Uprooted: a story about how a teaching assignment turned into the ultimate field trip

A donkey-back expedition sets out to explore the desert. photo by Joan Sparling-Migwans

Author Joan Sparling will attend a book signing event in front of The Expositor offices in Little Current this Saturday, August 4 from 12 pm to 2 pm

MANITOULIN––In August 2005, Joan Sparling Migwans uprooted her children when she accepted a teaching position at an international school in Aleppo, Syria. Her book, ‘Uprooted’, tells how they “lived and travelled in a world outside their comfort zone, where they were challenged with different languages, religions, customs, monetary systems, climate and general world view.”

Ms. Sparling Migwans had always wanted to travel around the world with her children, she explained. Having heard from other people about their good experiences, she submitted her name with Search Associates, a search site for teachers seeking international opportunities. “Usually it was one teacher, one child,” she said, “and I had four.” That didn’t matter to ICARDA International School of Aleppo, which offered her a position teaching Grade 1 at their school. The offer came in May 2005; by August, Ms. Sparling Migwans and her three younger children, aged six, eight and 13 years, had arrived in the “hot, hot, hot” city of Aleppo. Her oldest daughter stayed behind to attend university but did visit Syria.

“The kids were a little excited, which surprised me,” said Ms. Sparling Migwans. “My 13-year-old was a little worried about social stuff but was still looking forward to meeting other people. The younger ones had each other. Eight-year-old James looked up Syria on a map and told us what we were in for: a desert city near the border of Iraq; a good central location for travel to surrounding areas.

Travel they did. The family visited Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Italy, Jordan and Greece. “It was the ultimate field trip,” said Ms. Sparling Migwans. “Every chance we got we took road trips, generally with other English-speaking expats in our caravans of the same white Volvos. The camaraderie with all the other expats was very enjoyable.”

They often visited the beaches of Turkey; once they enjoyed a luxurious camping trip with Bedouins in the desert. Another time, the Sparling Migwans family went on a cruise on the Nile River with another of the Aleppo families.

Six months into her two-year teaching contract, the family endured a crushing culture shock, said Ms. Sparling Migwans. “Everybody wanted to go home. It was partly the lack of green. Being in a desert, I really missed the lakes and greenery of Ontario. I felt my body was dehydrated, but so was my spirit.”

They pushed through it. “I had to,” she continued. “I had a two-year contract. We had to buckle down.” They travelled more, met more people. “I loved my job. I was in my element when teaching. I loved the environment and the students.”

Knowing about the culture shock is important, Ms. Sparling Migwans feels. Refugees and people who are uprooted need a lot of support at that time, and not just during the initial move. It’s part of the reason why she wrote ‘Uprooted,’ she said. “I want to tell people what it was like to be uprooted and live in another culture.”

She also wanted people to know how beautiful Syria was, how well everyone got along.  The outbreak of civil war was “devastating” to hear about. “It doesn’t seem to make sense,” she said. “There is so much depth to it.  I don’t pretend to understand.”

She doesn’t try to make sense of the politics.

This book is for teachers or parents who are considering a similar journey. “There is something for everybody,” said Ms. Sparling Migwans. “I have done readings for children in young grades right up to adults. At first I thought my audience would be women like myself, but that hasn’t been it at all. For example, while doing a reading at Chapters in Sudbury, there were so many men who asked questions and bought the book.” Many inquiries were related to regional politics, but most men were interested in the immigrant experience also.

Reintegration into life in Canada was not always smooth, according to Ms. Sparling Migwans. While communication and shopping was easier, “everything seemed quite ordinary and unexotic compared to the Middle East.” Sharing how their world view had changed and “how there were different ways of seeing what is important in life” helped to reconnect and reintegrate.

Soon after the family left Aleppo in June 2007, unrest broke out and eventually led to war in June 2010. The school where Ms. Sparling Migwans taught for two years closed its doors in 2012. Many of her Syrian friends became refugees or continued to live and die in Aleppo as the ancient city was destroyed around them.  Ms. Sparling Migwans encourages Canadians to support and welcome Syrian refugees.

It was truly an uplifting experience for her family, said Ms. Sparling Migwans.  “It truly was a profound opportunity that caused us to grow closer as a family, more compassionate and open to other cultures, more confident, more aware of our own biases and fears as well as our own strengths and what we each had to offer the world.”

Ms. Sparling Migwans will be offering readings and book signings at Storyopoplis in Kagawong on August 1 from 11 am until 2 pm, and on Haweater weekend in Little Current, in front of The Manitoulin Expositor office on Saturday, August 4 from 12 pm until 2 pm.