“We gathered our things and left. I was nine months pregnant.”

Since the end of 2015, thousands of Syrian refugees have begun their new lives in Canada. Three mothers, each pregnant when they arrived, share with us their experience in starting over and how they feel about raising their children in their new home.

Photo: Jenna Wakani

Over 40,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since November 2015. We gathered the stories of three mothers who came to Canada with their families last year. They were all pregnant when they arrived and have since given birth to some of Canada’s most adorable new citizens. We talked to each of them about their journeys to Canada, their impressions of Canadian parenting customs and the challenges of adapting to life in a new country.

Ibtesam Hamza, 36
Husband: Naser Hamoud
From Homs, Syria
Left Syria Dec. 27, 2013 and moved to Jordan
Arrived in Canada Jan. 6, 2016
Mom of seven: Duha (age 16); Hiba (age 15); Jafaar (age 12); Mohamad (age 7); Abdullah (age 5); Omran (age 3); Raneen, now 13 months old (born April 20, 2016).

Ibtesam Hamza and her husband, Naser, left Syria in 2013. They spent two years living in Jordan, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the capital city of Amman with Ibtesam’s mother, her two brothers and their families—five adults and 10 children in total. They came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees in January 2016, when Ibtesam was six months pregnant with her seventh child. They now live in an apartment in northwest Toronto.

Statistic for Syrian refugees in Canada

This post is part of The Canada Project. You can find out more by clicking the image above.

What made you decide to leave Syria for Jordan?
We had been staying with family outside of the city because it had become too dangerous in Homs. While we weren’t home, our home was shelled. And when we went back, all the windows were shattered, many walls were down, so we could not stay there. We gathered our things and we left. I was nine months pregnant at the time, with Omran.

How did you get to Jordan?
We were packed into a livestock truck for two days, sitting in a ball with my knees up at my chest, with my children around me, unable to move or stretch out. Then near the border, we had to get out and walk for five hours in the desert. As we arrived at the refugee camp in Jordan, I started to go into labour. As they were processing our papers, an officer saw me and my condition and let us through, otherwise it can take a week or more just to get processed. A doctor examined me, and when the labour became more intense they transferred me to a hospital in the city for a C-section.

Had you had a C-section before? 
No, that was my first one. They said it was necessary because my cervix wasn’t opening and the baby wasn’t descending, maybe because of sitting in that same position in the truck all that time. I was very afraid, especially because I was alone. They wouldn’t let my family in the room with me, and I was worried because we didn’t even have baby clothes with us. They put me under general anesthesia for the operation and I remember opening my eyes and just weeping. And then I saw my mother, but I couldn’t see the baby. In that hospital, they keep the babies in another room until you pay your bill and leave. My husband could see him through a window, but I only got to hold him for a short time and then they would take him back to the nursery.

When did you find out you were going to come to Canada?
At the end of 2015, we found out we would come to Canada. I was six months pregnant when we arrived in January 2016. I got a midwife and she arranged for me to have another C-section in a hospital here.

a syrian refugee mother holds her child

Photo: Jenna Wakani

How was this C-section compared to your first one?
A friend came with me for the delivery. This time I was awake and I wasn’t scared. I had my friend there beside me, supporting me. And I was curious to see what the doctors were doing. Then, when Raneen was born, they put her on my chest immediately. I loved that.

How have your older children been adapting to life in Canada?
School was very difficult for the younger ones at first because they never went to school in Jordan, and not while the fighting was bad in Syria. So I went with them for the first couple of months and stayed with the younger ones at school. And they still get very afraid at night. Here we have three bedrooms, but the three youngest boys still come in and sleep in our room every night. In Jordan they used to run and hide in the bathroom every time they heard a plane, and in Syria I had to remove shattered glass from my children’s hair after a bombing. So we are all still afraid when we hear loud noises. We live close to the airport, though, so now we are used to the planes.

What differences have you noticed in the way parents look after children in Canada compared to what you’re used to back home?
It is very different here! Canadians pay so much attention to their children from the moment they are born until they are in university. In Syria, when a baby cries, we first finish what we are doing at that moment and then see what the baby needs. Here it seems the children always come first. My husband is very protective of Raneen and he likes to joke that everyone has to be extra careful with her because she is our little Canadian.

What have you changed about the way you parent after moving to Canada?
In Syria, the babies slept in our bed, but here the nurse told us about using a crib, so that’s where Raneen sleeps. And we are using a car seat here for the first time, but she really doesn’t like it, so I have to sit in the back right beside her. And with the children, I can’t let them roam free outside. At home, a five year old can go and play in the street or go to the corner store on his own. Here, people don’t allow that. Things are more regulated here, but we are adapting to the Canadian way of doing things.  Zaka holds her new daughter in their apartment in Toronto
“I was just praying to get to Canada in time to not have to give birth in Turkey.”

What are some things that you haven’t changed, that you’ve done the same for all your kids?
I breastfed all my children. And the nurse here tried to tell me to do it a different way than I was used to, but I still did it my own way. And I use the same home remedies and special tricks. Like if the baby has a cough, I put tahini oil on a piece of newspaper and rub it on her chest. Or if she has stomach pain, I rub olive oil on her stomach and then wrap her up tightly and she will fall right asleep. That trick has worked for all my babies.

Translation and interpretation by May Tartoussy, Fawz Khammash, Jessica Radin and Haneen Tamari. Interview by Kalli Anderson. Photos by Jenna Wakani.

Read more:
16 kids’ books about refugees
A year of firsts: What sponsoring a Syrian family has taught me

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