Over 40,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since November 2015. We gathered the stories of three mothers who came to Canada 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 as a mother.
Zaka Alsaleh, 35
Husband: Abdullah Darwish
From Aleppo, Syria
Left Syria in 2013 and moved to Turkey
Arrived in Canada July 14, 2016
Mom of six: Fadileh (age 17), Fatimah (age 15), Mohamad Nour (age 11), Rama and Reem (twins, age 8) and Reham, now five months old (born Dec. 30, 2016).
Zaka and her husband, Abdullah, packed up their family of seven and left their home in Aleppo, Syria in 2013. They spent about three years in Turkey before coming to Toronto as privately-sponsored refugees in the summer of 2016. Zaka was four months pregnant when they arrived, and she gave birth to baby Reham on December 30, 2016. The family now lives in an apartment in a converted house in downtown Toronto.
What made you decide to leave your home in Aleppo?
We had to leave because it started to become too dangerous. The shelling was hitting buildings on our street. We were especially afraid of being hit because we lived in an apartment on the top floor. When we left, we only took the basics, like clothing for the children. At the time, we didn’t think we would be away for long.
What was life like for your family in Turkey?
It was safer in Turkey than in Syria but the educational opportunities for the children weren’t good. They had to go to schools just for Syrian refugees, segregated from the regular schools, and there was no future there for the older children in terms of eventually going on to university.
What did you know about Canada before applying to come here?
All we knew is that Canada had good education and healthcare, and no discrimination. I did not have any big expectations, and I was a little worried about the cold weather and what life would be like here. But the people we have met here have all been very nice and they quickly made me feel welcome and comfortable. I didn’t have to be so worried. And I don’t think it’s too cold!
How did your experience of pregnancy and birth in Canada compare to what you had experienced with your previous children?
It wasn’t so different compared to what I’d experienced at the hospital in Syria. But it was certainly different than what I would have experienced in Turkey. In the hospital there, they don’t allow the labouring woman to have anyone with her during the birth. My sister-in-law gave birth in the hospital in Turkey and I was not allowed to go in to see her. A woman standing by the hospital room door threatened to call the police if I tried to get inside to be with her. I was early in my pregnancy at the time, and I was just praying to get to Canada in time to not have to give birth in Turkey.
My labour with Reham was about ten hours, so I was happy to be able to have my husband and sister-in-law and a friend with me. I liked having a baby here—my doctor was very attentive and the level of care at the hospital was excellent. I told my husband, it was such a good experience, it almost makes you want to have another baby to go through it all again! It was difficult to be without my mother and sisters, but our Canadian sponsors have been so supportive that I feel as if they are family now.
I heard your sponsors threw you a baby shower. Did you receive any baby items that are different from what you used with your older children?
Reham received so many things—more than what she needs! The one item that I hadn’t seen in Syria is the electronic baby swing, that rocks by itself. I used to sit and rock all my children to sleep in my lap. But it was tiring. That little chair is so convenient.
What are your hopes for your family’s future?
“It was my first baby and I was afraid.”
I wish for my children to continue their education and for Reham to grow up here. As for myself, I hope the war ends soon and I get to go and see my family. My mother hasn’t met the baby. We try to use Skype, but we can’t very often because of the time difference, and the network isn’t reliable in Syria. I would like to be able to go for a real visit someday.
Translation and interpretation by May Tartoussy, Fawz Khammash, Jessica Radin and Haneen Tamari. Interview by Kalli Anderson. Photos by Jenna Wakani.