From Syria to Caledon: new refugees share their stories
By Matthew Strader
It took me 30 minutes to realize how privileged I am.
I was sitting down to chat with Kamil Al Awil and Amir Khouri for the first time.
Kamil and Amir are Syrian refugees. They arrived in Caledon this month thanks to the work of faith groups and volunteers who entered the sponsorship process approximately a year-and-a-half ago and patiently waited.
I welcomed them to the Enterprise office to be able to share with our readers the trials they endured on their journey to Canada.
Refugees are the subject of outreach programs and charity supports right now, but also stories of suspicion and claims of criminality that simply don’t match the statistics. So I wanted to know all I could, even through a present communication barrier.
Amir is 33 years old, and from Damascus.
He has a music degree, plays violin and is a music teacher.
He left his home when the situation fell apart and he was suddenly a bystander in the midst of a civil war. He went to some of the border areas to try and find work, but others considered him a foreigner, and he could not find it. He lived in Lebanon, and ended up just existing, he said. He was taken in by a church organization and put in a shelter. There he was given the basic things to live but had nothing to do.
The shelter was very crowded, and all Amir could do was wait.
A Christian organization eventually reached out and offered him a process that would bring him to Canada.
He left his family behind. They are in a safer place, and happy for him, despite his feelings at being the one who got out. It’s the best plan for a strong, young male member of the family to come first, and try and establish a home for the rest.
His plan is to work. That was all either of them could speak of. Learning the language, finding work once they are ready and proving to everyone in Canada how grateful they are to be here.
Amir wants to make a family, bring his girlfriend over and find the life he knows he can.
Kamil is 30 years old. He is a hairdresser whose origin story to Canada is similar. His homeland was being torn apart by war, and he saw his home destroyed. He travelled to find work, and a better life for his family. That travel led him to border cities where he was treated as a refugee, and could find little.
He stayed for four years in Lebanon, trying to find work as a hairdresser, but could only make enough money to keep accommodations and the basics of food. He wasn’t allowed to work having to stay in a refugee camp, so he made money from those who would quietly sneak him work. He too was finally approached by a charitable organization and offered a chance to apply for movement to Canada.
The stories mirrored each other, and left a terrible taste in my mouth. How could people, such lovely, kind people, be left in a camp to basically exist? Why do we as a people create these situations?
And then, all those high level questions began to mean little as I tried to get some casual information for my story.
I wanted to be able to tell you about them.
And then I learned so much about myself.
The first thing I wanted to know is what their favourite thing about Canada was?
And I meant to have a little fun. I was personally hoping they would come back with maple syrup, hockey, maybe even a TV show they’d begun to admire that I could use to relate to my readers.
“Organized,” Amir said.
“It’s so organized.”
They’d been to some downtown areas with big intersections, and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Buildings all laid out and pretty. Sidewalks for people to stroll casually on, lights that told cars when to go, when to stop. Maps that easily showed you locations. Malls with ample shopping.
“It’s all so organized.”
What are your favourite things to do, then? I asked. On the weekends, in the evenings, how do like to spend your time?
Wait, what? You don’t have work yet. I looked at our translator and said, “I’d like to know a bit more about them. What it is they like to do, so I can tell people a bit more about them the person.”
And that was my lesson, and the moment I decided, if they let me, I’m going to make them a part of my life. I’m going to share with them everything I can, and help them as much as I can. And most importantly, I cannot wait for them to meet my children, so they can grow up without the perspective dad has in his head.
Have I ever felt thankful for sidewalks? Street lights? And the comfort within which I live. Heck, stand downtown and just look at what we’ve built. It’s like we live in a giant LEGO set. How many days have you spent appreciating it?
And when I asked about how they want to spend their evenings and weekends, they weren’t giving the answer they thought they were supposed to, they were being honest. These men like and look forward to work, whether it be employment, studying, language or even the life skills they will need to advance their lives, and the lives of their family. They feel that all of Canada has given them a gift, and they want nothing more than to begin working to prove they deserved it.
When you have nothing, you begin to appreciate everything, even the opportunity.
I was embarrassed that I thought one of them might come back with, “I tried maple syrup, and I love it.”
But I guess that’s the way the mind works, when you have everything and don’t realize it. You pine for things you don’t have. Things you don’t need.
I’ve never met two men so happy and proud to be in Canada, and with so much appreciation for everything this country is. And they’ve only been here a few days.
I am very glad I met them.
And I am looking very forward to learning from them more.