The Summer of Disruption

5:10am. Wake up. Groggy. We were up till past midnight sorting our suitcases. The preparation chaos is both expected and welcome. We’ve not had to do this for a while. Our first family holiday in over three years. Regardless of how tired we are in the moment, our excitement, for what’s to come, is palpable.

Sun. Beach. Food. Family.

Before we could do any of that, we first had to get out of the house.

5:25am. The phone rings. It’s Sharron. I pick it up half asleep as I am sorting through the final pieces of the suitcases.

“Hi Sharron. Gonna quickly pass you onto Yasmine. In the middle of last minute packing.”

I don’t let her get any words in, as I quickly pass the phone over the Yasmine, her voice is weaker than usual. I gestured to Yasmine to keep it brief so that we could make it out of the house by 6am to reach the airport in time.

The world has many ways of making time stop.

5:26am. There are moments in your life that take you completely by surprise. They instantly knock the wind out of you. They tighten your chest. The wounds they inflict however are not physical. They are wounds to your mind.

Your mind does not know how. How to respond. How to react. How to make it stop. How to make your very reality different.

For Yasmine, one of these moments was when she was told that her oldest brother had died.

15 minutes ago. We were in a rush to get out the door. To get into a taxi. To get to the airport. To get through security. To get onto a plane. To get to Athens. To get to the hotel. To see their grandparents. To see the boys jump into the ocean for the first time in their recent memories.

15 minutes later. Time instantly became irrelevant. We no longer had anywhere to go, at least not in the immediate future. We never made it out of the house. Yasmine was inconsolable. Jamal wasn’t in the best of health, but the timing was unexpected.

Except maybe in hindsight it wasn’t. The signs were all there, we just chose to ignore them.

12 days. Our original plan was to go to Greece for 10 days, see my parents, come back to Denmark, pack our house before flying out to Jamal’s in 12 days time. We missed him by 12 days.

Our plans shifted and changed to suit the new reality we found ourselves in. The first step was to make our exit from Copenhagen. We organised the earliest slot available with the movers and then tried to book a hotel for the night before flying out of the country and heading to Tampa.

The dentists of Europe had other ideas.

All we needed was one hotel room for the family to sleep in before heading to the airport at 6am in the morning. Simple right? Except it wasn’t. Try as much as I did, I could not find a single available hotel room anywhere in Copenhagen. You had to travel 3 hours out to find an available room.

Something really strange was going on.

I started to vent to Mindy and as usually she was able to offer some clarity on what was happening in the country. The European dentist convention was being held in Copenhagen that week and every single available hotel room was fully booked.

I’m reminded of that scene in The Croods where the father pulls his entire family over him like a blanket.

Needs must. We would not be taking our mattress topper or our pillows with us. The whole family would ‘rough it out’ for the night before waving goodbye to our life in Denmark.

The mood at the house was understandably sobering and reflective. Death is hard on those left behind, except when you’re a kid. Kids understand that something has changed but they have a slightly different attitude on this loss as memories are still being developed.

The last video that Jamal had sent us was a tour of the community and what he wanted the kids to experience. In a kind of remembrance every morning we would go to the community pool.

The kids brought an energy with their innocence. They didn’t know any better. And that attitude helped us all move a little forward.

All except Sharron. How does a mother who just lost her first born deal with the loss? Her pain would manifest itself in a completely different way. One that none of us could have predicted or expected.

It started off with a dull pain at night. By morning it had become sharp. Maybe some tea will help? Maybe its nerves? By noon on a Sunday it was clear she had to see someone. Something just wasn’t right.

Since moving back to America Sharron had never needed to see a doctor, that wasn’t scheduled weeks in advance. The walk-in clinic quickly said to head to the hospital. The hospital quickly confirmed she had a burst appendix and needed an operation.

For days Sharron would say that she had no more tears left. When does an eighty year old suffer from a burst appendix? Sorrow and sadness can get trapped inside but eventually it all finds a way out.

Our journey with Canada’s immigration authority would begin at the end of June. This saga would totally disrupt our lives for the rest of the summer.

They needed Yasmines biometrics. Fine. The Canadian embassy is a stones throw from the office in downtown Copenhagen. Except this facility was not available in Denmark. The job of a $50 finger scanner and a web camera was beyond the means of one of the most advanced countries in Europe. Our only option was to get the biometrics in a completely different country.

This was the canary in the coal mine taking its first few good breathes of carbon monoxide.

We linked this action with our trip to Florida. At the start of the summer the service was readily available. 2 weeks later we had to wait 3 weeks for what would turn out to be a 5 minute interaction.

The canary took a few more deep breaths.

The family had a period of relative calm after the chaos of these few weeks. We were able to enjoy the Florida weather. It would be reasonably hot in the morning where I would take the kids on walks and to the community centre pool. By around 5pm the clouds would form and some crazy torrential rains would come down. Even though it rained every day without fail, overall we would wake up to glorious sunshine which we had been mostly deprived of in Copenhagen.

It was a fitting mental respite. The calm before the storm. While the start of the summer was emotionally difficult a second wave of emotional difficulty was heading our way. We were just blissfully unaware of its approach.

Several months earlier Vladimir Putin’s mental health completely disintegrated and he launched his attack on Ukraine. A war that remains completely senseless except in the mind of a madman with an acute Napoleon complex.

History will rightly not be kind to Putin. This disastrous situation importantly highlights just how dangerous mental health is to the stability and prosperity of the world. With this move comes a considerable amount of collateral destruction. Not just to the lives of those inside Ukraine but to all those around the perimeter. Countless were caught out because of this one person. A worse example for a human being you would be hard pressed to find.

Sadly the world continues to create a shared reality for millions across the world. The reality of being born to a war torn country. Lebanese. Vietnamese. Afghani. Iraqi. Syrian. Yemeni. Ukrainian.

Those from any of these places know and understand that war not only tears buildings and places apart but also the very fabric of society. It takes decades to grow back and when it comes back, it is never the same. It will never reach what it could have been.

A mad, deranged, decrepit moth flapped it’s wings in Moscow, which sent shockwaves smashing first through Ukraine before continued further afield.

Few were immune from this single moth’s effect. For some the impact was an upended life. A life as a refugee. A generation of displaced immigrants. For others it was as fundamental as the bread they eat being taken away.

For our family, the ramification was that all visas to Canada ground to a halt. Processing times were effectively fabrications heading in the wrong direction.

As the summer continued, I felt that I was ready to go back to work. Yasmine and the kids would have to stay back in Florida, hopefully wait a little bit longer for the visa to arrive.

The narrative I told myself was that this was a good thing. That this would allow me to settle into Toronto, get my bearings and get things ready for the family before their arrival. Even though it was a forced decision, it wasn’t a terrible situation. Yet.

The world is vast and we have developed seemingly countless ways to do practically the same thing. Build houses. Buy and sell goods. Raise children. Go to school. Heal ourselves. Live life. Yet each city and country goes about things in a different way.

The feel of discovering a new city is one of the few magical moments that one can manufacture. I highly recommend that everyone challenges themselves to experience this at least a few times in their lives. While I have travelled this journey more than most in the last few years, the magic of discovery was strong in Toronto. The city offered a cornucopia of discovery.

Unlike in Copenhagen, the summer in Toronto was hot and humid but not unbearable (that description id reserved for Gulf summers). The best way to experience a city is not by car, rather it is by foot. The architecture around me was inviting and warm. There were porches and chairs. Many of the houses and buildings were old. Not in a European 100s of years old, but in a North American, wooden facades that have faded and weathered slowly with the passing of the years and haven’t really been maintained.

First things first, breakfast. My first day in Toronto began at a breakfast spot in ‘Little Italy’ - it was the only place open on an early Sunday morning. As I quietly ate my eggs I was reminded of when we moved to Copenhagen three years earlier when again we ran into visa issues. That was resolved pretty quickly though, so hopefully this would be the same.

I don’t remember when the panic started. Was it at midnight? Was it first thing in the morning? Regardless of when it started but there was an incident at my brother-in-laws house.

Seems the washing machine started spewing water out of the front door and flooded the top level. This may have caused an electrical spark. The fire brigade was called in. The kids were yanked out of their beds. There was a scramble to get the family into an AirBnB while emergency work with blowers was carried out. An already downbeat situation got worse

We all started wondering, ‘What else could possibly go wrong?’

It’s around this time that I began looking more closely at the IRCC website (the IRCC being the ‘Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada governmental agency).

The website would get updated every Monday with an estimate of how long you could wait to hear back from them on your case. The countdown began from when they received all your information and biometrics.

When we started this process we were looking at 15 days. That number had now jumped to 30 days. That meant that Yasmine and the kids only needed to be in the AirBnB for a couple of weeks. I took a deep breathe, ‘That’s not so bad’ I told myself.

The canary could now sense that something was definitely not right.

After a couple of weeks I really began to miss my family. A good sign for sure, but there was a considerable mental weight to carry. I wanted to see and experience the city with my family, not on my own.

Another Monday rolled around and the processing time jumped from 30 to 40 days.

‘We’ve been in this situation before’, I would tell myself. ‘It’ll resolve itself in a couple of weeks’, I would reassure myself.

But I was just lying to myself. The reality was that we were far from being ‘resolved’ and we would face several twists and turns before this was over.

As September started and it was clear that the kids were not going to be starting school with all the other kids. There was a sense of both urgency and resignation jostling for attention and supremacy in equal measure.

Before worrying about Yasmine’s ability to enter one country, we had to turn our attention about over staying our welcome in another. The kids were on a different visa to their mother and their welcome was shortly running out.

I was’t sure how to approach the subject with Yasmine. When her aunt passed away, I had stayed with Zane, while Yasmine and Ryan flew back. This was a decidedly different affair. I was going with intent of bring back both kids with me.

I knew she would find the whole situation unacceptable. I knew she would fight it with every fibre of her being. I knew it would break her. I also knew that we had little option.

The most we could do is ring fence the amount of time we would let this situation drag on for. We settled on two weeks.

The family had fully boarded an emotional rollercoaster. I gathered the kids and our suitcases ready to go to the airport. Our Uber rolled up to our rented apartment in Florida and we said our long goodbyes.

As we left, Zane, who is by far the more sensitive one, burst out into tears about saying goodbye to his mother. Probably not since he was born had my tears flowed as hard. I tried to hide them but I couldn’t hold back the emotion of having to separate the kids from their mother. I reassured him that this would be for a short while and that his mother would join us shortly.

In that moment I knew that this was all just wishful thinking and I was not in control of my family’s future. A faceless government entity was.

Yasmine’s frustration with her situation was amplified further when we realised that from the entire family, she had the biggest claim to entering Canada freely. Turns out her grandfather on her mother’s side was Canadian.

Immigration laws in North America leave a lot to be desired, but in essence, you are not guaranteed citizenship even from parent or grandparent. There are windows that you can trigger things. If you fall outside those windows there is no recourse.

For Yasmine, her claim to Canadian citizenship appears to have completely disappeared in 2009 when the laws were changed.

I took time off and tried to enjoy Toronto with the kids. We went to parks, bookstores, the Royal Ontario Museum. I took them on the Streetcar and the subway. I took them to a city farm. We went to the mall - an activity that now felt like a real novelty as we had not done this throughout the pandemic.

That entire summer I felt like Charlie Brown. Every time I was close to kicking the ball, Lucy (or the IRCC), kept yanking the ball away from me.

40 days became 50 days. I am Charlie Brown.

Days passed and we heard nothing back. Our lawyers sent messages to their counterparts and our member of parliament…and we got nothing back. Yasmine’s application was in progress.

50 days became 60 days. I am Charlie Brown.

Monday came and with it a glimmer of hope. We were now over the number of days the website advised. We should hear back any minute now.

60 days became 65 days. I am Charlie Brown?

As the weekend approached we were edging closer and closer to very difficult decisions. This arrangement was not a long term solution. Maybe we had to go back to Denmark and wait it out? Maybe we could start the immigration process to the US? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

The news we had been waiting for all summer came on a Friday. I got a text message from Yasmine.

Her visa application had been accepted.

We had to fill in a bunch of forms and pay for a sticker to be put in a passport…except there was two kind of payments needed. The first was an online payment, relevant to a 2022 post-pandemic world, while thd other was an American construct I was familiar with because of adverts for miracle cures or get rich schemes in the back of comics I used to read as a teen called a postal money order.

We missed the money order and there was no other way to get them $12. We had delayed the process by three days. Considering the wait and pressure we had just been through, 3 additional days felt like a drop in the ocean.

Except it wasn’t. We would be tested again by something brewing off the coast of Cuba.

The news about Hurricane Ian began making the rounds on Thursday. For my entire life, hurricanes were things that happened in far off American lands. Now it was about to happen to us. A one in a hundred year hurricane was heading towards Tampa, a city Yasmine had called home for 3 months.

We got word that Yasmine’s passport was on its way. The earliest it would likely arrive was on Monday. Saturday morning we sat on the decision to buy a ticket for Tuesday, by Saturday afternoon all the flights out of Tampa (to Toronto) were sold out.

Even if she got her passport in time, was she going to make it out? So the weekend of panic began.

The rest of the weekend felt like an eternity. We started looking at flights out of Tampa that flew to other states first, with onward flights to Canada. Maybe she could drive out of the state and take a flight from there? What about her family. Would they be ok to stay?

‘Do you think I’ll get my passport tomorrow? Do you think I’ll be able to fly out?’

All summer long I had tried to put on a brave and positive face. That things would all work out in the end.

‘I don’t know Yasmine. I really don’t know.’

Considering the summer we had just been through this latest obstacle felt…absurd.

Yasmine woke me up around midnight. ‘Quickly, get onto the website, two tickets have appeared for a Tuesday flight out of Tampa to Toronto. Book one before they go!’

I groggily opened my computer and tried to buy the ticket. My credit card was maxed out. No time to top up funds. I pulled my other credit card and tried again. It went through. We had a ticket out of Tampa.

The next bit of good news came the next morning with the triumphant return of her passport.

Now we just needed a hurricane to behave itself.

I woke up early on the Tuesday. Quickly checked the news to see where Hurricane Ian was at? The airport released a statement that they were shutting down and cancelling all flights after 16:30. Yasmine’s flight was due for take off at 12:30.

4 hours.

After waiting four months, four hours was all that separated her from being stranded even longer. What if the flight was delayed? What if the airline decided not to fly that day? Four hours was our window of error.

I took a deep breathe.

I could only think of the ending of the movie ‘Argo’. Her plane took off. She had finally made it out and was en route to Toronto.

It was a summer like no other. One we would never forget, for all the wrong reasons. Although our family had been separated multiple times, that was not the hardest part. The hardest part was the uncertainty that put every decision we made under great pressure.

We had moved to Canada from Denmark, ironically it is the Danish government that aptly calls this process ‘Family Reunification’. After four seemingly endless months, the family was finally together again.

I opened the front door of the house, just as Yasmine’s taxi was arriving. The kids excitement was palpable. They hurried out the door, ‘Mommy!’

  1. kaa004
  2. Originally published daily, throughout November 2022