This is proud grandfather, Dr. Abdulkader Al-Guneid, cradling newborn grandson, Adrian, while his daughter Nagwan looks on.
Dr. Al-Guneid and his wife, and their youngest son, now live with Nagwan and her husband, and their newborn son, in Calgary. Other children and grandchildren are spread throughout the United States and Saudi Arabia. One son and his family remain in Yemen. The family home in Taiz, Yemen was catastrophically shelled by Houthi-Saleh militia on February 3rd, 2017.
The loss of their physical home was a crushing blow and coincided with U.S. President Trump’s announcement of a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. Dr. Al-Guneid’s decision to leave Yemen was motivated by more than this loss of possessions, caught up in the civil and proxy war raging in Yemen he was forcibly confined for 300 days. The Houthis, a predominantly Shiite group from northern Yemen, are accused by Saudi Arabia of being proxies of Iran, Saudi’s rival power in the region.
On August 5th, 2016, at 2:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Al-Guneid was violently kidnapped from his home in Taiz. He was taken to Sana’a and was forcibly ‘disappeared’ in the inhumane conditions of the National Security Jail. On May 20th, 2016, after 300 days of captivity and excruciating distress for his family, he was released.
Why was this doctor in Taiz a target for Houthi rebels? Because he chose assert the truth. He tirelessly chronicled the war in Yemen, posting information about airstrikes, casualties and protests in Taiz. The rest of the world have had little awareness of the war in Yemen, and rebels wanted to sustain this information blockade.
Three-hundred days of captivity were heart-wrenching for family members. One of Nagwan’s favourite books is Generals Die in Bed, a novella by Canadian writer Charles Harrison based on his own experiences as a young soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I. “War is ugly” Nagwan laments, “only civilians pay the price.” These photos from Taiz, Yemen, graphically reinforce this point.
Having enjoyed the peace and freedom of Canada for my entire life, I am compelled to ask Dr. Al-Guneid how he coped as a political prisoner of war.
He responds, speaking with and of dignity and honour. These two words are often used as synonyms, but there is a difference, he says. Choosing to stand up to armed rebels attacking his home city of Taiz reflected honour, a quality recognizable in his social media activities. It also required dignity, a sense of worth he could recognize inside himself, whether or not it was seen by others.
While in jail, Dr. Al-Guneid helped treat some of the injuries of the rebel soldiers. He also chose to ask for nothing. “I needed nothing,” he said, “and that took away their ability to deny me anything.” Other prisoners asked for fresh air, sun, the ability to talk, and the captors wanted you to beg, cry, swear, to lose your dignity. Dr. Al-Guneid’s choice, to ask for nothing, preserved his innate sense of worth.
And, now, after the horror of war, being jailed, and losing his physical home in Taiz, what does Dr. Al-Guneid think about? He reflects upon when this journey will end. The most horrible thing—worse than death, or being in jail—is being ‘in between’, in a place that is not quite home for a time that is not defined. As a ‘refugee’, the not knowing when this will end is the worst, he says, quietly.
As a temporary resident in Canada, Dr. Al-Guneid is using his voice to find ways for Yemenis to be able to seek their future at home. He’s convinced that the National Dialogue Outcomes hosted in Yemen do reflect the priorities of Yemeni people, and asks for support from the region to ensure these recommendations are implemented. Not only would this be positive for the Yemenis, but for the entire Middle East region.
Young Yemeni girl in a neighbourhood in northern Taiz Yemen, 2016
In the meantime, while Dr. Al-Guneid enjoys time with Nagwan and her family, living with the uncertainty is challenging. United States travel bans on Muslims create barriers for Dr. Al-Guneid’s family; he and his wife cannot easily travel to Florida to visit their other daughter and her children.
What moves me, listening to Dr. Al-Guneid tell his story, is his commitment to preserve his own sense of dignity, whatever the circumstances. What is most deeply disturbing, is taking in how this family, or any displaced family, bears the weight of not-knowing. He has lost access to the sovereignty of his home country. Without a sense of this being temporary or permanent, how then do people actually settle?
Holding onto dignity in the face of persecution is inspiring. One of my favourite books is Man’s Search for Meaning by holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Frankl believed people are primarily motivated by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life”, and this meaning can propel them to overcome painful experiences, from captivity to cancer.
Persecution has many faces, less obvious than being thrown into prison in your previously safe place of origin. Dignity in the face of uncertainty is a truth that we all live with and yet hide from ourselves with false security. Changes—from the miniscule to the catastrophic– are part of life, managing these changes is a skill. I am both enthused and impressed at this feat in Dr. Al-Guneid and when taken, story by story, by each of our immigrants.
I invite you to share any stories of dignity under persecution or uncertainty that we might learn and grow from. Please keep an eye on this blog for a continuation of these thoughts on ‘dignity of the immigrant/refugee’ and our Canadian dignity.
Donna Kennedy- Glans