Written by Melissa Welsh
Ameera Abbo represents countless immigrant women who come to Canada sponsored by men in arranged marriages, but unlike many of these other women, Abbo has chosen to leave.
The smell of cinnamon lingers as Ameera Abbo, 29, pours a cup of black spiced tea.
Fingers of steam rise from the small glass and dissipate. Laughing without inhibition, her head thrown back, she heaps three teaspoons of sugar in her own glass, a kind of sweetness she says that Darfuri people love and crave. A braided strand of hair the shade of mahogany rests just over her eye, she doesn’t seem to mind. Dressed in a pink T-shirt and Capri pants she gestures wildly with her hands while she speaks. The memories of her childhood spent in Darfur, climbing mango trees and running barefoot across the vast plains, birth a contagious smile that spans across her face. It’s only after a pregnant pause that that smile disappears, and the momentary glimpse of happiness crumbles into a heavy sigh, a slight shake of the head and a far distant look.
It was a warm May in 2000 when a 20-year-old Abbo first arrived in Canada. Clothed in her traditional wedding attire --a shiny red top that resembles a sari – with henna lacing up her hands and arms, she looked out the small airplane window, where her eyes fell upon the city lights of Toronto. She was excited, nervous, a little scared. Her new husband awaited her at the airport, and it had been eight years since she had seen him last.
She and her family were travelling in and around Sudan in 1992 when they stopped in Omdurman, just outside of Khartoum. Fourteen-year-old Abbo was fresh faced and dewy from running barefoot with the other children, when she was stopped by Jamal Adam, almost 30. Grasping her hand, he asked if he could marry her in their mother tongue, Fur. Embarrassed, Abbo retracted her hand and shyly told him to ask her father. Now eight years later, she was coming to Canada as his bride, leaving all of her family in Sudan. The eldest of nine siblings, she was the first to leave Sudan. Becoming a wife was a method of survival, but what Abbo didn’t know was how hard it would be to survive being a wife. After being married eight years, Abbo chose to separate from her husband—an action that has caused great tension within Calgary’s Darfurian community. Divorce brings such shame that she’s lost friendships and been shunned by many.
Growing up in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, Abbo lived with her family in a village called Nyala. She was only nine years old during the first initial attacks made by the Janjaweed, an Arab militia closely tied to the government. The conflict in Darfur emerged when a mostly Arab Sudanese government started to arm its Arab camel grazer tribes in the ’70s, allowing and even encouraging them to attack the non-Arab tribes of Darfuri farmers, wiping out entire villages without consequence. In 1986, what used to be an otherwise sometimes tumultuous relationship between the Arab and non-Arab tribes of Sudan became a civil war with the government commencing a 20-year mass genocide, claiming more than 300,000 lives.
As an older child, Abbo says that she would help her mother dig a large hole in the ground close to their hut, large enough to fit all their valuable belongings. Using their hands, they worked fast to cover the hole, their things safe and hidden from the looting Janjaweed. Abbo says her mother never slept. Haunted by the sounds of men yipping, and the thunder of horse hooves charging -- sounds that largely attributed to the Janjaweed’s alias Devils on Horseback -- she would sit awake with a Abbo’s head on her lap, always anticipating telling her children to run. “If she fell asleep, that means when the attack comes, no one would wake us up so we’d be burned inside because they’d be burning the houses when they would be coming to the places, early in the morning, everyone would be sleeping, it’s a deep sleep, five o’clock. When she heard the sounds of the guns she would say, oh wake up, wake up, they are coming… they are coming.” The words drift out of her mouth, Abbo’s expression is sombre and that far-off look reappears.
Abbo’s six-year-old son, Darfur, comes into the room and hands his mom a dripping glass of water. She quickly wipes any sign of tears away, her cheeks still moist and glistening. They have the essentials: a couch, a coffee table, a TV. Fake potted plants line the room’s walls, and a whole array of VHSs lay on the mantle. The Oprah show plays in the background, a sound buffer filling Abbo’s long empty silences.
Months have passed since Abbo separated from her husband last November, in 2008. “I wanted to be as for him a wife, but I didn’t see that, I didn’t see wife. Until now, I still get confused, I’m like, what, what is marriage, what’s husband and wife. Now I’m still confused, can you imagine?”
Outspoken and vivacious, Abbo has always contrasted to the more quiet, submissive women in the Darfurian community. It’s something she says has always gotten her into trouble. “We grow up thinking we need to hate men, fear men, I don’t think that way, they are just other human beings that we interact with.” For Abbo to leave her husband is unheard of and severely discouraged. Members of her community have not hesitated to show their distaste for her actions. Most hurtful, Abbo says, is the gossip the community fabricated -- that another man was the only reason for Abbo to leave her husband. She shudders slightly when she tells me that, during the first couple weeks after leaving her husband and moving out of the northeast Calgary apartment they shared, she would see men from the community lurking outside the house she was renting, spying to see this made-up man. The Darfurian community couldn’t understand why Abbo was leaving her husband after eight years, and questioned why she didn’t leave earlier. Abbo stopped going the community’s events, in an effort to salvage her already robbed dignity. Women from the community disassociated themselves from her, at their husbands’ firm advice. Abbo, once the spokeswoman for her community, is now one of the community’s biggest embarrassments. In the Calgarian Darfurian community of approximately 1,500 people, Abbo is the first woman to get divorced, claims Barbara Butt, the executive director for the Darfurian Congress Council of Canada and close friend of Abbo’s.
“In the Darfurian community, it’s very very difficult and very shameful for a woman to even consider separation, divorce, or again that they would stand for their own human rights and move forward in their own lives,” said Butt.
Sitting down for coffee at Kaffa Salsa and Coffee Bar in Marda Loop, Butt speaks of her great admiration for Abbo, her strength, her uniqueness. The gentle hubbub of small talk chatter hangs in the air as she sips her coffee while periodically glancing out the window. She had done a presentation earlier that morning at A.E. Cross Junior High School, speaking to Grade 9 students about the genocide in Darfur. The passion is still very much in her eyes as she comments on the women in the Darfurian community, most of them what she calls “chosen brides.”
“The Darfurian women when they come to Canada, most of them are brought by dowries,” Butt says. Abbo says Adam paid roughly $250 for her dowry.
“It’s a sense of marginalizing for sure…they are not allowed true expression, they’re there literally to clean the house, raise the kids, cook and do the things that please the men in their communities,” Butt said.
Butt first met Abbo at the University of Calgary after a presentation she had given on the situation in Darfur. Abbo participated in the discussion afterwards, challenging an Indian man who denied the genocide in Darfur was happening. Butt said that was when she first noticed Abbo, and her fire for change.
“I wanted to be as for him a wife, but I didn’t see that, I didn’t see wife. Until now, I still get confused, I’m like, what, what is marriage, what’s husband and wife” Ameera Abbo.
“Ameera to me, just knowing Ameera, has the heart of Darfur, she represents the people in the camps, she truly brings inspiration of great long journeys, great courage, she’s light-hearted, she’s the most amazing courageous women that I’ve met, and she truly inspires me.”
Abbo’s Canadian journey began in Toronto where she lived with Adam in his dorm at York University. He was a doctoral student in anthropology, and Abbo worked at a shampoo warehouse.
It was in 2006, that Abbo moved to Calgary after hearing about the job pandemonium the city promised. She had come to Calgary twice before deciding to move here, speaking for the Darfurian community, talking to news stations like CBC National and Global about the situation in Darfur. The year 2006 marked new media interest in the decade-lon genocide of Darfur, with the advent of documentaries, such as Sand and Sorrow. Even back then, Abbo was the one of the only women to speak up, to have a voice.
Reassured by the number of Dafuri people living in Calgary and their acceptance of her, she convinced her husband that they should move there with their then four-year old son Darfur, named after their homeland. She moved first in 2006, set up the apartment, bought the furniture. She says her husband joined her a year later. Abbo says she finally found the support she needed in the community, people who knew what she had been through. Abbo says that she would send $100 to $300 a month back to 11 members of her family, or about 200, 000 to 600, 000 Sudanese pounds—a small fortune. Crackling telephone calls were the only contact she had with them, the sound of gun shots echoing in the background. “I am talking to my sister and she says this is the life they live now, whoever dies, dies, and whoever survives, keeps on going. I ask myself, how can this be, that this is their life?” Abbo pauses and her eyes fill as they focus on a shadow dancing on her plain white wall. Currently, Abbo’s mother and a few of her sisters are living in Nyala, while her other family including her grandparents are living in internally displaced camps along the borders of Chad.
Abbo like many immigrant women is drowning in a sea of culture shock, financial stress, and marital problems. She used to lean on her community and the strong relationships she had with the women there. She tells me how she took a couple days off work to stay with a close friend in the hospital, even though her husband stressed that her choice to do so cost them money. That woman no longer speaks to her. Like many other women who were once dear friends of Abbo, she stopped calling. Two friends however, chose to stay by Abbo, one of these women experiencing embarrassment because of the community.
Immediately upon arriving at Fatima’s house in northeast Calgary, kisses and hugs are exchanged, the house full of the sound of children yelling and laughing. The scent of spices hangs in the air, the rooms are dark, the only light coming from the kitchen. A tray of tea and a silver tier of cookies rest on the table. Fatima is wearing a beige head scarf; Sarah is dressed in a happy hue of pink. They look at me nervously, afraid of saying the wrong answer to anything I may ask them. To protect these women’s privacy, the last names have not been included.
Sarah: “My name is Sarah, I am 25 years old. I’ve been in Canada for four years, I am married and I have two kids, I’m from Sudan, Khartoum.”
Fatima: “Fatima. I’m from Sudan.”
Q: “How old are you?”
Fatima: “Uh, I’m almost thirty,” she says laughing.
Q: “How would you describe Ameera?”
Fatima: “She is open and she is patient, she has patience in her life. And she is very kind. And she like to help other people.”
Sarah: “She like to help the people and she like to help the community, and that was very important things I liked on her, uh and she is very nice and very helpful for me and for the others.”
Q: “How do you feel about the way the community treated Ameera?”
“Most of the families do not want to speak to her anymore, especially the men, they do not want the women to connect with her anymore because they see her as an exception or as a bad example for their wives.” – Malake El-malt, counsellor with the Calgary Immigrant Woman’s Association.
Sarah: “Ya for myself, I feel so bad about that, because she had the child…we are a community we should help each other, especially in this case, but unfortunately, the others they do not care about that, I hope for her a happy life.”
Fatima: “I will not cry (laughs)...I feel sad and what can I say.”
Fatima speaks in Arabic to Abbo.
Abbo: “She almost cry with this question, she cannot answer it.”
Fatima: “I can’t say anything.”
“In our culture, even if you do not have family here in Canada, or someone to help you, it is supposed to be the others from the community who will help you, to do what your family do, that’s what they supposed to do it. But you know, unfortunately that has not happened in our community and that is very sad for us, you do not feel you are safe here,” Sarah says. Sarah recounts how she was also made to feel unwelcome in the community because she was from Khartoum, and not Darfur.
It’s mid afternoon and Abbo and I are sitting in the waiting area in the Centre for Newcomers on 36 Street northeast. It smells like a doctor’s office; the room is warm. Pairs of muddy footsteps mark the floor, a sign of the snow melting outside. We came so Abbo could reactivate her employment insurance application. Counsellors who speak Arabic are only in on Thursdays. Abbo used to work for Sam Auto Detailing, a car wash and cleaning company, but was laid off with the slowing economy. With unemployment insurance Abbo will receive around 55 per cent of her average income from the last six months, or about $800 monthly.
A man comes out and leads us down a hallway, finally ushering us into a small office sectioned into two areas by a standing divider. A distressed Chinese woman talks on the phone next door as we sit down next to the man’s desk.
“It says that you are married on your past application,” the man says, shifting in his seat.
“No, I am separated,” says a tired Abbo.
We head downtown for the Calgary Women’s Immigrant Association. Abbo waits sitting on the couches at reception, while I go into Malake El-malt’s office. She a counsellor and has heard it all before.
“Ameera’s situation isn’t unusual,” she says sitting very still in her bright office, a scarf framing her face. She explains that when women from communities like the Darfurian community ask for divorce they are meant to be isolated because what they’ve asked for is something abnormal. Back home, the men leave the women, not the other way around. “She is kind of rebelling and breaking the rules. Most of the families do not want to speak to her anymore, especially the men, they do not want the women to connect with her anymore because they see her as an exception or as a bad example for their wives.”
With the language barrier, El-malt says many immigrant women do not know the resources available to them. They come to Canada sponsored by their husbands, and almost immediately they are pregnant. A child comes, and then another child, and then another child. It isn’t until 10 years or so have passed when the children are in school that these women start thinking about themselves.
“They think, ‘What have I done, I’m depressed, I’m isolated, I have no self-esteem.’ Only then do they start to do something for themselves,” El-malt says. She says most immigrants, men and women come to the country to high expectations. “They think of Canada as this wonderful opportunity, that life is easy, jobs are really easy to find and they forget about the barriers, the language, the cultures, the social barriers, the traditions are different.”
Later that Thursday evening, Abbo and I are sitting in a Wendy’s in the northeast of Calgary. The sun has just started to set and the sky is an opal blue. An ’80s pop tune comes over the speaker, the lyrics of I Just called to Say I love You play as Abbo methodically dips her fries into her ketchup. She sings along. During the last week of March Abbo met with a lawyer from legal aid and officially filed for divorce, making her separation legal. It will be close to a year until the divorce can be final, just around the expiry of Adam’s sponsorship agreement. Abbo is finding it hard to survive financially. Organizations like Calgary Public Housing have been unable to help her because she is still legally listed as being sponsored by Adam, even though she says he stopped payments back in October, but agreed to pay $350 monthly. (He did not return calls to speak for this article.)
Unemployed, money is scarce: “I don’t have anything. In my pocket right now I don’t even have one dollar.” She’s just moved out of the house she was staying in since November and is currently living with a friend, renting a room for $400 a month, but so far been unable to pay. It’s Darfur’s birthday today; he’s just turned seven. “My friend’s son’s birthday is today as well, he just turned eight. She said that we would have a party for them this weekend,” Abbo says looking out the window smiling. It has been a long day, and Abbo’s eyes look tired. Looking ahead, Abbo is hoping for a job with the CWIA and is excited to start classes to improve her English. But today she will go home, see her son, give him a hug and a kiss and tuck him in to sleep. She will lay in her bed, savouring closing her eyes, resting in peace. And she will hope that tomorrow will be a better day.