Kelowna residents were quick to welcome the Syrian refugees accepted into Canada in the early months of 2016.
Following through with an election promise, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government opened the borders to 25,000 refugees and 100-plus of those men, women and children were calling the Central Okanagan home by February.
Some families were government sponsored, while others were part of a smaller, more personalized model. Regardless, their arrival has challenged, changed and ultimately rewarded this community.
One of the families first to arrive in Kelowna were the Shahouds, from Homse, Syria.
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.
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, during an April event where refugee families met up for a potluck dinner and some social time. “We adapted quickly because we found good people, a good community and very good friends.”
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 wasn’t new to translator, 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.
What he found surprising was the perception Syrians held of their new country,
“I hear this almost every time…some people thought when (Justin) 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.”