Canada Reads

'It's a love story': Chuck Comeau, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah & Winnie Yeung discuss the memoir Homes

Abu Bakr al Rabeeah moved to Canada as a teenage refugee from Syria. His early life is documented in the book Homes, which will be defended by Chuck Comeau on Canada Reads 2019.

Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung will be defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau on Canada Reads 2019.

The memoir tells the story of al Rabeeah's childhood in Iraq and Syria, playing soccer with his cousins and working with his father in the midst of civil war, before they came to Canada as refugees.

In conversation with Comeau, al Rabeeah and Yeung describe why they collaborated on Homes and what they hope readers will take away from it.

The Canada Reads 2019 debates take place March 25-28, 2019. They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), be live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service. 

Chuck Comeau (CC): Abu Bakr, why did you want to share your story?

Abu Bakr al Rabeeah (ABaR): When I first came here to Canada, I realized there's not a lot of people who know about Syria and Iraq. I got these questions like, "Do you guys have schools back in Syria? Do you guys have chairs? Do you guys live like us?" So that's what really made me want to share my story.

CC: When you first arrived in Canada, what were some of the misunderstandings people had about you?

ABaR: I think what people misunderstood the most was that [they assumed] we only know about violence and war. We don't know what anything else is like — such as technology and social media and stuff like that.

CC: Winnie, what was it like for you to listen to this incredible story?

Winnie Yeung (WY): The scope of this lovely, brilliant young life was overwhelming. As I listened to more of Abu Bakr and his family members' stories, I was inspired to write this book as a way to honour this life that's well lived. What I was the most moved by was not the trauma, not the attention-grabbing headlines about massacres or car bombs, it was actually the family's love and sense of resistance.

It's a love story between a family.- Chuck Comeau

CC: For me, the second most important theme in this book is that it's a love story between a family, particularly between a father and and his son. I feel that's a huge part of book and something that drew me in personally because I have a son. Could you tell right away that this was going to be a big part of the book?

WY: I was so inspired about that relationship between Bakr and his father and how his father held them together. [Bakr's father] would say, "Focus on the light and focus on love," as opposed to hatred. That touched me so much. It's what I wanted to shine through. Bakr's life is not defined by war. His life is one of family and love and friendship and cousins and soccer.

Teenage refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah poses with his father. The pair's relationship is a central focus of the memoir, Homes. (Submitted by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah)

CC: It's like a big clan. It really feels like you guys are a crew and you all stick together through thick and thin.

Abu Bakr, you did survive a great deal of violence over there in Syria. But you still have a lot of love for that place. There's even a part in the book where you hope to one day be able to go back and maybe help rebuild.

ABaR: You will know the value of the place that you are living in after you leave it. I miss a lot of simple stuff that we used to have and we didn't even realize we had. I loved it more and more, and that's what's kept me reading about Syria and Iraq in the news.

CC: One of my favourite passages was when your two friends tell you, "Don't forget about us. Make sure you tell our story." I guess this is one reason this book exists. They told you that and you had this mission. How difficult was that moment for you?

ABaR: It was difficult for me and for my cousins. I still talk to them, which makes me happy. I miss talking to some people. It's really hard. I remember them all the time. They will always stick with you.

You will know the value of the place that you are living in after you leave it.- Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

CC: What do you guys both hope readers will take away from this book?

ABaR: I hope they will take the love that we had between the families and the friends. I hope they will know that we are very similar to each other. There's not much difference between us as humans.

WY: I think it was important to both Bakr and I that this was a story of love and not of war. The war is important because we wanted people to learn about why there are Syrian refugees. To be an outsider in any situation is difficult. We just hope that we can bring some understanding and compassion to the newcomer's plight. 

We just hope that we can bring some understanding and compassion to the newcomer's plight.- Winnie Yeung

CC: It's so crazy how we take for granted a lot of things here — peace and safety — but what made the book special for me was to realize how much we all have in common. For me as a new father, to see [Bakr's father] willing to do anything to give his family a better life was one of the things that stuck out. No matter what you're going through, at whatever level and wherever in the world, there's still that common humanity that we all share.

WY: Is that why you picked the book?

CC: Yeah, that was a big part of it. I just want to add to what you said about the current context of the world where you're looking at [U.S. President] Donald Trump talking about walls and stoking fear and using people's worst instincts to get votes. I think that it's easy to get lost in the headlines. But real human lives are affected by what he's doing. The whole misunderstanding about immigration and how it's not something that people do just because they want to come here and take advantage of a country. When you read this story, it's incredible to see that this was a life and death situation. When you get here [to Canada], it's not that easy and it's not that every problem is solved.

ABaR: I know some of my friends and some people who actually traveled to Turkey and Germany and then they went back to Iraq or Syria. They just couldn't stand it there. They just couldn't wake up and not feel at home. I asked them why and they just said, "We just can't. We built our home in Iraq or Syria and we just can't move out of there."

CC: It's a lot more complex than with a lot of people see from the outside. Abu Bakr, have your feelings evolved or changed towards your new home in Canada as you been here for four years now?

ABaR: We've mostly settled down. Some of my sisters are working and most of them are studying. That's the feeling that we got — that we have settled down and can finally just live our life.

Chuck Comeau, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah & Winnie Yeung's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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