Syrian families settle in, appreciate the smiles and ‘hellos’ they receive
The month-old baby pursed his tiny lips as if in thought, then rolled his little eyes around as infants do, before finding a focus upward on his father’s face.
“He’s always looking up, at the sky,” said his proud dad, Muhamed Aljneid of St. Stephen. “He’s going to be an astronaut,” he joked with a smile.
The baby’s name is Waddah Aljneid. He’s the Canadian-born son of Aljneid and his wife, Iman. His mother and father and three siblings arrived last April in St. Stephen with two other refugee families to begin a new chapter in their lives.
The couple and the two other families – Ammar Saied and his wife Esma and two children, and Abdulrahman Almandou and his wife, Sehra with four children – had spent the last three years in refugee camps in Turkey, after fleeing their war-torn country.
The families say they are settling into life in this rural community and when asked what they were most grateful for, Aljneid replied, “the sense of safety and security.”
“There is no pressure. There is relief,” he said.
Aljneid was the spokesperson for the group; though he still struggles, his English is better than that of the others.
He said they all agreed the English language was the most important thing for them all to learn – including the children.
Is it easy?
“Some,” he said, “but not easy, easy,” he added with a grin.
The men all said they must improve their English language skills so they can find employment. Aljneid is a technician who has worked with short wave towers and signals; Saied is a farm manager and Almandou is an electrician.
“They have the skills to earn a living. They just have to learn the language,” said Don Olmstead who is the co-chair of the St. Croix Vineyard and Friends community group, which raised the funds necessary to sponsor the families.
A dedicated core of volunteers continues to help the families adjust to their new lives in Canada, making sure they get to doctor and dental appointments, taking them grocery shopping, and helping them overcome language issues and other obstacles which present themselves during everyday life. Translation apps on cell phones aid greatly in bridging any communication barriers.
While the women declined to have their pictures taken, they did participate, to an extent, in the interview. While volunteer Karen Olmstead read and played to their children in an adjoining room, the adults offered a glimpse into the new lives they’ve undertaken.
They say the most difficult thing to which they have all had to adjust are the customs and traditions in Canada. “There are many things different here, but things are better here,” said Aljneid.
“But everything is okay. The team has helped,” referring to the various volunteers who have become friends.
They all agreed with exaggerated shivers one of the biggest differences was what they describe as Canada’s “the bitter cold” and the amount of snow which falls.
Aljneid explained in Syria they could receive, at most, up to 10 centimetres of snow. “They have cold days and occasional snow, but not the steady, consistent cold temperatures and snowfalls we do.” explained Olmstead.
Aljneid said they remain in touch with friends in European countries and hope to bring the rest of their family members to Canada. He wants to bring his mother and father here.
The long distance to travel was one of the biggest excitements and challenges the Syrian families faced when they immigrated “to this state beyond the ocean.” Aljneid explained they were used to travel in Europe where countries are closer together.
“Nothing is very far,” he stated. Travel was easy, he said, and to come to Canada “was a big step.”
Securing health care was another challenge Aljneid said, but that was accomplished with the help of their community support team. Since their arrival, the families have all undergone extensive dental work, necessary, Olmstead said, after five years of living in a war zone where care was not readily available.
The adults all believe one of the most interesting things about Canada is its natural beauty and its cleanliness, but in a humourous twist, like their new neighbours in St. Stephen they complained about the state of the roads in the community. “Like this,” said Aljneid, making his hand move up and down as he laughed.
They appreciate the reception the community has given them. “The people, they are kind, they say hello with a big smile,” said Aljneid. He said he and his friends appreciate that.
One of the biggest hurdles the families have had to overcome is their fear of police.
Aljneid said they were very nervous when they saw police in the airport when they first arrived in Canada.
Then they noticed the officers were smiling.
“Police officers here are very nice. A big smile,” he said with a laugh.
“In Syria when I saw police, I go the other way. They don’t smile. Very grim. They say ‘what are you doing? Just walking. Are you sure? Yes. Hmmmm.’
“Until now when we saw police we were afraid. Still a little bit, because I lived 33 years in Syria,” he explained, pretending to shake in fear.
Zhera Alhamdou was asked, through Google Translate, how she and her family were adjusting to their new lives. “Ok,” was her reply, given with a small smile. Any particular problems? “No.”
She indicated the children are still learning English as are the parents.
“The baby hasn’t started yet, Monday,” joked Olmstead. “We start early in Canada,” he joked, laughing at their amused expressions.
Aljneid said the families are glad they came to Canada and see it as a way to secure a future for their children, something that was in jeopardy in their own country.
Struggling with his words Aljneid said the families wanted to thank the Canadian government, “premiere” minister Justin Trudeau “and the people, all the people who have helped me, helped us.”