It is difficult to think about travel these days, or even the idea of letting go of everything at home, just to be able to leave, explore and discover in a way that is truly out of one’s comfort zone. After all, travel can be a spiritual, unexplainable way to reconnect with one’s wellbeing, and to re-find one’s self amidst the stresses of life. More simply, travel is just a way for a person to decompress. Nonetheless, even though the idea of leaving one’s bubble seems a world’s away, it does not mean that we cannot reminisce.
Amidst all the negativity that filters through our minds each day in the present, the silver lining to isolation within a pandemic is that there is more time and opportunity to reflect, and to finally sit down and think about what previous journeys and experiences have meant for us holistically. That is ultimately what the highs and lows of the past few months have brought for me as an individual.
It’s a bit broad of a statement to say that seeing the world has shaped me into the person I am today. I have been shaped and influenced by different experiences and figures throughout countless instances of my life. But, the last few years have particularly been both a struggle and in some ways, transformational and the latter has definitely been shaped through countless journeys away from home – most recently a ‘women’s journey’.
At my lowest period, I was unemployed, technically homeless, and on my way to becoming divorced. In an earlier time, I was in a steady, progressing career, and a seemingly happy marriage. But, underneath all that was a bipolar diagnosis that could not, in my eyes at the time, be cured through the conventional North American mental health system. I felt unresponsive to medications and every single type of therapy thrown at me. I wanted to find other ways to heal. And, maybe that was a really pivotal point because perhaps I did not loathe myself so much as to close myself off from the idea that I could finally be something for myself and the people around me.
Last fall, in a time that feels a far away now because of how the recent pandemic has spiralled, I travelled to mainly misunderstood places in the Middle East and North Africa to reconnect with the ideals of strength, resilience, and survival through others and their communities – and specifically, through women. And, indeed in those journeys, I did experience those traits in women that I met and their stories that I had such privilege to be told. I never felt that I could fully experience the same depth of learning from my place at home; so, I left it all behind and got lost in the world of a few places where I believed I was going to discover deeply. This is not to say that there are not other places where there has been extreme suffering. Humanity falls apart everywhere, even at home as we have collectively learned as a society; but these places were where I wanted to experience others connectively, and learn more about myself too.
My journey started in Afghanistan, Iraq, and from there, I went to Syria, Mali, North Sudan, Chad, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan mostly as a lone female traveller. I volunteered for an NGO-backed women’s project that works with one of the largest refugee camps – Moria, in Lesvos, Greece. That experience in itself was definitely eye opening as I interacted first-hand with countless refugee women who made harrowing journeys to defect from places that I had grown to love. I already could feel their immense pain before they even projected their voices to speak, and I feel so lucky to have shared in their stories. I hoped even for a connective five seconds that it meant something to say that I knew of somewhere that connected them with the home they miss so much.
I was never actually afraid of anything going wrong in my travels because I was already so detached from life at home, and maybe this is the only reason why I would have the courage to make this journey in the first place. I was worried more so about how my motivations would be perceived by those I met along the way because in no way did I want to level set my suffering against theirs. I just wanted to reconnect with life.
With resolve and without fear, I indeed found strength and resilience everywhere I went to, in the women I met and their courageous stories. Each woman had aspirations and dreams – simple and complex – tied in a grounded love in her family and community, and driven by the need to survive even if she had experienced things like immense poverty, war trauma or societal oppression. Over the course of half of a year, I listened to, penned down and eventually carried their stories home. These are a glimpse of the stories I want to share, even though I may never be able to fully re-tell them in the way that they should be.
- Across Iraq, I listened to mothers. These were women who openly welcomed me into their home and took care of me like I was their own daughter. I noticed a large number wore pendants displaying pictures of the sons they lost to war. They spoke of their sons in childhood – with fond, happy memories. Collectively, women there support each other in re-building and moving on with life. They are a tight-knit community like I have never experienced community before.
- I met women and families in Aleppo trying so hard to start over and re-build their life after the Syrian war had annihilated their homes, family businesses, and those they loved most. In many ways, Syria has been forgotten even as the war continues to wage on. In many ways even still, a community’s ability to re-build itself should be the most important and courageous story to tell. I left Syria wanting nothing but to go back again soon.
- I travelled across West Africa – to Mali, Chad and Niger – witnessing strength, grit and fire. I saw tribes of Chadian women who spend their entire days breaking down salt with their fingers in the harshest of heat, but who laugh and smile with each other all the same. I spent days with West African entrepreneurial women who start small businesses like sewing schools to give girls in their communities – opportunities and a perspective beyond life as just a wife and child taker.
- In Northern Pakistan, I encountered educated, progressive women who have dreams not all so different from mine – some want to be bankers, others want to work in tech; but, for varying reasons – family, finances – have let their dreams go astray. Many work long hours for little pay, travelling several hours between villages for this work six days a week. They then come home, roll up their sleeves and become fearless mothers. The strength of a working mother was never undeniable to me, but it was amplified here.
- In South Yemen, I meet a nurse who works at a privately funded philanthropic hospital that operates to help those devastated by war. She speaks of the atrocities that she has to witness and work through as a front-line health-care worker in Yemen, a place with almost no health care infrastructure. There is a stoicism in her eyes, but so much power in the stories that she humbly tells because of the impact that she makes.
- In Lesvos, I speak with women who had not showered for months trying first to defect from Afghanistan, and then who were too afraid to step foot into a crowded ‘bathroom area’ for fear of being assaulted. That is a reality of most of these refugee camps – an indignity compromising all that is wrong with humanity.
All these women are the epitome of strength, but are just a small glimpse of the bravery and inspiration out there.
In the most bittersweet of ways, talking to all these women made me reconnect with the ideals of courage and heroism. These women control their lives and survival as much as I could do with my own. In no way did I want to level set my struggles against theirs, but they certainly reminded me of my place and ability in this world. I could be a different person if I wanted to. I did not have to give in to my sickness and struggles, or let them define me. This was the strongest form of inspiration that any one could ever give me. All this, through just the sharing of a story.
Travel is disruptive in nature, and at its very core, at least for mental health purposes, provides a person with perspectives that stretches one’s character and emotional wellbeing; something I had taken for granted, but appreciate so much now with the current pandemic crisis. The past six months and its experiences brought me to a place where I could talk openly about my own sufferings, even if there is no resolve to my story just yet.
Perhaps travelling on a women’s journey does not work for everybody, but the premise of what I am trying to share is that by opening up, I want to encourage others to do something for the sake of their own suffering especially in these hard times. It does not have to be through travelling, but through something that forces them to lean into what they have gone through. The cathartic nature of helping someone her own story, and coming to terms with the horrific sides of it, is that maybe one day I will finally come to terms with my own. Almost every day, for the past half year, several strong women out there in the most under-the-radar type of places helped me to change my perspective of the world, and finally be stable enough to share my words.
My mental health still deteriorates some days, but I try to maintain optimism. It is at moments like these that I must remember that I am accountable for every decision I make, and how my story is written. At least I can tell my story. Halfway across the world, as I have experienced, there are communities – vulnerable women and children – in disarray who are experiencing the same struggles we face without the same capabilities.
I am grateful for all that has happened since that lead me to this moment in time in 2020. I am very much a work in progress, but I know deep down there are days where I am ‘trying my best’. This is all a journey still after all and I am ever so thankful for everything that has since helped me along that long road. The story can only continue from here.