Members of a Syrian family that resettled here after escaping violence in their war-torn homeland are discovering many positives about life in Canada.
The weather, however, took a bit of getting used to.
“Cold! I (was) surprised,” said Ahmad Almohamad in a March 17 interview at his family’s home in Harriston, when asked about his first impressions.
All eight members of the Almohamad family – Ahmad, his wife Henan and children Kawkab, Nour, Abdullah, Rawaa, Abdulrahman and Arwa – were home for the visit during the school spring break.
It had been exactly five months since they arrived in Canada from Turkey, where they had lived in a refugee camp for over three years.
Previously, they lived in the Syrian capital of Aleppo, which has seen some of the most intense fighting between rebel forces and the government of President Bashar al-Assad since the conflict there began in 2012.
During an interview last fall, conducted shortly after their Oct. 18 arrival, Ahmad spoke through an interpreter, though he had some limited English skills learned at school in Syria.
This time, he was happy to put his improved language skills to work.
“I am liking English and like speaking English,” he stated proudly.
Henan and the children also offer greetings in English and their comfort level at conversation is impressive given their short time in Canada.
“We really notice the difference,” said Rev. Kathy Morden, of Knox-Calvin Presbyterian Church, a member of the Minto Refugee Settlement Committee that sponsored the Almohamads’ application to come to Canada.
“I think Ahmad is not afraid to give it a try, not afraid to speak and if he makes mistakes …” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
The progress in the language is clearly important to Ahmad, who along with Henan and three-year-old Arwa, takes English as a Second Language classes four mornings a week.
Finding a good, stable job, preferably laying ceramic tile, a skill he mastered in his homeland, is one of two stated goals. The other, says Ahmad, who proudly reveals he obtained his G2 driver’s license on Feb. 21, is to obtain a vehicle.
While the family never owned a car in Syria, they lived in a major city with public transit. Ahmad sees a vehicle as important to a family living in rural Ontario.
“English first. Then a good job maybe, good work and next maybe a good car, big for family,” he said.
Morden said, “Learning the English is the main focus right now. It kind of limits what you can do in the day.” She added Ahmad currently works part-time at Speare Seeds in Harriston at a seasonal position expected to end in May.
The Almohamads’ older children, who range in age from six to 13, had some English skills before arriving and have picked up the language quickly and are doing well in school, said Ahmad.
Several of them have signed up for a local soccer league this summer and are looking forward to playing on a field the game they enjoyed in the streets of Aleppo.
Ahmad, who’s brother and sister are still living in camps in Turkey, said his family members miss their relatives and friends from home.
“For family here, (it’s) difficult. No visit with Arabic families,” he notes.
Morden added, “They don’t have a lot of contacts, but the children certainly are making friends.”
Settlement committee member June Macdonald said the community has been a big help to the family.
“The community’s been really supportive and very open,” she said, noting the committee had local health care providers and other supports in place for the family before its arrival.
And community members volunteer to drive family members to medical appointments, shopping trips and to attend a mosque in Kitchener.
Asked what he likes best about Canada, Ahmad offers, “It’s quiet. Canada good, peaceful, good, clean.” He points out there are “No bombs,” like the shells that destroyed his house in Aleppo.
He also said he was pleased to discover there is no hierarchy which automatically places some families above others in Canada. While he struggled to express the concept in English, his meaning quickly became clear.
“Every people same. No people strong – the police not, that’s important. I like this,” he said. “Police and maybe family strong in Syria, take from family (that is) poor. And police no good. Come for some money, maybe 18 per cent. Some police good, but some police, no good.”
However, despite the challenges, Syria was home and Ahmad knows the country will never be the same.
Speaking of his house in Aleppo, Ahmad said it was much smaller than his family’s new residence. Then, turning serious, he says, “House gone. Bomb.”
With hurt plainly evident in his voice, he continues. “Syria finished. No country. You see on the News.”