This is my farewell to a great lady; a lady that I met through tragic circumstances, a lady who believed in me when no one else did, a lady who shaped my life, supported me and became a dear friend.
Two days ago, Anthony Salloum, Alexa McDonough’s friend and longtime executive assistant, called me. I thought he was going to pass the phone to Alexa so I can video chat with her.
But instead, his voice was shaking and it sent my heart pounding. There were many long silences between us.
Alexa did not appear on screen. She was not doing well and things did not look promising.
I cried because I felt alone and did not have friends around me who knew Alexa. I am in Tunis visiting my family and I felt the strong desire to share stories about Alexa.
The first time Alexa talked to me was in Tunis. My hometown. That was in the fall of 2002. About 20 years later, the sad news of Alexa’s passing reached me in the same city.
When she called me for the first time, I was a young mother of two children and my husband, Maher Arar, had disappeared after landing in JFK Airport in New York. I vividly remember our phone conversation. She had learned about the case in the Canadian media. As leader of the New Democratic Party, she stood against injustice when the Canadian government became complicit with the American authorities, rendering my husband to Syria, a country he left when he was 17 years old.
Alexa was not intimidated by the whispers that warned her my husband was a “hot potato.” She stood with me and remained faithful to her principles of social justice and human rights. In 2003, my husband came home after spending more than a year in prison where he was never charged with any crime and endured torture. Upon his return, Alexa continued to be a pillar in our road towards justice.
Alexa loved her work as a politician. I was always impressed by her dedication to peace and justice. Beyond and before any political gain, Alexa was looking for building connections with people in her community. This is the true meaning of politics that has been eroding over the years and has been replaced by a strong sense of partisanship and populism.
Before a public inquiry cleared my husband’s name, she convinced me to run for the New Democratic Party. I was resisting the idea, fearing that my free-spirit would be eclipsed by the demands of the party line.
I wondered what she saw in me did that others did not. My appearance as a Muslim woman in a headscarf did not stop her from getting to know me. I never felt that Alexa was trying to save me from my roots or my traditions. We had frank conversations about faith, politics and the world’s state of affairs.
The last time I saw Alexa was last summer. She was in Halifax and I was in Ottawa. Anthony Salloum went to visit her and he shared his phone screen with me. Despite the disease, Alexa was in good spirits, cracking a joke once in while. She inquired about my children and about Maher. She did not forget us. I felt proud. In her most difficult moments, I was on her mind. Our relationship survived the dark labyrinths of her brain.
Today, while writing this piece, my cousin dropped in for a visit. She watched a news report about a well-known Canadian woman’s passing.
“What a great woman she must have been,” my cousin told me.
“That is Alexa! She is my friend!” I replied enthusiastically. Even here, in Tunis, thousands of kilometres away from my adopted home and her birthplace, Ottawa, in the same city we first talked, Alexa is being remembered.