A Syrian refugee family's first days in Canada

The kids have never seen car seats and find our culture's love of dogs hilarious. The parents are overwhelmed but ready for the challenge.
Photo: Emma Waverman

The picture my daughter drew to welcome the family. Photo: Emma Waverman

We didn’t know what to expect as we drove to the airport hotel to greet the Syrian refugee family that we had pledged to sponsor for one year. Would they be as excited as we were to finally meet face to face? Would they be nervous, overwhelmed? Would they have regrets about moving to Canada?

For better or worse, we had committed to financial and social support of this family for a year. Our lives were going to be intertwined, and this was the first step. We had spoken to the family on the phone each week for months (with the help of a translator), and yet we had only 48 hours’ notice before we had to pick them up.

But I can hardly complain—Ahmed and Amena (not their real names) only had two days’ notice before they had to pack up their belonging in a few suitcases and show up at the Amman airport in Jordan for the flight that brought them to their new home in Toronto.

Our sponsorship group is made up of 20 friends and neighbours who chose to band together to help a refugee family come to Canada. We secured them an apartment and furniture, and raised $40,000 dollars. We had done everything we could think of to prepare for the family’s arrival.

But just like any major life event, you can’t fully prepare. It’s like getting ready for the arrival of your first baby—you decorate the nursery, you micromanage the details, but you have no idea what to expect once that new life appears.

We had previously exchanged photos, so Ahmed and I easily recognized each other in front of the hotel where the government had put them up overnight. There was a happy moment of recognition, followed by an awkward hug, during which I wondered if I was being culturally sensitive.

Ahmed’s wife, Amena, appeared with their two boys, ages three and one. The little ones were more interested in the automatic doors than anything else. They were not happy about the car seats that I strapped them into—nor was their mother, who tried to take out the toddler to quiet him while I was on the highway. The translator who was with us sternly reminded her that in Canada, car seats are mandatory. I hoped this difficult introduction wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.

It wasn’t.

They have been here for a week, and every day is an adventure. The largest obstacle is language. Google Translate and the app Say Hi help us a little, as do extreme body language, eye rolling and laughter. Our group has a few Arabic speakers who are willing to pitch in when they have time, and we have made more than one emergency phone call to them so they can explain some details. My own Arabic vocabulary has gotten five times better over the week—I now have five words in my repertoire.

The days are busy. We’ve taken multiple trips to Service Ontario for health cards (no luck yet), the doctor’s office, the grocery store, and of course Tim Hortons.

The young boys are adorable, frustrating, excited and lovable. In short, they’re typical three- and one-year-olds. The three-year-old is especially fascinated with our culture’s love of dogs. They don’t keep dogs in the house in Syria, and seeing dogs on leashes and wearing doggie coats continues to be a source of hilarity to him.

The cultural differences are much easier to bridge than I expected. Ahmed and Amena are young parents and have a great sense of humour. They are overwhelmed with so much newness and change, but they are ready for the challenges. We laugh off the awkward moments caused by language fails and just keep trying to understand each other. We’ve found that good intentions mean a lot.

It’s amazing that such extreme polar opposites of human nature have led Syrian refugees as a group to Canada. War, destruction and hatred forced them to flee their homes in Syria. But generosity, kindness and empathy have brought them here.

Everywhere we turn, we are astonished by people’s generosity. The family is living in a donated apartment in mid-town Toronto; they “shopped” for free clothes at a storefront that has grown into a full-time volunteer operation; they have access to free dental clinics that have been set up; a group of mothers in my neighbourhood provided welcome baskets; our translators give up their weekends and evenings to help; and volunteers donate their time and money whenever we ask.

We are starting to see our city with new eyes. The need for affordable housing is so great that I am overwhelmed at how people manage. I am amazed at the newcomer services that are available, but also struck how challenging it can be that they are located at the edges of our city. Fresh produce and groceries are so expensive; I wonder how we are going to keep the family healthy on a tight budget. I have always been politically and socially active, but I now know that wasn’t enough.

Sponsoring a refugee family and parenting have something in common—the end goal is independence. In this case we’re working to ensure that Ahmed and Amena have the tools they need to make their own decisions for their family in this new country. We try not to spoil them, as our financial commitment to them is only for one year. But everything is so new, from signing a lease to the tantalizing shelves of the drugstore. Our job is to support, teach and mentor so that in a year from now they can live in Canada on their own terms.

The family is always thanking us, saying that coming to Canada was their dream for a new life. But we don’t want thanks—just being involved in their lives is enough. In the face of so much need, the hours I have spent on this project seem like nothing.

We wanted to change someone’s life, and I believe we have. In the process, our lives have been changed as well.

Read more:
I’m sponsoring a Syrian family
#WelcometoCanada: Kids welcome their new Syrian friends with open arms
Are we failing Syria’s children?

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