I will never look at photos of refugees the same way again.
I don’t mean for this to sound as if I have ever lacked compassion for those people who are displaced from their countries, as that has always been present. In the weeks since May 3rd, though, my compassion has been augmented by a new understanding of the expression you often see on the faces of refugees, regardless of their nationality, because on May 3rd I was one of 94,000 people displaced by the wildfire that ravaged Fort McMurray.
We were not called refugees, but rather evacuees as we were under a mandatory evacuation notice that saw tens of thousands of residents flee our community. And while we were not political refugees or thrown into displacement by war or civil unrest, we were most certainly displaced and we shared more with refugees than we may have ever wanted to admit.
There was that thousand-mile stare you would often see in the faces of other evacuees, the look that showed they had seen things they would never forget. There was the general sense of weariness and exhaustion that emanated from us, the rapid turnover of our emotional state, quick to weep at the slightest provocation, good or bad.
We may not have fit the classic definition of refugees as we did not need to flee our nation, but in our hearts and minds there is no doubt: we were refugees driven from our homes by a natural disaster beyond our control.
Perhaps our lack of control was the most difficult part. All of us, no matter our nationality, want the ability to control our lives and our destiny. Whether we live in affluence or poverty, the desire and need to be able to direct our own path is critical to our functioning as human beings, and when it is wrested away from us I think it leads to a distinct breakdown in our mental health.
We could not control where the fire went, or how many homes it took. We could not control how long it lasted or when (or if) we could return to our homes. We could simply sit there, in hotel rooms and campers and houses belonging to friends and families and all the other places we found ourselves and watch as our destiny played out in front of us, without any ability on our part to control it.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but for myself it may well have been the part that made me feel most like a refugee.
I used to see photos of refugees as they stared off into the distance, and I wondered what they were thinking. Now I have an uncomfortable sense that I may know too well the thoughts running through their minds, although in my case at least there was some sense that I may have a home to return to. For most refugees this is not knowledge they hold, instead knowing they can never return to the place they once called home.
But even if our experience is not the same as that of refugees, the similarity is striking. A recent conversation with a friend reminded me of how difficult it was to accept help from others during those early days of evacuation, as it was a stark reminder of how our lives had changed in such a short time. And I recalled too how after about 3 weeks I stopped telling people where I was from as I found myself unable to handle the look in their eyes and their sympathy because it was overwhelming to me.
I remembered how it felt to realize I had “no fixed address”, and how suddenly that label which I thought always applied to others now applied to me, living a nomadic life as I travelled from city to city and hotel to hotel. I recalled how I felt homeless to some degree, feeling as if I was a visitor in my own life, and how attached I became to my car and my cats as they were the only pieces of home I still had with me.
It was, if you will pardon the expression, a mind fucking experience.
No wonder we struggled so much, no wonder we were (and still are) so traumatized; it wasn’t just the sight of the flames and the fire and the fear we felt, but the sense of being lost and without roots, yanked out of our homes through no act of our own and thrust into the wind, spreading far and wide across the country.
On July 3rd I celebrated one month of being home, and two months since I left it on a day when I did not know if I would have a home to return to. I have come to realize that far from being “over” this experience I am still very much processing it, feelings that I had pushed down surfacing on a regular basis and finding myself coming to a fuller understanding with each passing day. It was on July 3 that I realized that I and tens of thousands of others had experienced a taste of life as a refugee, and that I suddenly had a new perspective.
There was perhaps one good thing about the entire experience, besides the many kindnesses shown to me by those who might not understand what I was experiencing but who empathized regardless. It was the realization that while I might be lost for a while, I was not alone. With me was almost every single person in this world I love, all the refugees and evacuees just like me from a place in northern Canada called Fort McMurray.
And in that simple realization I found the strength I needed to get through.
If we were lost, we were lost together.