x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Canada's party day, when everyone feels at home

July 1 is also the anniversary of our arrival as immigrants to Canada, 16 years ago. It is a time of grateful reflection for us.

Canada Day is the one day of the year on which my hometown, Ottawa, reminds me of Cairo. It's a day when a mass of people dressed in red and white, put maple leaf flags in their hair and fill the closed-off streets to be entertained by buskers and magicians, while sticking their greasy fingers into bags of chips or licking the drips from melting ice cream cones.

This year an army of security men was added to their number because Elizabeth, the Queen of England and sovereign of Canada, was in town. An estimated 100,000 Canadians leant over metal railings or craned their necks to get a glimpse of the royal couple as they rode past in a carriage, the Queen waving regally to her subjects. The last time she was here was in 1997 and I was celebrating with my high school friends. Every Canada Day we would dress in red and white shorts and T-shirts, paint our faces and tie a huge Canadian flag around our shoulders, jump on a busy bus and head downtown.

Camping out on Parliament Hill, we would listen to the opening ceremonies, shading our heads from the sun and "grass bopping" to the latest Canadian bands while paying scant attention to the governor general's speech. We would walk through the streets eating candy floss, stop to watch the fire-eaters, then finally collapse in a nearby park. Canada's national day marks the union of the British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada - which was then divided into Ontario and Quebec - on July 1, 1867. In the years that followed, the British parliament began to loosen its grip over Canada's government until full independence was granted in 1982.

For my family, July 1 is also a personal celebration. It is the anniversary of our arrival as immigrants to Canada, 16 years ago. It is a time of grateful reflection for us. Ottowa is now our home, the place where we have lived together the longest. We have adopted Canadian values and tried to balance our Arab-Muslin heritage with our new nation. Canada Day is an event that has helped to make me feel more welcome, that I belong here.

As my friends and I grew older, the hassle of heading downtown on the day started to feel less exciting. And living abroad has meant my missing a few Canada days at home. This year was a treat. Packing a light lunch, we joined a Lebanese family who had just moved here for their first Canada Day celebration. They were stunned by the spectacle and, looking around, I realised just how different Canada is from all the countries I have visited this year.

Besides the obvious lack of poverty and general cleanliness and orderliness, it was the multicultural mix that was so refreshing. While most people are of Anglo-Saxon descent, my ear caught a complete mishmash of mingling languages. As well as French and English, there was Arabic, Spanish, Farsi, Somali and Turkish - yet everyone was decked out in red and white and having a good time. I can think of no other country that could boast this many languages but still make everyone feel at home.

When the cannons fired a salute to the Queen, my friend said the cordite in the air reminded her of the Lebanese war. It smelt like Beirut after a blitz, she said. For me it brought back memories of the roadside bombs we would hear in early-morning Baghdad. Later, as the Ottawa crowd clapped and gasped as fighter jets screeched overhead in a military flypast, my nails dug into my hands and my jaw clenched as I thought of Iraq.

It suddenly struck me that many of the people here celebrating Canada's birthday came from places where these sounds and smells had been harbingers of fear and death. I hoped that, resettled in this peaceful land, such echoes of a violent past could now be transformed into happier memories for them. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo