(by Aboud Dandachi)

(where, while Aboud may claim that his volunteering every year at the local fair’s annual book-sale is totally altruistic, his friends know it’s just a way to get first dibs on the best books)

One of the things one learns to do, when living as a refugee in a place like Turkey, is to try to limit one’s social interactions as much as possible. You never know how a stranger might react to meeting a refugee in their country. While most Istanbulites were pleasant, it was always better to be safe rather than sorry.

It took me a while to grow out of that habit when I moved to Canada. For two months, my sole interactions were with my friends, friends of friends, and saying “thank you” to supermarket cashiers and bus drivers.

By September of 2017, it was evident to me that that was a habit that I had to break. And so I decided to do what to me seemed a most daunting affair at the time; I volunteered at the neighborhood’s annual Fall Fair. Specifically, the book sale.

I knew this would mean I’d have to interact with as many strangers as was possible during a Saturday morning fair. Was I nervous? Heck yes. I’d have to arrange the books, take the money, give back change (remembering that for some blasted reason Canada had no 50 cent coins, and the ten cents were smaller than the five), in short, be a sales person. Oh boy.

The day before the fair, I went to the school grounds where the fair was to be held to help setup the tables and tents. I was impressed with how organized everything was. Maps showing where tables were expected to be. Tents that were very easy to assemble. And it became apparent that I was the only person there that morning who wasn’t a) a parent with a child at the school b) a surly teenager putting in the volunteer hours necessary for graduation. I even got to organize the books into categories for easy placement the next morning. I was very, very impressed with what Canadians were giving away in terms of books.

The night before the fair, I tried to get over my anxiety by imaging which glorious, wonderful tome would be the very first book I sold in Canada. I had seen a Michael Crichton book. Susan Collins was there. And the ever prevalent James Patterson.

On the morning of the fair, I showed up early to help finish with setting up. First thing I did was to prepare for the hot day ahead by filling up my water bottle. The City of Toronto had provided a blue water truck with taps for use, which I headed straight for. I was filling up my bottle when a I heard a voice behind me go “Excuse me, you can’t drink that yet. We are still cleaning it with chlorine.”

😐 Lovely. The fair hadn’t even started, and the simple Syrian village boy would have poisoned himself…

And so I took my place at the booksale, having had everything explained to me by the super efficient lady who had run the booksale for many years before. The cash box. The price of the books. To bring to the customers’ attention the raffle tickets, whose grand prize that year would be a family trip to the Great Wolf Lodge at Niagara Falls. That the volunteers got free tokens for a snack and drink. And that the goal was above all else to get rid of as many books as possible, since there was no place to store them after the sale. Well, that seemed easy enough.

Five minutes before the fair was officially supposed to start, a gentleman in a baseball cap came up to the booksale. Here it was, my first ever sale of a book!

“Hi, good morning.”

Me: “And a very good morning, hope you are well,” (typical customer service speak)

“So, yesterday while the books were being sorted, I noticed you had a Lord of the Rings…”

….yes yes YES! Tolkien!

“…video game. Could you dig it up for me?”

A video game? That was going to be my first sale????

“Yes, of course, I know the one you mean,” I said through gritted teeth. He was extremely happy that the game would run on his modest computer.

The rest of the morning went fine. Childrens’ books were (naturally) very popular. I noticed how vigilant Canadian parents were that their children would be the ones to hand over the money, and made sure they said “thank you” after the exchange. So adorable.

At one point a child came up browsing for books. I could see he was torn between two volumes. Noticing he had already picked one and was deciding on a second, I told him “go on, take three. It’s buy two, get one free.” Which it wasn’t, but heck, it was just one book. As he skipped away happily I tossed a dollar into the cash box.

Around 20 minutes later a girl came up and handed me two dollars for three books. “That’ll be a dollar each,” I said.

“But isnt it two for three? That’s what my brother said” she asked.

God damn it bloody heck…..

“Yes yes, of course, thank you for reminding me,” I said, grimacing.

“Oh, two for three?” a lady asked who was browsing nearby.

“Just for kids’ books,” I said hurriedly.

By noon, it was apparent that the books were not being sold fast enough. With two hours left in the fair, slightly more than half of them had not been sold. The organizer asked my fellow volunteers if anyone had any ideas.

“How about a buy two, get one free?” I suggested, smiling innocently.

She thought it was a grand idea, along with a decrease in the price of the books. Phew, saved my Syrian ass.

At one point a lady with a Eastern European accent came and bought an armful of books. “Would you like a raffle ticket as well?” I asked.

“Sure, why not, even though I never win these things,” she said grumpily.

Madame, I thought to myself, we both ended up in Canada. That’s like winning a million dollar lottery. 

As the day went by, it was thought prudent to keep decreasing the price of the books. It was then I learned a very valuable lesson about my fellow Torontonians; they are the best faking bargain hunters in the world.

With 45 minutes left in the fair, and the books discounted to 25 cents, we did more business in that time frame than we had in the preceding three hours. They knew we would have to discount the price of books as the day went on. The video games were all long gone.

Towards the end of the fair, the winner of the raffle was announced; the family of the lady who was organizing the book-sale. Good for her, she had put in alot of years organizing it for the school.

And so the day ended. A few boxes of books were left. I offered to take one to drop off to a charity I knew about, all the way up in Cabbagetown. God alone knows why I didn’t pick a closer charity…

As I went back home, lying on my bed, resting my weary feet, I thought back on the day. And then it occurred to me.

Not once, not even once, did anyone of all the scores of people I interacted with that day know that I had been a refugee. To them, I wasn’t a Syrian dude. I was just another dude.

I can not begin to describe the effect that revelation had on me. In some parts of the world, a refugee might as well have a big red R marked on their forehead. In Canada, it didn’t matter one bit. If I wanted to, I could volunteer again next year for the fair.

And I most certainly did want to. I’d end up volunteering in 2018 and 2019 as well. Everytime the festival came up was a milestone that I looked forward to, a day on which I could contemplate another year in Canada. As long as there was the fair, I’d be there volunteering. The first time had been easy enough.

Actually, the second time would be slightly more eventful, due to me taking over the supervision of…the Fantasy Castle 😒