Thank you, Canada

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"I would like to thank everyone for being here today," thirteen-year-old Syrian refugee Seham Alomar says, giving her first big speech in English. "I've been in Langley for three months. I feel safe now, and I'm happy with the school system in Langley...." She looks down, struggling.

Unable to hold back the tears, she buries her face in her small hands and weeps. Her mother walks up to the podium and embraces her, while the interpreter translates her words from English to Arabic for the crowd of Syrian refugees gathered at the 'Thank You Canada' event organized by the Langley Community Services Society in B.C.

Seham left behind her older sister, Yaman, in Lebanon. The family received a phone call from the UN Refugee Agency at 9:30 p.m. — hours before a morning flight to Canada. They were told told Yaman could not travel with them because she had recently married, and needed to re-do her application.

"My happiness would have been complete if I had my sister," Seham continues, composing herself. "She is far away. This makes it hard for my family. I hope for the day that my sister can share this moment with us...Thank you, Canada."

Stepping away from the podium, Seham is met with hugs and applause. She's been very busy over the last five months helping her mother care for her disabled siblings.

She's struggling to learn a new language and adjust to Canadian society. It's a lot for a 13-year-old to handle. And when you listen to her speak, there are unmistakable hints of high hopes and anxiety that you can hear in her voice. They are the same sentiments shared by many of the refugees who have arrived from Syria this year.

Chapter 1

Scars and resilience

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The event is cheerful and festive, with Arabic dance music pumping from speakers. To date, 1,600 government-sponsored Syrian refugees have settled in B.C.'s Lower Mainland since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened Canada's doors to 25,000 people fleeing Syria's civil war.

The new arrivals from Syria come dressed for celebration. Headscarves in sky blue and salmon pink dot the scene. Dark suits and leather jackets defy the summer heat.

The children are decked out, too: a handful of girls romp in fairy princess gowns, while boys run around the yard in blazers, dress pants and button-up shirts.

Parents take endless videos and snapshots of the children with their cellphones. The kids greet Canadian volunteers and media who wander into the scene, eager to practice their English.

"Hi! How are you?"

"Hello. Take my photo?"

Friends wrap their arms around each other to pose for pictures, shouting "thank you!" as they scatter off.

"Wait — one more, please..." a boy in a grey blazer mumbles, digging a hand in his pocket. He whips out a pair of sunglasses, perches them on his face and strikes a pose. "Okay, now!"

Photos by Jenny Uechi

Looking over the jubilant scene, it's hard to believe these families were fleeing a violent, chaotic war in Syria. Every single person in the crowd has lost a family member due to war or kidnapping and torture, parents attending the event say. In total, 11.5 per cent of the population — over one in 10 people — have been killed or kidnapped to date, according to a report by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research released in February.

And the signs of the conflict they've escaped are written on many of their faces. Some children have scars and stitch marks on their foreheads, possibly residual injuries from war or life in the camps.

Then there are the wounds that can't be seen on the surface—parents say their children have trouble sleeping or are afraid of loud noises. Some children seem to be mature beyond their years, animated bright smiles dissolving into bottomless stares the moment their parents' cameras aim elsewhere.

Syrian refugee thank you event in Langley, B.C., on June 9, 2016 by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

Earlier this year, United Way of the Lower Mainland invested in mental health programs for Syrian refugees, to be delivered by DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society and MOSAIC. Some young refugees tackled traumas through these programs with activities like painting small wooden boxes filled with items that made them feel emotionally secure.

Box decorated by recent Syrian refugee teens at Surrey's DIVERSECity. Photo by Jenny Uechi

Canadian refugee coordinators often worry about newly arrived Syrians being wary of police due to the situation back home, where police routinely jail civilians without cause. But many have warmed to the RCMP. Some even climb into the driver's seat of a police car, pretending to take it for a spin.

Photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

"We get a lot of refugees from places where the role of police was very different," Langley RCMP Constable (R) Rob De Boersap says. "We're here to help them understand we're here to protect the public. They can come to us when they need to, whether it's about crime or lost property. We're pretty approachable."

RCMP Constable (R) Rob De Boersap with attendees. Photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

At the ceremony, children gather for the national anthem, "O Canada." A smattering of older boys in the back rows do their best to sing along to the lyrics, but many of them stand awkwardly, not yet confident of the words. You get the feeling they will all know the anthem by heart long before next summer.

Chapter 2

Shattered but not forever

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Hazim Barsan photo by Jenny Uechi

Many of the newly-arrived Syrians are haunted by the war. They're heartbroken about being separated from family members who are stranded in refugee camps or in conflict zones.

Ali Barsan, a father of three from the city of Aleppo — a UNESCO world heritage site before the war — still remembers what life was like before the conflict began in 2011, while he was working in building construction.

"Things were good, before," he says through a translator. "You'd wake up in the morning, feel a beautiful breeze. You'd hear the sound of your mother cooking breakfast in the background. I lived in a big house, with our whole family. I'd see all my brothers. While going to work, the whole neighbourhood would say hello to me as I walked by. We had a really strong community. And after finishing work, I'd have time to sit with your family and friends, drinking coffee or tea, chatting and catching up."

Today, however, that life is a distant memory. Like Seham, he's consumed with dread for family members who couldn't make it to safety.

"It's been five years since I've seen my parents. My mother and father, as well as my disabled brother, are stranded in Syria and surrounded by IS (Islamic State)," he says. "My other brother reached Turkey, after 15 days of walking, climbing over mountains. He's homeless now, sleeping on the streets in Adana. Also, two brothers — Hassan and Yasser — went to work in Lebanon, and they simply disappeared. There's also my sister, and her child..."

Barsan says he left with his family in 2011, once it became clear he would have to choose sides in a violent civil war. There are a dizzying number of groups in Syria's multi-front war, and he didn't want to join any of them.

"Even though I'd already done my (mandatory) military service, the Syrian (government) army approached me and asked me to join again. But I didn't want to use weapons on my own countrymen. Right after that, the Syria Free Army also approached me to fight on their side. That's why I left."

Asked if he knows friends or neighbours who were forced to join the fight, Barsan covers his eyes and and walks away, excusing himself. Someone comforts him as he stands with his back turned, trying to collect himself. After half a minute, he returns.

"Since this war started, every family has at least one member captured, one killed," he says heavily.

Suddenly, Barsan pulls out printouts of photos from a folder. They're graphic photos of dead toddlers, limp and lifeless, babies covered in dust.

Translator/journalist Ahmed Najdat (left, in foreground dressed in black) and Ali Barsan (in grey suit). Photo by Jenny Uechi.

"These were children in Syria, killed during Eid," he says, referencing Eid al-Fitr — one of the most important holidays observed by Muslims, marking the end of Ramadan.

A Canadian resident extends her hand to prevent a nearby Syrian child from catching a glimpse of the photos, but it's soon evident that these images are nothing new for children who escaped the war.

Barsan's son, Hazim, takes one of the photos from the pile and holds it up. Barsan says his three children — two boys and a daughter — have trouble sleeping, and ask him what happened to their uncles. Barsan has worked with a translator to send letters to the Canadian government, pleading for them to approve applications for his siblings to come to Canada.

Like Seham Alomar, they feel fortunate for making it to Canada—they're among a tiny minority of applicants who cleared all the hurdles to get here.

But it is obvious they are only partly present for the celebration in Langley, preoccupied with thoughts of relatives who haven't been as lucky.

After her speech, young Seham looks distraught when asked about her sister.

"I can't describe her, because she's like an angel," she says, her whole body stiffening. "I feel I'm going to go crazy without her here."

Chapter 3

Navigating a safe new home

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From left to right: Langley Community Services Society HR manager and Arabic translator Mary Tanielian, Ryad Zerwin, Fatima Sua'ifan, Alia Hurkus, Issa Al-Hamdan, Hazaa Abdulrazak. Photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.

​Alia Hurkus, a lively and outspoken woman in a vivid blue scarf, is a single mother to three disabled children, and one adult son who helps her care for them. She's happy that her children are getting the care they need.

"Back home, no one was even able to figure out what was wrong. Here, they've done tests to figure out what the problem is, one of them has had an operation in one of the eyes. They've been following up with appointments."

Hurkus says the challenge is in getting to the hospitals. Because there are few specialists in places like Surrey and Langley where many refugees have settled, families with disabled children sometimes take four-hour bus and train trips to Vancouver and back for medical appointments.

"We really want to thank the Canadian government — locally, federally, provincially. When we were in the refugee camps, we weren't really treated as human beings. Since we arrived, even strangers ask if we need help. We've never encountered this before."

As the adults introduce themselves, they mention fragments of their life before the war. All are ordinary civilians and parents, who were going about their daily lives when the war broke out.

Mahmoud, a bespectacled man in a wheelchair, used to own and operate a clothing factory. Hazaa used to work as an electrician at a gas company. Another man worked in real estate, yet another in PR and communications.

From left to right: Langley Community Services Society HR manager and Arabic translator Mary Tanielian, Ryad Zerwin, Fatima Sua'ifan, Alia Hurkus, Issa Al-Hamdan, Hazaa Abdulrazak. Photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.

"Right now, I feel I should be speaking in English to you," Hazaa Abdulrazak tells National Observer through an interpreter. "Language is the hardest challenge. It's the key to integrating. It's just because the number of people was so huge — we hear Canada is used to taking in 8,000, not 25,000 — that this put a big strain on services. A lot of us, and some children, had to wait a long time before language lessons became available."

They share some of the difficulties they face, always mentioning in the same breath that they're grateful for the help they've received. Many have come with large families, and the Lower Mainland is an extremely difficult place to find housing on a tight budget. They're especially worried for women like Hurkus, who have developmentally disabled children. It's a problem faced by many in British Columbia, where the disabled and their families have seen a number of funding cuts in recent years affecting housing and public transit.

Chapter 4

Circles of support

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Nasrin Ajak. Photo by Jenny Uechi

Unlike privately-sponsored refugees, the government sponsored refugees at this event don't have a network of 'host' Canadian families to help them settle and adjust. Local volunteers and community groups work together to ensure the new arrivals have support and a receptive ear.

Nasrin Ajak, a Syrian student who came to Canada 18 years ago, knows firsthand the anxiety the refugees are going through.

"I have my family back there, of course," she says, in flawless English. "My three brothers are detained. The youngest...we were told he's dead. Under torture. I have my mom and dad, niece and nephew—those are my only family left. So many cousins were tortured to death. Uncles, too."

Asked if they were political, she firmly denies it. You didn't have to be, she says, for such things to happen.

Ajak is studying English at Kwantlen College. She's been volunteering tirelessly as a translator and providing moral support for the new arrivals ever since they started arriving on the West Coast.

For Canadians who want to help their new neighbours adjust to their new lives, she gives two pieces of advice.

"Please, just be patient with them. Give them a chance to get to know the society. They just need time. Speak with them and give them your smile. There's fear among a lot of Syrians that they're not welcome here. A smile would be enough."

B.C. MLA and environment minister Mary Polak, speaking at the event, extends a warm welcome to the attendees.

"I know that many times throughout that journey, you've been confronted by people who tell you they don't want you to come, and they want you to stay away. But I want to tell you, from my heart, as Canadians, as British Columbians, we're so happy you've found your way here," she says warmly, to loud applause.

Environment minister Mary Polak. Photo by Jenny Uechi

"I can't imagine the kinds of things you have struggled through, the tragedies you've seen. I can only hope to work together with my colleagues in government and my community to make Canada the most blessed home you can find."

United Way of Lower Mainland community and volunteer manager Gabriel Avelar encourages the refugees by sharing that he himself arrived from Brazil recently, and had managed to build a new life in his adopted home.

"Six years ago, I was a new resident of this community. I remember how hard it was to learn English," he says. "But do not be discouraged. This is a community that will embrace you every day. I know from my own experience, things will get better."

Photo of Gabriel Avelar by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud
Chapter 5

"It's beautiful here."

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Fatima Sua'irak photo by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

Fatima Sua’ifan arrived in Canada in February. It's only been five months, but she’s already able to give a full interview in English. After escaping Syria, she taught herself how to read and write in English. She smiles brightly every time someone compliments her language skills, but she’s quick to add that it was hard at first.

Arabic is ranked by the U.S. Department of Defence as category IV — the hardest category of languages to learn for native English speakers. It's not hard to imagine the difficulty goes both ways.

The 13-year-old says she's found great support at Riverdale Elementary in Surrey. “I like teachers here, people here," she said. "It’s beautiful here.”

The teenager beams thinking about joining her 15-year-old sister, Mariana, at Guildford Park secondary school. While many teens view school as a chore, Fatima couldn't be happier to go.

She still vividly remembers the day she left Syria. It was early morning, around 3 a.m. Fatima, four siblings, her mum and dad, her grandmother, and a few other relatives took a car and then they walked — all the way to the Jordan border. After they crossed, they were held in Za’atari refugee camp for nine months.

None of the children were able to attend any kind of schooling during that time, she says.

Fatima tried to continue educating herself, but says it was hard, with no teacher. She was finally allowed to go back to class when her family moved to Ramtha, in the northwest Jordan. “We had math, science, and English — but it wasn’t very good,” she remembers. Syrian children were usually taught in the afternoons, in shifts different from those of the local Jordanian kids.

Once the process to come to Canada started, her schooling was halted again. When they landed in B.C., the Sua’ifan family was placed in a hotel and their newborn baby had to be hospitalized for some 60 days. “He came to Canada being one month old. He stayed in the hospital for two months, because he was so sick and tired," she explains, relying on the words she'd recently learned.

Fatima says it's not an easy road ahead, but feels the challenges will be nothing compared to what her family has already been through. She still sorely misses her grandmother, who used to live with her but had to flee with her uncles to Saudi Arabia.

Still, the teenager remains upbeat, with only positive things to say about her new life.

“I don’t need anything. I have everything here, and people from Canada like my family."

Photo by Jenny Uechi

Photo by Jenny Uechi
Additional reporting and photography by Valentina Ruiz Leotaud. Arabic-English translation of interviews by Ahmed Najdat.

This article is part of a series on the Syrian refugees in Canada in partnership with United Way of Lower Mainland. National Observer has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories meet its editorial standards.