Toronto Star

‘Honestly, there’s no word to describe it’

Citizenshi­p event marks 5 years since first Syrian refugees reached Canada

- NICHOLAS KEUNG IMMIGRATIO­N REPORTER

Five years ago, Samer Al Jbawi and his family arrived in Canada carrying the label “Syrian refugees.”

On Thursday, they became “Syrian Canadians.”

It was an emotional day for the Al Jbawis and 10 other Syrian families as they took their oath as newly minted Canadian citizens at a special virtual ceremony that also marked the fifth anniversar­y of the first arrivals in Canada’s Operation Syrian Refugees.

The families had been rejected, it seemed to some, by the rest of the world, before finding a home in Canada.

“When you try to visit many houses, everyone is kicking you out and no one wants you in. All of a sudden, one house opens the door and says ‘You’re welcome and you can come in,’ ” says Al Jbawi, who arrived here with his wife, Asmaa, daughter Hala and son Mohammad, now 8 and 6, on Dec. 28, 2015.

“Imagine that feeling. How would you feel if all people rejected you and even your own country kicked you out? Canada welcomed us and said, ‘You’re welcome to be part of us.’ Honestly, there’s no word to describe it.”

The Syrian civil war that started in 2011 as peaceful protests against the Bashar Hafez alAssad regime as part of the Arab Spring uprisings has displaced 14 million people.

In September 2015, a photo of a lifeless three-year-old Syrian boy — later identifed as Alan Kurdi — lying face-down on a Turkish beach awakened the conscience of Canadians from coast to coast.

A newly elected Liberal government, which took over from the Conservati­ves that October, launched a national project and opened Canada’s door, with a goal to usher in 25,000 Syrian refugees in 100 days.

Since that date, this country has welcomed almost 73,000 Syrian refugees through its government and private community refugee sponsorshi­p resettleme­nt programs.

Immigratio­n Minister Marco Mendicino was a rookie MP when he arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Dec. 10, 2015, to greet the Syrian newcomers with his then-eightyear-old daughter.

“It was an emotional milestone in what was to become a national project,” said Mendicino as he welcomed the latest batch of new citizens via a computer screen Thursday.

“We saw outpouring­s of support from communitie­s, businesses and people from all walks of life. It was made possible because of the dedication of private sponsors and the resettleme­nt service providers … It was a massive humanitari­an effort and it showed the strength of our country and the depths of our compassion.”

Al Jbawi was a human rights activist on the frontlines of the pre-civil war protests during the Arab Spring.

He was arrested and tortured at the hands of the Syrian authoritie­s.

He continued to be defiant, but a bomb that destroyed his home in Jasim in 2013 was the last straw, prompting him to move his young family to neighbouri­ng Jordan, where the family lived in exile before coming to Canada.

Al Jbawi said he had no plan to go anywhere but then, on Dec.1, 2015, he got a phone call from the United Nations Refugee Agency following up on a text message he had received the day before, telling him that Canada was ready to resettle his family there.

“We were so afraid all the time that Jordan might send us back to Syria and that’d be the end of our life,” recalled Al Jbawi, 32, who graduated with a degree in English literature and taught English as a second language in Syria.

“So, coming to Canada was a moment of getting into heaven.”

Upon arrival in Ottawa that December, the family was met with the brutal Canadian winter.

“We tried to learn as much about Canada over the internet, but nothing could prepare us for the weather,” he said with a chuckle. “Everything was white, covered with snow. There’s nothing green on the ground. How can people live here?”

Because of his superb English language skills, Al Jbawi volunteere­d to help his fellow Syrians navigate their new lives in Canada. After several months, through a contact at a local mosque, he landed a job as a settlement counsellor at the Somali Centre for Family Services.

“It’s hard to start a life from scratch,” said Al Jbawi, whose parents and siblings are still scattered across Egypt, Kuwait, Lebannon and Syria.

“But Canadians are the most welcoming and kind people on earth. People are always there to help when we need them. We’ve got more than what we deserve.”

With a huge Canadian flag draping the wall of his living room, Al Jbawi said his mind was with his family and countrymen spread around the world as he was taking his oath as a Canadian.

“Many of our people are still under very bad circumstan­ces and can’t afford the basic needs of their children,” said Al Jbawi, who said he would love to get a passport to travel to the Middle East to see his family, whom he has not seen for years.

“We want Canada to be very proud of bringing us here. We’ve promised we won’t let Canadians down so we can sponsor more Syrians here.”

It’s gratitude that has been a two-way street.

Melva and Ian Scott, a retired couple from the village of Fruitvale, B.C., said they essentiall­y gained a third daughter, a young Syrian woman they first met during a tour of Turkey in 2015 and later sponsored to Canada through the West Kootenay Friends of Refugees.

The Scotts were dropping by a gift shop in Anadolu Kavagi, a small fishing village near Istanbul, when they saw a shopkeeper crying after she was insulted by a Turkish colleague.

In their conversati­on, they found out her name was Rahaf Zwayne and she was a Syrian refugee staying illegally in Turkey. They also asked her about her future plans and if she had ever thought of going to Canada.

“Canada is so far and I don’t think I can get there by boat,” said Zwayne, now 33, who fled Damascus with her widowed father and older brother in late 2014 after it became clear the Syrian war wasn’t ending anytime soon. “I have saved up money to pay a smuggler to Europe by boat.”

The Scotts and Zwayne exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, and kept in touch.

Later that fall, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won the election and made Syrian resettleme­nt a priority for the new government, the Scotts asked Zwayne again on Skype if she was interested in being sponsored to Canada.

Within six months, Zwayne left her father and brother in Turkey and came to the embrace of a Canadian family that she had only met once at that point. From day one, the Scotts helped guide Zwayne in her new life.

When Zwayne was accepted to a diploma program in hospitalit­y and tourism at Selkirk College in Nelson, B.C., faculty there found her a family that could host her for free to save her the four-hour bus ride between home and school each day.

After her graduation in 2018, she moved to work for a hotel and later a jewelry store in Kelowna, where she met her Turkish husband, Erkan Bakir. The couple just married and moved to Vancouver in August.

“It’s rewarding seeing her success and how well she’s done and how quickly she’s done it,” said Melva Scott, a retired hospital clerk, who was on hand to witness her taking the citizenshi­p oath Thursday.

“She really started appreciati­ng Canada and the opportunit­ies she’s been given. I think it took her a while to do that because when you leave your home, your home is your home,” adds Ian Scott, who with his wife also helped sponsor Zwayne’s father, Saad, and brother, Amr, to Fruitvale.

Zwayne, whose mother, Lina Alnakshaba­ndi, died of a heart attack just at the onset of the Syrian war, said she is grateful to the Scotts and all the people who have helped her and believed in her along the way.

“I’m pretty sure my mom has been with me, protecting me,” Zwayne said.

 ?? ASHLEY FRASER FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? Samer Al Jbawi with his wife, Asmaa, and children six-month-old Ahmad Abofadi, six-year-old Mohammad Kheir and eight-year-old Hala at their Ottawa apartment. On Thursday, five years after arriving in Canada, they became Canadian citizens.
ASHLEY FRASER FOR THE TORONTO STAR Samer Al Jbawi with his wife, Asmaa, and children six-month-old Ahmad Abofadi, six-year-old Mohammad Kheir and eight-year-old Hala at their Ottawa apartment. On Thursday, five years after arriving in Canada, they became Canadian citizens.
 ??  ?? Melva and Ian Scott met Rahaf Zwayne, a Syrian refugee, in Instabul. They sponsored Zwayne, now a Canadian citizen, to come and settle in B.C. She graduated from Selkirk College in 2018.
Melva and Ian Scott met Rahaf Zwayne, a Syrian refugee, in Instabul. They sponsored Zwayne, now a Canadian citizen, to come and settle in B.C. She graduated from Selkirk College in 2018.
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