In the late summer of 2001, 21-year-old Rami Kassem flew from Beirut to Boston. He’d been accepted by the University of Texas in Houston to study pharmacy, but that was just a ruse. His real target? Canada. Growing up as a Palestinian refugee in the war-torn camps of Eastern Beirut, Lebanon, where his father worked in the United Nations office and frequently brought home Canadian coworkers for dinner, young Kassem had been regaled with stories of the country. It had always been his dream to someday make it here.
In Boston, in those innocent days mere weeks before 9/11, Kassem was interrogated by U.S. customs officers but eventually allowed through. He promptly slipped across the U.S./Canada border, declaring refugee status once he’d crossed. He’d earned it, growing up in the refugee camps, where he’d witnessed countless bombings and killings. At age six he’d been shot in the chest by a sniper, leaving him in hospital for six weeks, and blind for a month. The bullet had missed his heart by an inch. He turns 36 this February, but looks considerably older, he admits. No wonder.
His first few years in Canada, Kassem lived in Montreal and then Edmonton, where he worked as a shuttle driver at the airport and heard intriguing tales about Yellowknife from people he met at the airport. In 2006, he decided to drive North.
For his first three years here, Kassem drove cabs. He met and befriended fellow taxi driver Fadil Memedi, and in 2009 they pooled their savings and purchased Javaroma, a Yellowknife coffeehouse and meeting place. On any given day, you can see Rami and Fadil manning the kitchen or chatting with customers over an espresso.
In 2006, Rami returned to Lebanon to marry Mona Aida, whom he’d met while studying business at Beirut Islamic University. She moved to Yellowknife the following year. Together they have three children. He became a Canadian citizen in 2009.
“My first right in my entire life was voting. I did it in Yellowknife during the last federal election. It was a big day for me,” he said. “I’m just proud my kids are citizens and have rights.”
What was your road to Yellowknife?
I had a small Toyota and 500 bucks for gas. I didn’t even have a spare tire. It was crazy. I drove the whole way looking at the signs, Yellowknife, Yellowknife, Yellowknife. I saw bears, I saw buffalo, and as I went further North it was still light. By the time I arrived here I had a couple hundred bucks and I didn’t know anyone. I arrived at night and slept in the car behind YK 1. It was September and cold so I kept the heat on. I woke up in the morning and thought what can I do here? I like to work long hours and my own hours, so I decided to drive a taxi.
What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
I love the cold. Beirut is on the beach so we used to go to the mountains on trips just to see the snow. My wife loves cold as well so that works great for us. I also love the people here and the community. I came from a big city where you don’t even know your neighbour. Here you know everybody, you can say hello to everybody, and there’s always somebody to help you.
What’s one thing you would change about Yellowknife?
I would like to do something about the cost of living, both as a business owner and as a citizen. We need people to be able to afford to live here, not just work, work, work. And we should do something that promotes Yellowknife all over Canada. Slowly it’s coming, but we need to find a way to promote it better. We should also have a university for the kids. I have kids and some day they will have to move, and I may have to move too. If we had a university here, people would grow up, study and graduate here.
What do you do to survive the winter?
I don’t do much. Once in a while I’ll go Ski-Dooing or ice fishing with Fadil. But I like the summer, where I can go fishing. In winter I like to stay in with my family. We watch movies and watch the news from back home to see what’s happening in Lebanon.
What do you do on the longest day of the summer?
Since coming to Yellowknife I’ve been working hard and working long hours. Since buying the business we’ve been so busy and occupied. When I do have some time off, I go outside with the kids. On the longest day if there’s a festival or a community event, we like to go.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people outside Yellowknife have about it?
I’ve given my parents and my brothers the full picture of Yellowknife. They still think I’m living at the end of the world, but they appreciate that I’m able to support them and have a good family and a good life. They used think it had polar bears and igloos, but I put a camera on my car and I drove around Yellowknife in summer and the winter and sent them the video. They just love it.
What opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you could find elsewhere?
I didn’t find a better community in Montreal or Edmonton, Yellowknife is the best. As place to live, it’s convenient and easy going. For business, though, there’s not much happening. In downtown Yellowknife there are so many empty stores. Rent is so expensive, tax is expensive, if someone wants to start a business they’ll be bankrupt before they do anything else. Maybe in the future if there’s a pipeline or more mines there will be more people moving here and people might take a chance and open businesses.
Do you think you’re a Yellowknife lifer?
I’m proud to say to anybody in the world I live in the North, I live in Yellowknife. I was so proud when my first daughter was born here and I said she is a Yellowknifer, she is a Northerner. All the good things happened to me while I was in Yellowknife: I got my citizenship in Yellowknife, I got married while I was in Yellowknife, I had my first daughter when I was in Yellowknife. I’m so happy here. I hope I don’t get to a point where I have to go somewhere else. I pray that moment doesn’t come.