The sound of children squealing in delight, punctuated by the lower rumble of adult chatter filled Trinity Baptist Church at a potluck supper held last Saturday.
Joyful noises aren’t unusual in the space where community events of varying kinds are held.
What was different, however, was the sounds were coming from 100-plus Syrians who have left behind lives marred by loss and upheaval and made the Central Okanagan home at various times during the last year.
Among those at the gathering was Mohammed Al-Shahoud, his wife Sara and their five children. They were the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Kelowna last July. As Mohammed walked around the room, greeting both sponsor and refugee families alike, it appeared clear that he was at home amid the hubbub.
“I call him the unofficial patriarch,” said one woman, when Mohammed came into view between rows of tables, where families had converged for dinner.
The Shahouds are from Homse, Syria; one of the first cities bombed by the government when the Arab Spring uprising began.
The Central Okanagan Refugee Committee sponsored Mohammed, Sara and the youngest five of their 11 children to come from Jordan, where they were seeking safety.
One of their older children, along with their own family, has since arrived in Canada as well.
In Syria, the family owned a business and had a large house. All was lost after their escape.
Now life is much smaller, albeit safer. Mohammed had a part-time job when he first arrived in Kelowna, but that ended and he’s now taking some programming that will help him be more employable in the future.
“Everything is good,” Mohammed said, Saturday, eschewing the services of a translator and putting his continually improving English skills to work. “We adapted quickly because we found good people, a good community and very good friends.”
The company of an increasing number of people who have a first-hand understanding of his plight was particularly welcome.
“Every family I meet here, they are happy and interesting,” he said.
Sara, his wife, offered a similar view of their experiences in Kelowna.
“Most people have been very nice,” she said, using the services of translator, Ehab Ghanem.
“Especially the sponsor families…We can see this being our home (for the longer run), if this is God’s will.”
Hearing people who have suffered inconceivable indignities in just the last few years express thanks to the community that welcomed them isn’t new to Ghanem. He is Egyptian and one of a handful of Arabic speaking residents of the Okanagan who volunteer to translate for the Syrians who were moving to the valley.
“At first they are afraid of the past and afraid of the future,” Ghanem said. The war killed more than 250,000 people across Syria and forced at least 10 million to flee.
The past leaving scars was of no surprise to Ghanem, but what he has found surprising is why the future caused such trepidation.
Hundreds of refugees arrived in Canada at the tail end of 2015, while the total number rose to 25,000 by the end of February.
Highlighting the change in tack from the previous government, newly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a number of messages encouraging Canadians to welcome their new neighbours.
“After all, we share values of love, hope and compassion—it’s what we do, and it’s who we are,” Trudeau said, in a taped Christmas message.
While Syrians were aware of what was happening, Ghanem said that and messages of its kind were viewed as a demand, making Canada’s new residents wary of the people they would be greeted by.
“I hear this almost every time…some people thought when Trudeau said, ‘We will welcome Syrians,’ that it was an order, not something that was truly coming from the people,” Ghanem said.
“They are shocked that people here are good by themselves and don’t need to be ordered to do something. It makes these guys want to return the favour, but they don’t know how yet.”
Carol and Barry Martin say Canada’s acceptance of refugees is just part of its character. And they have no doubt that the Syrians will give back—just like the Vietnamese refugees that went before them—and that they’re already adding to the community.
The Martins are members of the Mission Creek Alliance Church which, alongside Alliance churches in Kelowna and Lake Country, sponsored the Alasmar family in December. A wider network of Alliance churches has been tapped to further fund the family expenses.
Maher Alasmar, his wife Emtithal and their three boys, ages one to four (plus one more on the way), fled from Homs, a Syrian city decimated by war, and lived in a Lebanese refugee camp for three years.
“You’ve taken me from death and given me life,” Maher once told Carol, of the transition.
Despite the dire circumstance they lived in for so long, said Barry as he played a board game or two with a few children, they are remarkably well-adapted.
“This has been a wonderful experience,”he said. “It’s not a task to teach them English or to bring them to things like this. They are lovely, wonderful people.”
The Alliance church has people visit the family every week to chat, and teach English to Emtithal.
In turn, Emtithal is teaching her tutors a bit of Arabic.
Maher is taking classes downtown, and Barry said he’s doing “exceptionally well.”
“We took them all down to the Waterfront Park this winter, and the kids were there climbing and play-fighting and the husband and wife got on the swings and were delighted with it all,” he said, recounting a fond memory.
Work will follow when they have English down pat. Without that, he said, they won’t find work that will sustain them.
Finding employment isn’t something they fear will be impossible. The community is already embracing its newest residents.
“When we take Emtithal out for coffee, people ask if she’s Syrian, and when they find out she is, they’re delighted,” she said. “There are people out there who are bigoted, but that is not the norm.”
The children are also having a good time. One 10-year-old girl named Haya said that she was loving school, in a perfect Canadian accent. The longest she’d been able to be in classes before coming to Canada was one month.
When asked if she had made some friends, she offered an even more Canadian thumbs-up.
In addition to the smiling faces and squeals of happiness, sponsor families had countless anecdotes of children enjoying their new lives.
“If you want a nice human interest story, here’s one about our three-year-old, Abud,” said Carol.
“He was given a bike and he was over the moon about it. He got up early in the morning, and somehow got outside to where his bike was.
“Luckily, it was locked up, so he decided to just go to sleep next to it and that’s where his mom found him.”
Syrians with sponsor groups from around the Okanagan converge once a month for a get together. While their sponsor families are doing their best to fill the gap of family and friends, one organizer of the event, pointed out they are still isolated from each other as they’re spread far apart and few have a driver’s licences.
Mounties assign officer to help with new residents
Even the local RCMP are adapting to Kelowna’s new residents.
Const. Robyn Boffy is now a “newcomer liaison officer.”
“I will be of assistance if any issues arise,” she said at last Saturday’s potluck supper.
Top of her priorities this week will be teaching Syrian children who were recently gifted their own bicycles, the rules of the road.
“We’re going to have a bike rodeo,” said Boffy.
Training on how to work with the refugee population came out of Vancouver and Const. Boffy is the only officer in Kelowna assigned the task.
City politicians acknowledge new residents
Kelowna’s new Syrian residents were acknowledged by the city last Saturday at a potluck dinner.
Deputy Mayor Luke Stack issued a “certificate of welcome” to each of the families who attended the potluck.
“We welcome you to B.C.,” said Stack.
Kelowna, he added, strives to be fruitful in unity and in that spirit it embraces all the new Syrian residents as neighbours.