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Ayman Elshfiy cuddles his daughters, Lazourd and Nardeen, as his sister, Eiman, and mother, Seham, look on. The family arrived in Hamilton last February. Photo by Merle Robillard

Do they like it here? In a word: yes.

For Syrian refugees, adapting to Canadian culture is hard. We asked a Syrian-born Arabic-speaking journalist to interview some of the United Church-sponsored newcomers about learning to live in a new land

By May Tartoussy

Elshfiy family
Arrival in Canada: February 2016
Family size: Four, plus an extended family of 15
Sponsor: A coalition of seven United churches (Lynden, Rock Chapel, Carlisle, Kilbride, Lowville, Nelson and Westdale)

In Out of Syria, an ObserverDocs video produced last year, Ayman Elshfiy shares his first impressions of Canada, his relief to be raising his children in a safe country and his hopes for the future. As I dialed his phone number last fall, I prayed that his positive feelings had not faded away.

Elshfiy sounded confident. “Hamilton doesn’t feel like a new city to us. We can get around easily — from going to school to buying groceries. We are well-integrated in the city. My two girls are happy in school and have friends. They were a little disappointed about not seeing Ramadan celebrated like back home. We explained that we can have the celebration in our house, and that they can enjoy the Canadian holidays.”

Elshfiy seemed determined in his optimism throughout our conversation. It was only when we talked about his struggle to find work that a hint of frustration crept in. In Kuwait and Syria, Elshfiy was a pharmacist — a vocation with which he strongly identifies. “I loved my job and what I did as a pharmacist. . . . Looking for a job is very challenging for someone who never was unemployed,” he said. “I don’t want the year [2016] to end and still find myself in the welfare system. I can work; I am healthy.”

In the meantime, Elshfiy is taking English classes — his command of the language is already strong — and he is planning to take the two exams required to qualify him as a pharmacist in Canada in the next year or two.

“I can be a pharmacist assistant, but they are asking for Canadian experience. I am expanding my job search. I am frustrated and stressed out. I have a plan, but I don’t know if I can make it.”

Elshfiy’s spouse, Sonia, likes Canada. “No more fear from war,” she says. She also appreciates how her voice is heard. “People genuinely listen to me and to my needs. Even Christian people. They know we are Muslim, and they treat us in a humane way.”

Sonia is skilled at knitting and crocheting, creating her pieces from donated wool. Her church sponsors encouraged her to sell her handmade hats and scarves in a local bazaar.

“It is not easy to make something from different types and quality of wools,” she noted, then laughed when I reminded her of an old Arabic proverb: “The good knitter can make a scarf from a dog tail.”

Al Mansour family
Arrival in Canada: December 2015
Family size: Five
Sponsor: United Syrian Family Support (a collaboration of St. Matthew’s, Eastminster and Bridge Street United churches, the local Baha’i community, the Islamic Society of Belleville and community members)

Ahmad al Mansour and his spouse, Maysoun, have three children, ages 15, 12 and five. After escaping Damascus, they lived for almost two years in Lebanon before finally arriving in Canada.

Al Mansour expressed overwhelming appreciation for his sponsors, how attentive they are to his family’s needs, how they’ve made his family feel safe and heard, appreciated and respected. He mentioned his gratitude for a Thanksgiving dinner, served by the sponsors, who cooked a halal turkey for them. “They started connecting with us since we were in Lebanon, before we arrived. They made me and my family feel safe. They always check in on us.”

Learning English is a struggle for the al Mansours. Ahmad says he can understand the language but finds it hard to pronounce the words correctly. He mentions with pride, however, that the children are picking up English quickly — sometimes he even relies on them for translation.

In Syria and Lebanon, al Mansour worked in construction. “I am too old now for this physical activity. I overused myself and developed a chronic back condition.” He recently obtained his G1 driver’s licence and is thinking about becoming a truck driver. “It may take some time, but it is okay,” he says.

What makes him most happy is his children and the opportunities they are now enjoying — “not only for education, but for sports. I was an athlete when I was young. They are into swimming and the eldest, Firas, he is into soccer.”

Al Ziab family
Arrival in Canada: October 2015
Family size: Eight
Sponsor: Refuge Winnipeg (a coalition of United churches, the Manitoba Islamic Association, other faith groups and community members)

Kamal al Ziab seemed eager to talk about the past. But even as the father of six described the horror of running away from Syria and the struggle to survive in Lebanon for three years, his voice conveyed little bitterness. Any lingering sadness about the past was swept aside with his gratitude for the present. For example, he happily boasts about how much Canadians love his spouse, Fatima’s, cooking. “She makes the best food, and our sponsors love it so much. They have never eaten such good food before.”

While Kamal and Fatima are making “slow progress” with their English, knowing that their children are back in school “after being interrupted for at least three years” is the best thing about living in Canada. “My children are very smart,” al Ziab added.

Their 14-year-old son, Omar, lost a leg in 2011 when a military vehicle in Syria ran him over. Now, said al Ziab, Omar has his ups and downs, but “he is finding a new life. The doctors and the sponsorship group have been very attentive.” Omar has a new prosthetic leg that he is learning to use and is working toward walking without crutches. “We are encouraging him all the way. He plays sledge hockey with a team. His dream is to represent Canada in the future, as a gesture of gratitude.”

As for his own future, al Ziab hopes to start his own business as a goldsmith. But there is a more immediate concern. Because the al Ziab family was among the first wave of Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada, their airfare was paid through a government loan. Thousands who came later had their travel costs fully covered. Now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is asking to be repaid — approximately $1,000 per ticket. The loan can be repaid over six years; interest begins to accrue after the first three years. “I don’t want to be less grateful for everything they have done for us,” al Ziab said, “but this cost is too heavy for us to bear.”

The Khalaf family with two United Church friends at an Edmonton Tim Hortons. Photo by David Evans

Khalaf family
Arrival in Canada: January 2016
Family size: 13
Sponsor: Riverbend United, with support from the Islamic Friendship Centre

This month marks the anniversary of the Khalaf family’s arrival in Canada. Alieh Khalaf, her husband, Jasem, and their 11 children are settled in Edmonton. Khalaf, who was illiterate when she arrived, is now taking English classes and working hard to recognize and draw the letters of the alphabet. She and Jasem take school very seriously. “It is our way to real settlement and to move forward in the country,” she says.

Khalaf likes her new neighbourhood, partly because it’s close to public transportation and schools, and partly because it’s not close to the neighbourhoods where many other Arabic speakers have settled. “I see people who have been here for many months and who cannot speak any English because they are limiting themselves within the comfort of the community. I don’t want that for us.”

Her biggest challenge is her eldest son, age 20, who has a mental disability. She struggles with whether to push him to succeed or whether adding pressure will cause him to lose confidence. She receives educational assistance from his school, but it is still hard. The other 10 children are making good progress, and Khalaf says she doesn’t worry about them.

Asked how life is different here, Khalaf mentions how everyone is running around the clock. Canadians are punctual, she notes. They have a lot to juggle and life is demanding, so they have to be on top of things. She appreciated an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner from her sponsors, which included a halal turkey, and says their kindness overall has changed her perspective of the West.

Another new experience in Canada is seeing couples displaying affection in public. “Why would you kiss in public when you have your house for intimacy?” she wonders, then laughs, recalling her husband’s response: “I think you’re jealous. I can kiss you in public as well.”

May Tartoussy is a journalist in Toronto.

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