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From Baghdad to Grand Bank

Rand Al-Shajairi is a Grade 11 student at John Burke High School in Grand Bank. She and her family emigrated to Canada from Iraq in 2013. - Carl Rose
Rand Al-Shajairi is a Grade 11 student at John Burke High School in Grand Bank. She and her family emigrated to Canada from Iraq in 2013. - Carl Rose - Carl Rose

John Burke High School student recounts her Canadian immigration storyC

GRAND BANK, NL – At just 16 years old, Rand Al-Shujairi has already experienced things most of us have only seen on the news.

The Grade 11 student at John Burke High School in Grand Bank emigrated with her family from Iraq to Canada in 2013.

Her parents’ decision to leave their homeland was for their family’s safety.

“There were bombings every day; a lot of people were being killed,” said Rand, referring to the Iraqi insurgency after the withdrawal of American troops in 2011 that resulted in violent conflict against the government and sectarian violence among Iraq’s religious groups.

“The topic of moving to another country was always discussed,” she said. “My parents wanted a better life for their children in terms of education and a safer environment.”

An incident Rand witnessed hastened the decision to move.

“I was in a car one morning with friends going to school, when a car ahead of us was bombed,” she said “The blast shattered the windows in our car, (but) I didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“When this is happening every day, I guess you get used to it – you become desensitized.”

When she went home that morning, her parents were very angry and concerned, affirming, “We need to leave now!”

Then 11-year old Rand, her brothers and her mother and father, both medical doctors, arrived in Toronto in 2013.

To Toronto

Rand said living in Toronto was a mixed blessing.

“I loved the city with all its amazing attractions. It is very clean, very safe; I loved everything about it,” she said.

But going to school wasn’t always positive for the then-Grade 6 student.

“I found it very difficult to fit in,” said Rand. “I spoke very little English and no one in the class spoke Arabic.

“I felt I was always made fun of. I was always excluded from groups, and had recess and lunch by myself.”

One day Rand asked to join a group of students who were playing a game. “‘No, you can’t play with us; go play with the people over there.’”

Rand moved to another school in Grade 8 and her experience was more positive.

“The school community was much more diverse,” she said. “I was able to make friends more easily as I became more familiar with the English language and the Canadian culture.”

Rand enrolled in the school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program and that made a difference.

To Grand Bank

Last September, Rand’s family moved from Toronto to Grand Bank, where her father is a family physician at the Grand Bank Medical Centre. Her mother is also a physician, presently working in Clarenville.

Rand is in Grade 11 at John Burke, where she has made another adjustment from big-city life in Baghdad and Toronto to life in a small town.

“Living in Grand Bank is interesting,” she said. “We always lived in a big city; quite an adjustment living in a small town.”

She said she has been accepted at her new high school.

Rand Al-Shajairi with two of her John Burke classmates, Mackenzie Hillier, left, and Alisha Billard. - Carl Rose
Rand Al-Shajairi with two of her John Burke classmates, Mackenzie Hillier, left, and Alisha Billard. - Carl Rose

“I have made a lot of friends here. People have been really nice and more accepting.”

Rand attributes the easier adjustment to her new environment to better skills in making new friends and being more familiar with the Canadian lifestyle.

She has taken part in extra-curricular activities such as last year’s provincial student leadership conference and speech competitions sponsored by Lions Clubs.

In a recent speak-off speech on immigration at the Grand Bank Lions Club, she offered this advice to her audience: “I want to let you know that helping people and accepting them is very important even though they might be different and come from a different background.”

Five years after arriving in Canada, with limited ability to speak English, the young immigrant from Iraq placed first in the speak-out.

Challenges and culture shock

While she is enjoying her life in Grand Bank, the move from her home country has been challenging for the whole family.

“It was really culture shock with the language and a very different lifestyle than what we were used to,” said Rand. “We felt isolated with all our family back in Iraq.”

The move and adjustment were difficult for her parents as well.

“They worked very hard on their job applications,” said Rand. “They worked hard studying for exams to qualify for medical practice in Canada as well as looking out to me and my brothers.”

Despite the challenges, the family’s journey from Baghdad to Toronto to Grand Bank has been both a challenging and rewarding.

“Even though I have faced many challenges, I would do it a million times again if I had to,” said Rand. “I have learned so many lessons, and have become much stronger as a person because of my experiences.”

After graduating from high school, Rand hopes to return to Toronto to study dramatic arts.

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