When Heather Bellamy left Canada in 1986, it took her almost 20 years to finally come back home.
Returning from a trip to Israel, she was taken aback by the amount of Palestinian refugees still living in tents on disputed territory years after the infamous six-day war.
Seeing those people living in despair, she knew in her heart that she had to help somehow so she contacted World Relief Canada, an aid agency based in Toronto, to ask if there was a way for her to contribute.
It turned out they weren’t accepting volunteers for Israel, but when they mentioned that a camp was being set up for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Bellamy felt an immediate tug.
“My heart just caught on fire, I can’t explain it. I had never met an Afghan and I couldn’t tell you where Afghanistan was but it just sounded exciting,” she says. “And that became the foundation of all my remaining years of working with refugees.”
Jumping at the opportunity, Bellamy spent two years as an ESL instructor in Pakistan tending to refugees fleeing from across the border. Surrounded by Afghan people who had got away from terrible situations, she was fascinated by their determination for a better life and was eager to learn more about their culture to be able to connect with them.
She says it became important for her to learn Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan, and convinced a few eager students in her ESL class to teach her how to speak it. After a day of teaching English, she’d sit with them over tea as she tried to pronounce foreign syllables and grasp their meaning. During those late lessons, she’d listen to their personal stories and bonded over what made them all human.
“It was hard work learning the language but it really paid off,” Bellamy says. “I knew this was how I wanted to live my life, not coming home and just padding my future with finances and a house. I wanted to impact lives.”
When she returned home, Bellamy found another position at an English Language Centre in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1993 and soon enough, another eight years passed as she lived amongst the locals.
Although life wasn’t easy compared to Canadian standards, Bellamy says it was a natural transition for her as she had to learn to live in the moment. Challenges soon became mere obstacles and Bellamy learned to laugh at all the discomforts.
She continued to strengthen her language skills and was astonished with how welcoming people were when they saw the effort she was making to communicate with them.
At the centre, she says they had a reputation to withhold in the community as women from the west in order to continue their work. Whenever she ventured outside, she made sure her clothing was culturally appropriate and avoided lingering late at night. She says it was the most difficult part of the transition, especially coming from Canada where women had equal rights and were free to roam.
“In many Islamic countries, women are very much housebound, they’ve been known to describe themselves as frogs in a well where your life really is behind walls,” she explains. “It was a difficult adjustment because here, I grew up hiking in the mountains and swimming in the lakes, biking and driving but all of that was stripped away pretty fast.”
Having to find peace with this part of her life in Pakistan, Bellamy focused on her work and the people that came through at the centre. Their place was noted as a safe house for many women trying to escape domestic violence so oftentimes, they were helping hide women and children from their abusive families.
“When you see the abuse against women in countries like this, it can give you a real sense of anger so you kind of have to learn to live in the culture where you don’t self destruct with being mad all the time,” Bellamy says. “In those years teaching English was the easy part of the day, it was hard at night when we were hiding women at risk.”
Throughout her time there, she met an American working at the embassy and who was also passionate about helping others. Approaching her 40s, Bellamy had given so much time to others and was always busy with projects to find love but when she met him, she says they felt they were meant to be.
“Both of us were just amazed at the gift of each other and started to dream about what our future might look like together,” she recalls. “He captured my heart, he was poetic and he had a deep love for the world.”
But when he became sick, no doctor was willing to try to diagnose why he was feeling ill. As the war escalated in Afghanistan, everyone was too preoccupied by the conflict to tend to his concerns.
When he finally ended up in the hospital, he was told he had leukemia. A few days later, he passed away with Bellamy at his side.
Completely heartbroken and devastated by grief, Bellamy returned to Terrace to mourn. She says she avoided contact with friends and family as she tried to work through her loss, questioning God why he was taken away from her so quickly.
A few months later, she received a call asking to help with aid and development amidst the chaos in Afghanistan. She had been watching the news and couldn’t stand to be apart from the Afghan people that she had spent so many years bonding with and knew she had to help somehow.
Despite her family’s pleas to stay away from the conflict, she boarded the plane not knowing what to expect.
In Afghanistan, she was placed in a rural village out in a valley that wasn’t claimed by the Taliban. The area had many displaced people running from occupation and they saw the creation of a safe space as a crucial task.
On a rugged hilltop, Bellamy was responsible for overseeing the creation of a giant garden. With walls already surrounding the area, built by French volunteers, it was decided that the place of peace would be built there.
Living in a mud hut with no electricity, Bellamy threw herself into her work. She sweated and plowed through dirt with the help of the women that had come to the village in refuge. She could only pay them with beans they grew but together, they saw a vision that they were eager to fulfill. In the Afghan culture, the garden symbolizes a place of reflection and safety, often sought by women to be themselves and described as a place of paradise.
It was an incredible time of growth for Bellamy, she would cry for hours as she dug through the soil and shared her story of loss with the women. They too had experienced similar tragedies as they lost their partners and family members in war, and together they helped each other heal.
In those years, they created an oasis with beautiful gardens, fruit trees, gazebos and even a tea house. They were able to harvest food and managed to keep the war from destroying their oasis. Bellamy had created a powerful bond with all the women there as their tears transformed into laughter and their sorrows into joy.
“I remember holding these Afghan women that were coming in as they were shaking and crying, telling me how the Taliban hit their village,” she says. “There’s sympathy but empathy means you’re holding somebody and crying in a different way.”
By 2009, Bellamy felt ready to come back to Canada. She was jokingly nicknamed the “Queen of the Garden” and many were worried about her leaving, but she assured them they were capable of taking care of the hill as it was always theirs to begin with.
A few years later, the refugee crisis had begun to take headlines over as people flooded into Europe from the Middle East. She knew there were many Afghan making the dangerous treks in an attempt of a better life and once again, she felt compelled to help.
From 2015 to 2018, Bellamy situated herself in Greece to help refugees coming in on boats through the Mediterranean Sea. She welcomed Afghans in their language, which sometimes was met with overwhelming emotion. She says people coming in were exhausted with the journey after losing everything, so to hear a stranger speak reassuring words from their home country was incredibly moving.
“I just saw what incredible suffering it was being a refugee, with the layers of loss of leaving your home, your parents, your friends, your school, your extended family, your possessions, and even the land is important,” she says.”I didn’t really understand that before but saw how easy it was to just make such a significant difference in the lives of these people on a difficult journey.”
She found there were many young people travelling alone without their families, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Hearing their stories, she offered them advice and “motherly hugs” to help give them the strength to carry on.
At one of the refugee camps, a boy had a locket with a stone from Afghanistan that he had carried for thousands of kilometres throughout his journey to Europe. Before boarding the bus to leave the place, he turned to Bellamy and gifted her the locket in gratitude of the work she was doing to help his people.
Bellamy says she still has that locket and often thinks about where that boy ended up, along with all the other people she met. Two years ago, her father was sick so she moved back to Terrace to help her mom.
After two decades of adventure, Bellamy currently works at the Dr. R.E.M. Lee Hospital Foundation where she’s in charge of looking for grants and donations to help Mills Memorial Hospital with funding.
She says it’s been an interesting experience being back in Canada but is happy to give back to people here that has always been supportive of her projects overseas.
Bellamy knows that it won’t be long until she feels the pull to go out there again but in the meantime, she wants to build her own garden here that she can always come home to — no matter how far she goes.