Growing up in Iraq, life was simple for Aziz Yousef. For as long as he can remember, he says he started every day the same way. Being the youngest of the family, it was his job to visit the bustling markets of Baghdad to buy freshly-made hummus and falafels for his family. By the time he returned, his sister would have tea waiting. Yousef would talk and laugh with his family over breakfast, something he says he misses very much.
“To be honest, I miss those days,” Yousef recalled. “It was a great life.”
After breakfast, Yousef would head down to his brother’s barbershop, where he discovered he had a talent cutting hair. Eventually, Yousef was cutting all his friends’ hair, free of charge.
‘It was a good life’
It was a time Yousef says he didn’t have a care in the world.
“My family was doing really well,” Yousef said. “We had a good life and to be honest, we didn’t have to work hard for it, life was more simple.”
That would all change on March 21, 2003, when the U.S. dropped the first of countless bombs on Baghdad throughout the night.
Yousef says although there had been some warning of a U.S. invasion, no one was sure of anything, but once the first explosion rocked Iraq’s capital city, there was no doubt. The Americans had arrived.
“I was home [with] my older brother and around 3:00 in the morning it started,” remembered Yousef, who was 19 at the time. He said no one knew what to do.
“We started hearing bombs and rockets in the sky,” he said. “It was a scary moment.”
‘We could see the walls move’
He says about two weeks after the first bomb went off, the missiles hitting the city got bigger.
“When they would hit we could see the walls move,” he said. The terror Yousef said he felt that night was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
“That night was the worst night ever,” he explained. “There’s a moment where you just wish to die and not hear all of that, the kids are crying and the women are crying and you just sit and wait for [a] bomb to come and destroy everybody.”
The weeks that followed were utter chaos.
“There was fighting back and forth for almost 21 days until the [Iraqi] army surrendered,” he said. “Then there was no law, no police, nothing. Anyone could shoot you in the street and it’d be fine.”
Once the city had fallen, Yousef says he can remember seeing U.S. forces rolling down the street near his home.
That’s when Yousef says he knew it was time to leave while he still could.
“You don’t want to be there.” he said, “My dad told me to leave, so me and two friends left [for] Jordan.”
They didn’t have a plan, but they hoped they could get a fresh start in a safer country.
Upon entering Jordan, Yousef found himself in a refugee camp run by the United Nations. The camp was run better than most, with refugees being provided tents, food, and blankets.
However, despite the U.N.’s best efforts to accommodate the refugees, life in the camp was anything but easy. “It wasn’t glamorous,” Yousef explained, “but we survived.”
Glamorous or not, Yousef had no idea how long he would be at the camp. In the end, he would spend nearly three years living there.
Yousef’s opportunity to leave came when the U.N. organized interviews for various countries, including Brazil, Sweden, and Canada.
As luck would have it, Yousef was one of the refugees interviewed by Canadian officials. Out of 135 people, only 33 made the cut.
‘I was one of the lucky ones’
Yousef was one of them.
“I was one of the lucky ones who came to Canada,” he said.
By December 2006, Yousef found himself on a plane bound for Newfoundland. He said even the cold Canadian winter that awaited him couldn’t dampen his spirits.
“It was an amazing place to start,” Yousef said. “The people are wonderful, trying to help you, trying to teach you, they were very friendly.”
Nice as it was, Newfoundland wasn’t meant to be Yousef’s home. Fate was waiting for him.
After living in Newfoundland for two-and-a-half years, he decided to take a trip to Ontario to visit an old friend.
It was during his visit that he accidentally bumped into his childhood sweetheart’s brother. To his surprise, Yousef learned that she would be arriving along with her family only one month later.
That was all he needed to know.
“I called my brother [in Newfoundland] and told him I was staying,” he said. “I told him to do whatever he wanted with my stuff, I wasn’t coming back.”
Ten days after they were reunited, the two were engaged. Ten months later, they were married.
Today, the couple are the proud parents of two little girls, ages 5 and 1, and one boy, age 3, all born in Canada.
These days, Yousef’s mornings start a little differently. Now he wakes up in time to get his oldest daughter up and ready for school. However, not everything has changed. Today, you can still find him in a barbershop in Ancaster doing what he does best, cutting hair.
Only now, he doesn’t do it for free.