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Christian Lapid/The Canadian Press

Spirit Story

A shoulder to lean on

By Sheima Benembarek

I was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005, settling in Montreal, where I lived for nine years. Two years ago, I relocated to Toronto with an aim to further my career in magazine publishing.   

At first, Toronto seemed so much bigger — so impersonal, hectic, even threatening. Soon enough, I began to rehearse absurd self-defence techniques just in case I needed them during my daily commutes on public transit. Sample scenario: someone grabs my bag and starts running. I run after them and scream, “The only thing worth anything in there is my permanent residency card, and if I have to renew it, it’s going to be a bureaucratic nightmare; but you can have the cigarette pack and the strawberry-scented hand cream!” 

I was constantly on edge. One day, as I was changing streetcars, I heard someone yell, “Go home!” I’m a visible minority, a Muslim, and my immediate reaction was to assume that I was being singled out. With rising anger, I prepared to scream back, “You go home, and read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms!” but realized it was just one traffic controller yelling affectionately at another whose shift had just ended.

More recently, I stepped onto a packed subway train at the end of a long day, found the only empty seat and sat down. I must have seemed exhausted because suddenly the young woman next to me gestured for me to take off my earphones, which I typically wear on the subway precisely so I can avoid speaking to anyone. 

Assuming the worst, my first thought was, What?! But I removed the earphones anyway and was met with a big smile. She said, “You know, you can relax your shoulders. It’s really okay if you rest a bit against me if you need to.” I didn’t know what to say. I managed a “thank you” and resisted the urge to hug her. 

I put my earphones back on and gradually allowed my shoulders to relax and rest against hers. We didn’t say much else, and we didn’t become friends. But being able to trust a random stranger in a big city, if only for a few minutes, felt good and safe. When the train pulled into her stop, she looked at me one last time, smiled and said, “Take care,” to which I replied with a very enthusiastic, “You too!”

For the rest of my commute, I sat there with a mixture of bewilderment and warmth. I later related the incident to my boyfriend, a bona fide Toronto cynic. His response was filled with suspicion: “Wait, I don’t understand. What did she want from you?” 

Nothing, it seemed. That was the beauty of it. And since then, I’ve been trying to be better, to have a little more patience and faith in the other 1.7 million commuters with whom I travel on any given weekday. So if someday we end up sitting next to each other and I breach your bubble by offering you my shoulder because it looks like you need it, try not to say “What?!” 

Sheima Benembarek is a journalist in Toronto.

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