that they aren’t always clear about what exactly they’re saying,” she said. “You have to be careful and read behind the lines. It’s best to have people who were in politics previously and who can try to understand any hidden messages.”

Additionally the Muslim Brotherhood is led by wealthy businessmen who support the free-market, privatization and foreign investment. Amira opposes the fact that their agenda seems to support the economic policies of Mubarak and blame individual corruption rather than the system for any failure.

“We need a government that puts most of its budget in investing in human capital and this sort of government will not be under Islamist rule,” Amira states.

She believes that if the average Egyptian was more politically aware and understood what the economic policies of the MB are, that they would know that it is not in the general population’s interest.

“There was no thought into economic growth,” she said. “None of them (the MB) talked about building factories, about decreasing unemployment, about debts, about the state budget…no one talked about anything in the right ways,” she said.

She believes that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by such a vast majority in parliament doesn’t mean they are necessarily supported by the population at large. The fact that their Freedom and Justice Party has strong financial resources has put them at a major advantage, she argues.

“I am not accusing them of forging any election results, but they have enough money to bribe people,” she said. People who are struggling to make ends meet would vote for the party that is giving them food. “There should be ethics to any proper campaigns and budget limitations as well,” Amira added.

The money, combined with the fact that the MB has been organized, albeit underground, for far longer than any of the groups that came out of the revolution put the Leftist groups at a disadvantage.

That is the reason many of these new groups were trying to get a draft constitution created before parliamentary elections. Written by respected lawyers and judges, it could have put laws to regulate campaign budgets. But that didn’t happen and the result was a very big gap in budget.

This created the atmosphere for a parliament that is far away from representative. Some groups even boycotted the elections in protest-including the Communist Egyptian Party which Amira is a part of- this added to the numbers of Islamists in parliament.

The rise in Islamists in parliament has also alarmed other and specific segments of the population.  This for example includes minorities that range from the biggest one in the country: the Coptic Christian community at about 10% of the population to the hidden and shunned LGBT community.

The Christian community in Egypt has been complaining about discrimination for years. But some believe the situation has gotten worse after Mubarak’s ouster. Violent attacks such as bombings of churches have made some in the community panic.

Many Copts who can manage it have fled the country especially after the domination of political scene by the Islamists. Father Bisenty Gerges, parish priest and president of the board at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Vancouver, said that a new family arrives from Egypt almost every other week, fleeing the country and moving to Canada.

“Many people who leave Egypt are either highly educated and can work here or are businessmen who have money,” he said.

“In both cases this is a big loss for Egypt and I’m not happy the church here is growing,” he said, “I want to see the doctors, the engineers, the businessmen, the rich people with capital so stay there. The country is being shaken very hard.”

One of those people considering leaving Egypt is Christine, a marketing coordinator at a local bank. Hearing some of the rhetoric from the Islamists has been intolerable, she says.

“When the protests originally started I was against it because I was thinking that the protestors don’t have a long term plan,” she said.

“My biggest fear was that the Islamists rise to power, especially since they were somewhat controlled under Mubarak.”

After she started to support the protests and Islamists came to power she was convinced it was time to leave. Her family is working on a plan to emigrate together.

She acknowledges though that her financial background can help her leave.

“Its unfair for Christians with lower incomes, they have always had problems with being marginalized than we do in terms of getting jobs,” she said. “Now it could get worse and I hope they can find a way to get out.”

After she immigrates, Christine would only return if things settle down, the parliament is more representative and when people unite with one vision.

The way the society is now is completely fractured and it shows how people’s thinking has changed. “It’s very shocking now how people think, it’s really changed. I think it’s an impact of our educational system,” she said. 

For some LGBT people the revolution initially brought hope. A page was created in Facebook by a group identifying as gay Egyptian youth, trying to encourage a Gay Pride Day on the past 1st of January in Tahrir Square.

“We are a group of gay Egyptian youth. We were in Tahrir and we took part in the revolution. We see that each of us has the right to have a life of respect in public. We are part of Egypt’s revolution and we won’t allow anyone to question our loyalty.”

It is unclear whether the event actually took place. There were also reports of a Facebook page entitled Gay Pride March for Egypt in 2020 being created. However the page is no longer accessible.

Amira put me in touch with a gay friend of hers called Mohammed who was a part of the youth protesting during the revolution. To protect his safety I promised that I would only use his first name. He explained to me the struggles of living as a gay man in Egypt and how deep the homophobia runs.

The atmosphere in Tahrir Square during the revolution was welcoming and respectful,  and he remembers thinking to himself ‘if Egypt turns out like this then everything would be okay.’

Yet, he knew that the same people he rubbed shoulders with while fighting for the country and avoiding injuries and arrests, could just as well turn against him in a moment if they found out his sexual orientation.

“I knew that it wasn’t the time for gay rights…we’re still talking about basic human rights in the first place,” he told me over a Skype conversation from Europe where he was visiting. “I was expecting more freedoms to come around eventually and that slowly there would be a transformation and that this kind of environment (more tolerant) would be created,” Mohammed said, “but I wasn’t expecting it to be a direct result of the revolution at all.”

He hoped for a civilian authority as a start followed by a guarantee for the rights of people to basic things such as expecting to be protected not tortured by police, to be able to run a free press and the complete removal of the emergency law.

But the way things have turned out seem to have gotten worse, a sort of crippling hangover after Egypt’s celebratory fervor.

That, combined with the fact that he believes it is a long road until he could live with equal rights as heterosexuals made him decide it was probably best to emigrate.

“The people in the square weren’t thinking of this kind of equality. So in a nutshell it meant that I have to get out of the country if I want to be considered a normal person or to start a family,” he said.

Mohamed though hopes that this situation won’t last for the remainder of his life since wherever he goes Egypt will always remain his country.

“If the foundation is laid, maybe in 20 or 30 years a change can be felt. But not right now. This kind of system, what type of liberties people have, take takes time.”

Carving a Road to Political Awareness and Change         

 The future of Egypt is met by a mix of apprehension, hope, prayers for patience and doses of realism.

Dina understand that the her hope of seeing complete freedom for everyone no matter if they have a religious affiliation or not or what it is, for both genders and for people with diverse sexual orientations, is not realistic yet.

“The next realistic stage I would like to see is equal representation,” she said.

In terms of Islam in politics, Dina thinks that it will continue to have a role, especially now.

“I think Islam is something that is essential at this stage, or maybe no stage, as something not shelf away. I think that’s fine but I think it’s a matter of how we deal with it and how we use Islamic laws to constrain or not.”

Egypt is, after all, a conservative society based on religious belief and that doesn’t allow for change to happen suddenly, she said.

Amira’s ultimate dream would be to see the entire global political and economic order destroyed and rebuilt. However she acknowledges that a different goal might be a little more practical.

For now she would accept the destruction of the regime as it is currently in Egypt: “this military regime, the fascist corrupted one that doesn’t say no to America or to the American administration’s exploitation. It’s a regime that doesn’t’ say no the Zionists and that accept whatever will let it remain in power.”

She believes the first step would be to stop fighting for power. It isn’t the time for elections or big political steps. It is time to focus on increasing people’s awareness And trying to get rid of everything connected to the previous regime and stripping business men taking over the country as they did under Mubarak’s rule, she said.

For true change the entire regime must absolve immediately with a completely civilian cabinet. The state budget needs to be completely transparent, especially that of the military who tried to add a prohibition against sharing the budget in the new constitution.

One of the other most important steps would be to restructure and train the police force especially the way they view civilians. With the police force having military training this is a problem. “With military training of course they view us as enemies and not people from the country,” she said. “So is it surprising they hit us, torture us and rape us?”

The parliament needs to become a tool to serve the general population not the other way around. “They work for us, they see what we want and they implement it,” she said.  

The reason they are in authority in the first place is due to the population, yet they completely disregard what the people are telling them, she said.

“I don’t want to watch another parliamentary session where they say there were no cartridges used against protesters. While meanwhile I am protesting outside the building holding up a cartridge used against me and saying ‘here it is!’”

What is certain, and agreed upon by everyone, is that the process of change will be a long-haul. This change might happen through strikes and civil disobedience like Amira calls for. Or perhaps through fine-tuning and molding current systems such as Dina aims to do. It might even require fleeing the country and helping from abroad. 

Whatever the outcome is, the eyes on Egypt should acknowledge a nation giving birth to new political systems, ones that might not fit previous molds and ones that definitely require a closer look, rather than a sweeping glance.

Revolutionary music

For over a year now I have been experiencing the Egyptian revolution from halfway across the world.

Twitter, Facebook, mobile apps, news websites- I do it all and I do it daily. Being so far away makes me feel like I need to be connected even more.

But the news can get overwhelming especially when it’s tragic- as it frequently is.

It makes me feel even more isolated as there is nothing I can do and I don’t have a network of Egyptian friends in Vancouver who can understand what I am going through.

I needed another way to feel like I am connected to this important time in the nation’s history.

The solution, I’ve found, is revolutionary art.

Egypt has historically been a land where art and culture have flourished. It is undoubtedly one of the- if not the most- important centers of art, culture and media in the region. Some of the most influential and prominent artists in the region hail from this ancient country. The songs of legendary singer Um Kalthoum, the writing of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz and the movies of Yousif Chahine are all carved into the psyche of Egypt, the Arab world and even some in the international sphere.

It is no surprise that Egyptians turned to art to express their feelings about the recent events in the country.

Over the past few years, with censorship tightened, a few underground projects were circulated, especially on the Internet, that addressed the political oppression and injustice in Egypt. They aimed to express the frustration of the everyday Egyptian. Some mainstream projects touched upon the topic but never delved into it too deeply, and when they tried to, there were still issues they would not near.

But it wasn’t until the revolution that Egypt witnessed an explosion of art which was no longer restrained and careful, but free, critical and raw.

It was exactly the kind of cathartic experience I needed.

When the revolution started last year, my ringtone was a song called Erhal (or Leave in English) by an artist I couldn’t identify at the time. I got the song from a YouTube video that featured him singing it in Tahrir Square- the center of protests.

A simple strum on a guitar and a few words the resonated with millions of Egyptians (translated from Arabic):

“All of us are hand in hand, and we have one demand: leave, leave, leave...

Down, down with Hosni Mubarak…. The people want the toppling of the regime…. He will leave, we will not leave. Down, down with Hosni Mubarak.”

Every time I heard the song I felt it transported me to Tahrir Square in a way news reports failed to do. I could feel the spirit and the resilience of the protestors and for a few minutes it was like I was there. That unspecified voice sang the words I ached to express.

I now know that the artist’s name is Ramy Essam. He is considered one of the heroes of the revolution and his story (including post-revolution abuse by military personnel) has been reported by various international media.

He also has an album out, one that is almost constantly playing on my iPhone. With its mix of powerful lyrics, poignant reflections, humorous references and critical analysis, the album captures what I believe is the spirit of the revolution.  The first time I heard it I was at once surprised and impressed at its brutal honesty, especially against the ruling Military. Protests in Egypt now focus on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and demand their resignation. This is reflected in Essam’s song Erhal 2, which with an identical tune to the first one changes the lyrics to reflect the new situation (translated):

“All of us are hand in hand, and we have one demand: leave, leave, leave.

Down, down with Military rule. The people want the toppling of the regime. The Council will leave, we will not leave…. Down, down with Hosni Mubarak. All of us are hand in hand, and we have one demand: civilian (rule), civilian, civilian.”

The burst of revolutionary songs is a refreshing addition to a long record of songs about Egypt. Many Egyptians, much like the rest of Middle Easterners, are fiercely patriotic and songs about Egyptian pride and love for the country are abundant. Be it with classics such as Afaf Rady’s Masr Heya Omi (Egypt is My Mother), modern songs such as Sheriene Abdel Wahab’s Mashrebtesh Min Neelha (Didn’t You Drink From Its Nile) or even songs sung by non-Egyptians such as Lebanese megastar Nancy Ajram’s Ana Masry (I am Egyptian). As much as I love those songs which helped me stay connected with Egypt as I grew up in another country, it is about time that songs expressing the Egyptians’ struggle against political oppression become mainstream. If there is one thing that defines the feeling of Egyptians about their country it is a mixture of love and a frustration-driven cry for change. The new songs do reflect that and they resonate with a generation of younger Egyptians who grew up under Mubarak’s rule and didn’t experience the freer, more cultured Egypt our parents reminisce about. 

I’ve focused on songs in this article, but there are so many different forms of revolutionary art that have spread like wildfire around the country. One interesting phenomenon is the surge in street graffiti art- which was banned under Mubarak’s regime.

In terms of songs, they resonate with me, because as I am sitting on the bus in Vancouver, hoping the gray clouds wont’ pour their wrath onto us one more day- I can put in my headphones, close my eyes and feel the spirit of a revolution that is far from complete.

Porn in the library

On the third floor of the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, a man sits at one of the public computers, accessing the internet. He has more than one browser window open and is shifting his focus from one to the other. The man clicks on one of them and a movie comes to the forefront.

On the screen, two men are engaged in hardcore sex.

For some, it is hard to believe that someone would use a public space to view sexually explicit material, but librarians acknowledge that it does happen.

How frequently this occurs depends on the librarian’s experience and if offended visitors bring it to their attention.

Some say it is a daily occurrence and some say it happens weekly. While others say they are only aware of it once or twice a year.

One of the main challenges is defying what pornography is.

“What is illegal and what isn’t...those of us who aren’t lawyers can’t necessarily make that distinction.” said the library’s central branch director Shelagh Flaherty.

“There is no real societal consensus, except on extremes like child pornography, of what the definition is,” she said. 

“It is a difficult question and very nuanced. We have literally thousands of internet sessions in a day, the percentage of people looking at something pornographic is a small portion of that,” said Flaherty. 

The Canadian Criminal Code also does not explicitly define what pornography is.

Rather, it uses the word obscenity in section 163 (8). It states that “for the purposes of this Act, any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence, shall be deemed to be obscene.”

The concept of undue exploitation is determined by reference to community standards. Therefore, there is no standard definition. The only time the word pornography is used is in section 163.1 that defines child pornography.

The main debate in libraries is about finding a balance between people’s right to access information in a free, open and democratic society on the one hand, and respecting that other people might be offended by someone accessing it in a public space.

The library subscribes to the Canadian Library Association’s Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom.

“It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable,” the statement instructs.

“Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups,” it outlines.

The central library, which has 265 workstations for internet access and sees almost 6,5000 visitors a day, has tried to tackle this issue in several ways without infringing on people’s freedom to information.

If a visitor complaints to library staff that they are offended or uncomfortable by someone accessingsuch material, the staff member would approach them, Flaherty said.

They are reminded that they are in a public space and encouraged to respect other people’s sensibilities.

In the library, where the children’s section is on a separate level, the children’s computers have filtering systems installed, Flaherty said.  In smaller libraries computers close to areas frequented by children have filters on them as well.

Furthermore, the computers have a refreshing system so that if someone leaves anything open on the screen, it is closed after a certain period of inactivity. This ensures that the next user will be protected.

The West Vancouver Memorial Library also subscribes to the Canadian Library Association’s stance.

“We try to set up the situation where people can do what they have the absolute right to do and where other people can feel like they are not having to look at something they don’t have to look at,” stated the library’s Deputy Director and Head of Technology and Technical Services, Deb Koep.

They have installed privacy screens on their 21 computers that provide access to public internet, she said.

These screens make it hard for others to see what users are accessing except if they are standing directly behind them and staring into the screen over their shoulder, she said.

The dilemma has come to the forefront in the United States as well, with recent incidents in New York and Los Angeles.  They have dealt with it in similar ways to libraries in Vancouver.

To Koep, this issue is a part of living in a multicultural and democratic country such as Canada.

“A society that values critical thinking, citizenship, engagement, debate and diversity has to allow and trust its community members to access all kinds of information and judge it for themselves and use it in the way they need to use it,” she said.

“Life isn’t always comfortable, things aren’t always easy, sometimes its good to be confronted with difficult questions.”

International students crave human touch

All Sarah Meli wants is a hug. The kind, she says, most Canadians fail to provide.

All Meli wants is a hug that makes her feel welcomed

Like many international students at the University of British Columbia, Meli finds difficulty in adapting to differences in what is acceptable in terms of physical contact.

Although the university provides various support services for international students, they do not specifically address cultural differences in expressing affection physically.

These differences can cause foreign students to feel unaccepted, Meli said.

She has struggled with this for the two months since she moved from Malta to Vancouver, BC.

Hugging is a very big part of Maltese culture.

But in Canada, people have a more rigid concept of personal space and are less likely to hug or kiss on the cheek.

This makes them seem cold to some international students.

Meli constantly wonders whether they are accepting her or enjoying her company because frequent hugging is a sign of friendship in Malta.

“It makes me feel lost,” she said.

Feeling misunderstood

Canada prides itself on being a multicultural society that encourages diversity.

However, struggles like those faced by international students highlight some of the challenges faced by newcomers to the country.

Some are left feeling out of place and questioning whether they will ever fit in.

UBC student Ziaul Hasan came from India — a country with one billion residents — so personal space is a foreign concept.

One time, a student asked him to respect her personal space. He feels his actions are sometimes confused for flirtation.

Some international students believe they need to hold back from physical contact to comply with Canadian norms.

After seven months in Vancouver, UBC law student Zelius Kleefstra still reminds himself not to shake hands every time he meets a friend.

In South Africa, male friends shake hands whenever they meet each other, he said. It is a sign of belonging and respect.

At times, he still inches his hand forward and then remembers to pull back quickly.

Retaining international talent

International students’ successful integration is a high stake issue for Canada.

The figures for international students in the country are high, according to a report by Citizenship and Immigration Canada:

  • 196,138 international students were present.
  • The highest numbers were from China, Korea, the United States, India and France.
  • 85,140 students entered Canada
  • 47, 620 were male
  • 37,516 were female
  • 43 per cent were here for university.
  • Ontario was the province with the highest entry rate
  • Vancouver was the city with the highest entry rate

The Canadian government wants to retain high-calibre international students to strengthen the country’s workforce. Demand for workers will outgrow supply in a decade, according to the CIC.

A university’s role

For most international students, the International House is the point of first contact with UBC

More foreign students came to Vancouver than any other Canadian city last year, making up approximately 24 per cent of the total number, according to the CIC.

UBC’s International Student Handbook does not mention cultural differences in physical contact. It focuses on Canadian values such as being on time and being polite.

The complexity of the issues of intercultural communication makes it hard to collect in a guide, said Caroline Rueckert, a UBC International Student Development Advisor.

She is part of a team who try to make new international students feel welcomed.

She advises them throughout their UBC experience and provides support through services such as the International Peer Advisor Program.

The issue is not about telling international students how to act, but rather to encourage them to have meaningful conversations about the topic, she said.

“Our approach is to….provide the social opportunities for students to begin to form the connections where they can begin to figure these things out,” she said.

“That’s where educating domestic students is important, so it is about the community learning and having these critical conversations instead of creating fixed solutions.”

Different cultures

Canadians have a reputation as being tolerant and multicultural, cautious of offending anyone.

Domestic students don’t want to overstep boundaries so they don’t initiate physical contact, said UBC student Samantha Meade from Ontario.

“They are not sure if it is a bad thing in other people’s culture,” she said.

Sarah Natrasany, a UBC student from Saskatchewan, said she is sometimes surprised at international students’ physical communication.

However, she understands and accepts their different cultural perspectives. She even tries to follow their lead and greet them in the same way.

Now the challenge for students like Meli is to find a way to fit in without losing her identity.

She worries she will always miss the warmth people express in Malta, but will have to find a way to adapt to Canadian culture.

“Something so petty as a hug could mean so much and make such a difference,” she said.

“I don’t think I could live the rest of my life here without that kind of affection.”

Schools plea for special children (originally published in Gulf Daily News)

BAHRAIN'S Down Syndrome children are missing out on the benefits of mainstream education due to failing integration schemes in government schools, claims a top expert.

Efforts to have more children with the disorder join government classrooms have not been effective due to the lack of planning, said Bahrain Down Syndrome Care Centre director Dr Mohammed Al Mannai.

"The idea and actions to integrate students with the disorder started almost nine to 10 years ago," he said.

"But to this day there is no real outcome to be mentioned. The only benefit has been basically children wearing their school uniforms and marked being present at school.

"But besides that there is no integration, no awareness, no lectures about the disorder and some even keep guards at the classroom door believing that students may end up wandering around."

The integration of children with Down syndrome into mainstream classrooms has benefits for both sets of students, said Dr Al Mannai.

Mainstream children will grow up knowing that there is a difference between people in the world and will be aware that some people have special needs, he said.

"Studies have shown that people who advocate human rights have themselves been to schools with integration schemes and understand the need to protect the rights of all," said Dr Al Mannai.

"Meanwhile, the integration of students with the disorder will help them overcome fear or anxiety of mixing with other people in the community.

"Integration also motivates the students to learn from and copy their mainstream peers in aspects such as speech and dialogue."

If the integration process was taken seriously there would have been a detailed plan and if one existed it is a secret no one knows about, said Dr Al Mannai.

A focus on the development of people with special needs started gaining momentum around 30 years ago, he added.

The first thought of solution was creating special schools or centres to cater to their needs.

However, around 20 years into that, it was discovered that there was no beneficial outcome, said Dr Al Mannai.

Ever since, the worldwide trend has been to try the integration model in mainstream education which has had successful results, he said.

"After the Bahrain Down Syndrome Society started calling out for the integration of children with the disorder, the Education Ministry agreed," said Dr Al Mannai.

"However, now the ministry states that the decision was made suddenly without proper planning and they blame the parents and students.

"There are only three to four positions in the ministry to deal with the integration scheme and they definitely need more specialists than that.

"They are making things very complicated and we just want to know if they are going to improve the situation or not.

"Until when will we have to keep speaking out and persuading?"

Dr Al Mannai said that having the current scheme the way it is, was a "better than nothing" situation for the parents.

"However, certain steps need to be taken to fulfil our goal of integrating Down Syndrome youngsters into schools and the society," he said.

There is need for the re-evaluation of the current models, said Dr Al Mannai.

The ministry and the society representing the children need to sit together and think of ways to improve and enhance the model, he added.

"A clear budget for the integration process should also be announced and more specialists should be appointed to work on the issue first hand and implement it effectively in schools.

"Finally, a clear national plan with specific goals needs to be set up so that there are tangible solutions to the problem."

Another problem parents are facing is the lack of kindergartens and nurseries that accept children with the disorder, said Dr Al Mannai.

Some nurseries do accept their enrolment, but charge almost double the amount a mainstream student would pay, he added.

"The ministry says it does not have any authority over the nurseries," said Dr Al Mannai.

"The truth is anyone with an amount of money can open a nursery.

"But what the ministry should do is to refuse the registration of any nursery that cannot accommodate all types of students."

Educational facilities should accept everyone and not discriminate, he said.

If they need to pay more to hire specialised staff it was not the responsibility of the parent to pay the difference, added Dr Al Mannai.

"The Bahrain Down Syndrome Society was the first of its kind in the Arab world and we were the first to have an Arabic language website and create a centre for the needs of the Down Syndrome community," he said.

"But now, unfortunately, all the other countries have exceeded us in their integration model and we need to get back on track."

Land of 5 million trees (originally published in Gulf Daily News)

BAHRAINI Redha Al Mandeel refuses to give up on his dream of seeing five million trees planted across the country - despite little progress three years after launching the campaign.

The 70-year-old Saar Group of Companies managing director first shared his hopes of a greener environment for his homeland during an interview with the GDN in 2007.

However, three years down the line he finds his dying wish remains as distant as ever.

Mr Al Mandeel has spent the last few years single-handedly supervising an increase in greenery in his Karzakan neighbourhood.

The semi-retired environmentalist has spent up to BD400 out of his own pocket to have hundreds of trees planted along both sides of a 1km road in the area.

In total, he has already planted more than 1,000 trees in Ma'ameer factories and near Alba in the last 20 years, including around 300 since 2007.

But Mr Al Mandeel's pride and glory remains his 2.5-acre Karzakan farm, which houses cows, goats, ducks, peacocks, parrots and turkeys.

It is full of green plants and tree nurseries, a sight that has attracted many birds and visitors for across Bahrain.

"The greenery I introduced has attracted people from the villages to come for a walk under the shade and beauty of the trees," said Mr Al Mandeel.

"They also come with their horses for a ride.

"They take advantage of the fact that the crab apple and almond trees are fruiting, so they stroll and pick them from the trees.

"I try to grow as much fruit and shade trees in the area as possible.

"It is a very nice feeling when people come to visit and enjoy nature, this area is now popular."

However, although the number of visitors to his farm has increased, Mr Al Mandeel says his green message does not seem to be reaching the authorities.

"The government has done a tremendous thing by recycling drainage water that goes into Tubli," he said.

"For the past few years the water has been cleaned and redistributed to farms for usage.

"However for Bahrain to successfully become greener we need a dedicated department and dedicated officials to govern the issue.

"We should start planting trees on a massive scale on every road.

"It should be a project through the auspices of the local municipality and later spread to schoolchildren to involve them in the greening.

"We can create nurseries in local farms so that people can start planting trees in roads.

"We can also use the shallow areas of the sea water to create ponds for fish and shrimp like they have successfully done in India and Sri Lanka.

"We could have a completely integrated environmental system if it is initiated by the government."

Mr Al Mandeel said the need to introduce such projects was urgent, not just to help beautify Bahrain but to improve public health.

"Time is running out. Climate change has started and it's happening very fast," he said. "We need to reverse the trend."


"Greening areas also improves the temperature, creates more oxygen for citizens and thus people will end up with improved health.

"It is the only hope for the future generation - we cannot do it until we start soon.

"I really hope someone hears my message," he said.