(SEE ACCOMPANYING REACTION TO SYRIAN REFUGEE SPONSORSHIP FROM MAN WHO COORDINATED THE REFUGEE COALITION AT LINK)
Mustafa Zakreet smiles broadly as he speaks about Salmon Arm.
“It’s a wonderful community, I got to know so many people here, I have so many friends.”
Mustafa is a member of one of nine families from Syria who have come to Salmon Arm over the past two-and-a-half years.
He came alone, the first refugee to arrive in town. He found learning English was essential.
Related: City prepares for refugees
“When I came here I had some English. But I’ve worked really hard to improve it in the last two years. When I first moved here I was the only Syrian so I had to speak it all the time,” he says. “That’s the key to starting in a new country, the language is.”
Mustafa recounts how his three-year-old niece woke up in the morning recently and said, ‘Good morning,’ instead of the Arabic word his family usually uses.
“I think they’re finding English easier,” he says of the children. “Arabic is such a tough language.”
He says the adults are pleased – but a little sad.
“Everyone is happy listening to them speaking English,” Mustafa says with a grin, but they hope they can hang on to their Arabic as well.
“Arabic is a big language in the world… If you have the opportunity, why would you want to lose it?”
He says his friend Lokman, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, speaks four languages now including English, and his children are learning all four.
Related: Preparing for refugees
Joining Mustafa in Salmon Arm in the six to nine months after he arrived were his dad Muhammad, two brothers, his sister-in-law and a niece. A second niece was born in Salmon Arm.
Another brother with two children and a sister remain as refugees in Lebanon, and another sister, in Jordan.
Mustafa’s mother and his older brother were killed by a bomb in Syria before Mustafa left.
He speaks of the realities of Syria and wonders why the world stands by to let it happen. He would also like to see more countries do what places like Canada, Germany and Norway are doing – taking in refugees. And then there’s the U.S. ban on Muslims while the Syrian government carries out atrocities on its citizens.
“Rights robbed by the dictatorship government and the (Syrian) president,” he says. “Kurdish people, for example, were not given passports, even though they were born and raised in Syria, they go to school in Syria – they’re not allowed to have a passport.”
He says people were thrown into prison all the time, no accounting was given of where all the country’s oil money went, and more.
“Big things – burying nuclear waste in our country, we didn’t get to vote – so many things we fought against,” he says, explaining that as a student he would attend protests.
“When the UN decided to get rid of Saddam Hussein, it happened really fast. But they can’t decide if he’s a dictator,” he says of the Syrian president.
“He’s killed beyond a million now, most of them children and women. I don’t know what else he has to do before the world decides it has to get rid of him…”
Mustafa points out that the president has used chemical weapons three times in Syria. He thinks about the message this gives to other dictatorships.
“You guys can use your chemical weapons and we’ll do nothing against it.”
More than 12 million Syrian refugees are scattered around the world, he says.
In Lebanon, more than 300,000 Syrian children under the age of 12 don’t go to school.
“It’s a very basic right. I don’t know what the world is expecting from these children when they grow up – they can’t write their names.”
Related: Happy to call Salmon Arm home
Mustafa has worked hard at his own education since he’s been in Salmon Arm. In Syria, he studied railway engineering and then environmental engineering. He took approximately 40 courses – about 120 credits – but doesn’t have official documents for them.
Since coming to Salmon Arm he has completed a year of college in Kelowna. Although he says little about his accomplishments, Brian Ayotte, former chair of the now-dissolved Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition, says Mustafa has been on the Dean’s List and “got astounding marks.”
He is now working at Lawson Engineering in Salmon Arm for the summer.
Mustafa says all of the families seem to be doing well; currently six are living here.
“I have a good relationship with all the families and all the kids as well. Probably because I was helping them when they first came.”
One moved to Montreal to be with family there, and is thriving. Another went to Hamilton to be with relatives but came back almost right away; one is on Vancouver Island and a third is in Sweden with family.
Mustafa’s brother Ahmad has been working at a chicken farm for several months, while Ahmad’s wife Fatima just got her driver’s licence a few weeks ago and takes care of their two daughters.
Being able to drive is important for all the families, he says, so they can be independent. He says it’s not religion or custom that keeps women from driving in Syria – as it was in Saudia Arabia – but expense. While Mustafa’s family was part of the middle class in Syria, cars were too expensive to own.
All the families have a shared focus: working and learning English. He refers to the one-year sponsorship each family received. For some, “I expected that after one year, it would not be enough time to get a job and speak English. They’ve got a job, English is better than expected, they’re all doing very well.”
One highlight was when they all went skiing at Larch Hills one day last winter.
“Could you imagine Syrians skiing on the snow? he says, looking askance. “It’s something we’re not used to at all.”
There was lots of laughter that day.
“Especially when someone falls, especially when it’s Hussam – he’s a big guy, a funny guy.”
The families have also been together regularly for the holy month of Ramadan, a month that concluded with Eid al-Fitr, a huge three-day Islamic celebration.
During the month there is fasting, which Mustafa says is done so those fasting can feel how the hungry and poor feel, and not waste the food that everyone on the planet must share.
“There is a quote I really like about food and being hungry. ‘Poor people run for food and rich people run to digest their food.’”
Mustafa speaks about his love for Salmon Arm and area.
“I don’t know if people realize they do live in such a beautiful area compared to other places in the world.”
When he and a friend go to work each day, they always say: “Another day in paradise.”
He would like to spend the rest of his life in Canada, and hopes to apply for citizenship in three months.
“I can’t wait to be a citizen. Obviously you would miss a lot from your country. But looking back at the country, the corruption, the war and no solutions – and you have all the rights. There is nothing you can’t adapt with, everything is adaptable.
“We are all the same. People sometimes think Syrian people are different. I don’t think that’s the case. We’re not that different. We can adapt with the culture. In the end we are all human. Probably a different colour sometimes, a broken accent, different clothes or traditional clothes, but we all have the same brain function, feelings and emotions, they’re all the same.
“There are some barriers that can be broken easily by approaching from both sides.”