On Friday March 10, UTM alumnus Bayan Khatib gave a talk titled “My Journey from Syria to UTM, to Writing, and to Syrian Community Activism.” The event began with opening remarks from professor Guy Allen, who is a course instructor in UTM’s professional writing and communication program. Khatib was accompanied by her mother, younger sister, and daughter for support.
Almost 30 years ago, Khatib’s parents sought political asylum in Canada in hope for a safer life for their family. Her father faced political imprisonment by the Assad regime for the crime of speaking out against the government. He was arrested in the early days of Khatib’s parents’ marriage, when her mother was only five months pregnant with Khatib.
Soon, Khatib’s mother was forced to leave the country. Khatib was left in the care of her grandparents in the Syrian city of Aleppo. With only luck, Khatib’s father was able to escape prison, cross the border to Jordan (despite the danger of land mines), and reunite with his wife.
Once both her parents safely landed in America, they were able to contact a friend who worked in a church in Canada to sponsor their family as refugees. By 1986, the Khatib family had landed in Calgary, and at the age of seven, Khatib finally met her siblings and parents for the first time.
Khatib had actually been a student in Allen’s Expressive Writing course, and her first assignment was to write about her own childhood. Her story was inspired by the events that took place upon her arrival in Canada and meeting her family for the first time. She wrote a story titled “Elevator,” at the age of eighteen, as part of her class.
“That was not a topic I wanted to get into, but it was a school assignment, and I had no choice,” Khatib said.
Khatib believed this “homework,” as she put it, was an opportunity that gave her the chance to discuss her parents’ past and have them open up to her about the trauma they faced.
What truly inspired Khatib to pursue writing was a moment during Allen’s office hours. After reading one of her stories, Allen looked at her and said: “You’re a writer.”
“It’s amazing how we can impact people’s lives with kindness,” said Khatib as she recalled the memory.
“Elevator” later inspired Khatib to focus on the mental health of Syrian refugees in her work at the non-profit organization, Al Qazzaz Foundation. “I really think that mental wellness is a very important topic for Syrian newcomers,” Khatib said when she was asked by her boss where the organization would be needed most.
Khatib uses her knowledge in writing and the techniques she learned from Allen and other professional writing instructors to teach refugees how to write about their experiences.
“Expression beats repression,” Khatib said as she discussed how important it was to have the refugees be open about their pain.
Khatib also emphasized the importance of humane treatment towards others. Khatib explained that the resulting humanitarian crisis not only brought out the absolute worst in humanity, it also brought out the best in others. She passionately advocates others to raise their voice through various mediums, particularly in story-writing.
Khatib also advocates for expression, truth, and openness when writing stories. “Expression instead of repression,” she repeated, and then stated that the crisis in Syria is a humanitarian one, and everyone needs to be involved.
She ended the talk with the three dreams she hopes to see come true in the real world. She hopes to teach creative writing, to follow in the footsteps of Allen, and to impact the lives of her students the way he impacted hers. She also hopes to write a collection of stories of what has happened in Syria, and wishes to walk the streets of Aleppo again.