Back to school

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Eleven-year-old Uday Al Hamdan bursts gleefully through the door, thrilled to show his parents his first report card.

He's been out of school for three whole years because of the war in Syria, and has just completed an English course near his new home in Langley, B.C..

Pointing to two words on his assessment, Uday reads proudly in English: "good progress," and explains what the words mean.

Issa Al Hamdan looking at his son's report card. Photo by Jenny Uechi

Uday Al Hamdan showing his father his teacher's remarks. Photos by Jenny Uechi.

​Uday's parents, Issa and Roqaya, beam at the signs of improvement. Already, Uday can understand many of the questions lobbed his way and answers in English before an interpreter has a chance to translate.

How long has he been in school?

"Two months," he answers.

Does he have friends at school?

"Yes! Big friend. No..." He corrects himself. "Many friends."

He says he loves playing soccer, and is over the moon that he gets to play basketball once a week with his class. When asked about his favourite team, his answer seems driven by polite courtesy to Canada. Real Madrid? Chelsea? No, he shakes his head, squirming to remember as he glances at his father for help. Issa smiles and gently offers a clue. "White..."

"...Whitecaps!" Uday finishes, referring to the Vancouver Whitecaps — the local soccer team. ​

He talks about recently seeing a home with a swimming pool in Canada, and wistfully wishes he could go swimming in one — or even, one day, visit the beach. It's a world away from the nightmarish conditions he's escaped in Syria, where he was surrounded by the sound of bombs shelling his hometown.

The Al Hamdans' home is devoid of anything resembling decor. But the English word "Happiness" is emblazoned across the front door — a reminder of the family's aspirations as they begin life anew in Canada.

Chapter 1

New beginnings in Langley

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Roqaya Mousa Almelli with her daughter, May. Photo by Jenny Uechi

The Al Hamdans' quiet townhouse complex is now home to thirteen Syrian refugee families all living near central Langley, an hour's drive from Vancouver. The Canadian government accepted 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February, and 1,600 of them have settled in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Around 70 have made Langley their new home, with a new wave of arrivals expected this fall.

Outside the Al-Hamdan's home, a young boy gleefully zooms by on a bike as his father calls out in Arabic, “Shwey, shwey!” ("Easy, easy!")

Nearby, a trio of women in pale headscarves and jeans rush down the stairs and pile into a car.

Issa Al Hamdan looks outside from the balcony at the clear summer sky. He and his family arrived in Canada in February with his three young sons — Gosay, Uday, Ubay — and a feisty three-year old daughter, May, who high-fives this reporter. The couple now has a fifth child now on the way.

“It’s both good — and bad,” Issa says through a translator with a bittersweet smile. "On the one hand, we're surrounded by people who share our culture. But our neighbours speak Arabic, and so do our children, playing with other kids in this area. If it's possible, I'd love to move to Vancouver, or somewhere that forces us to speak more in English."

Ubay Al Hamdan and his sister, May. Photo by Uday Al Hamdan.

Although the Canadian government has been praised for opening its doors to more Syrian refugees, language remains a key barrier. With few translators available, Issa grapples with translation apps on his phone to navigate day-to-day life, everything from booking appointments to getting Shaw internet set up.

But his children — all 12 years old and under — are rapidly picking up words at summer school. What's more, Issa's wife, Roqaya, is about to give birth to the family's first Canadian-born child.

"A daughter," she beams. Her baby is due, but Roqaya still bustles around busily, cooking, cleaning and keeping her rambunctious young sons and daughter in check.

Roqaya Mousa Almelli. Photo by Jenny Uechi.
Chapter 2


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The family is from Daraa, which became known as the "cradle of the revolution" in Syria.

Daraa, which means "fortress” in Aramaic, made global headlines after 15 teenage boys were arrested for painting graffiti with anti-government slogans that sparked the Syrian uprising of 2011. They spray-painted the famous catchphrase of Arab spring — "The people want the fall of the regime" with an added line, "Your turn, doctor," referring to Bashar Al Assad's training as an opthamologist.

Five years on, the brutality of Syria's civil war has continued to shock the world — images such as three-year-old Ayman Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach in Greece, or of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting dazed and bloodied after an air strike, have come to symbolize the plight of Syrian civilians. They're damned if they stay, and damned if they try to make the dangerous journey abroad. Even those who do escape often fall victim to sexual slavery, child labour, and forced underage marriages.

The Al Hamdans were among an exceptionally small minority of 11 million Syrian refugees who not only escaped with their lives, but also made it to a country where public support for them is relatively high.

Screenshot of five-year-old Omran from AMC video

The family insists none of them are political in any way. Issa disapproves of the regime, but said no member of his family is politically active. Issa is a floor tile installer, a trade he picked up after dropping out of school in grade 10 to support his siblings. (He fell in love at first sight with Roqaya as a youth while installing granite counters in her family's home).

While many Syrians have fond memories of their country before the war, Issa most clearly remembers the stifling oppression that permeated every part of their lives.

"It was safe, before, and economically stable — but we also didn't have any dignity under that regime," Issa says. "You couldn't say a single word against Bashar Al Assad, or you'd be thrown in prison for 10 or 15 years."

Issa says his life was a busy routine of work and caring for his young children, with no time for hobbies or leisure. He was stunned by how quickly this routine of normal life unraveled when the Syrian army declared war on insurgents.

"You'd look outside the window and see bodies of beheaded people on the street, which was very hard on the children," he remembers grimly. "The price of everyday items suddenly shot up. Suddenly, the bread in markets was 12 times more expensive than it used to be, and no one could afford it. We were so hungry there, and people were reduced to eating cats and dogs, even grass and the leaves to survive. This just wasn't done before.”

Roqaya recalls one interminable period she and the children spent in an underground bomb shelter when the air strikes intensified.

"It was like my world turned upside down," she says. "I was told all the women and children needed to hurry into underground shelters, because the planes were going to drop bombs on us. So we rushed in, one hundred of us, into two rooms. It was so dark and cramped. I don't think anyone was prepared for this at all. No one had brought food or water, so we had to sit for hours while the bombs exploded all around us. Since the adults were all terrified and crying, that affected the children too."

The Al Hamdans at first tried to wait things out in Daraa hoping the conflict would die down. But when his mother called to tell them Issa's name had shown up on a list of government enemies, they knew they had to run.

"I think it was all because I'd complained once about a garage didn't properly fix my car," Issa reflects, of the trivial reason that may have landed him on an enemy list. "During the revolution, people with personal grudges started to report their enemies' names to the government."

They fled in a hurry, with Issa traveling separately due to the added risk to his life.

"I took nothing — just the clothes on my back, and the kids," Roqaya throws her head back and laughs a little, trying to make light of the situation.

The family made it to a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Although they had escaped the war, staying there was not an option. Issa was jailed for a month for not having proper documents for his motorcycle, and suffered a heart attack while in prison.

Having made it to Canada, the family's concerns have shifted to loved ones left behind and the practical challenges of settling in a strange new country. Issa worries whether his children will do well in school, but is relieved that their biggest concerns now are homework, as opposed to dodging bombs or bullets.

"They sleep soundly very every night these days," Issa says, relief evident in his eyes.

Chapter 3

Tormented over family left behind

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Issa and Roqaya's smiles give way to tears and quiet weeping when they think about their other family members, thousands of miles away.

Issa has a heavy black leather portfolio filled with documents and pulls out the familiar, grainy photocopies of UN papers for relatives who remain caught in limbo in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

While many Western observers argue that Arab states need to step up and accommodate more refugees, some of Syria's neighbours have already accepted far more refugees than their infrastructure can handle. An estimated one in five people in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee, and with social services stretched to the limit, refugees are forced to look for work, often in exploitative conditions.

"People took advantage of our situation," Issa said. "Employers would have us work for as little as one-tenth of what we were normally paid."

Issa Al Hamdan showing papers from the UN. Photo by Jenny Uechi

In an anguished tone, Issa says some of his family members are coming, but that his young nieces and nephew may not be joining them.

"Their mother asked me, on her deathbed, to take care of them," Issa says. "It's like a will she left behind — we have to help them."

For months now, Issa been frantically booking appointments with translators, pleading with politicians to intervene and make sure the children get on a flight with their relatives. So far, the situation remains in limbo.

"These kids were badly abused by their stepmother when the father remarried. Zuhair, the 13-year-old boy, started wetting the bed and pulling out his hair as a result of the stress. He has bald patches, see," he says, pointing to white spots in the boy's photo.

Photo of UNHCR file, edited to delete registration number. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

The Al Hamdan's dilemma is shared by virtually every Syrian refugee who has found their way to safety. On the one hand, they're grateful beyond words to be in Canada. But their joy is undercut by a kind of 'survivor's guilt' for having escaped.

For some Canadians, it's hard to understand the emotions new Syrian arrivals feel toward what many of us would consider 'extended family.'

"The problem we run into is that our definition of 'immediate family' is far more narrow than theirs," says Jenny Kwan, the NDP citizenship critic whose office has been trying to help with the Al Hamdans' case. "Many Syrians live with their extended family. Often, the grandmother, the parents' siblings, all live in one family home. It's how their social structure is set up."

She refers to a "cultural divide," in which Canadian officials give far less attention to the reunification of extended family members.

"I hear from every Syrian refugee here that they're really happy and grateful, but they've left loved ones behind, and it weighs heavily on their minds."

NDP MP Jenny Kwan at her East Hastings, Vancouver, office. Photo by Jenny Uechi

Kwan says it's effective to get help from the riding's MP and write letters to Citizenship Minister John McCallum, asking for an intervention. There is a one-year time limit for refugees to apply for their immediate family members who were on the original application to come to Canada, and with many Syrian refugees now approaching the six-month mark, time is quickly running out.

Kwan worries that many Syrian arrivals in Canada are being left in the dark about family reunification. She also worries what will happen when federal financial aid runs out and the repayment bills kick in; some Syrian refugees have been asked to repay the travel costs, while others have not. One refugee family, she says, started receiving $600 monthly bills before any of them could land a job, and is resorting to donations from the food bank in order to save enough to keep up repayments.

"This separation and concerns about ongoing hardship and danger for loved ones continues to be significant sources of stress," said Vanessa Redditt, a Toronto-based based physician who has been working with Syrian refugees since last year. "Providing safe spaces for individuals to express these concerns, connecting folks to community programs to help with socializing, learning English, and staying engaged can support people in their transition to Canada and can help in managing these very real ongoing stressors."

Saleem Spindari, manager for refugee settlement support projects at MOSAIC BC, said he and his team recently had to dissuade a young Syrian woman from flying out of Canada to assist her family.

Saleem Spindari. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

"We actually had a refugee family that came here, and within two months of arrival in Canada, the mother said she wanted to go back to Lebanon...She said, 'I feel terrible, I don't feel comfortable enjoying life here, knowing my parents are still in a bad situation.' It took awhile, but we convinced her it was not a good idea, because her kids are here now. For Canadians, we'd question why anyone would choose that, but in the Syrian context of family, they're really connected with each other, so if they leave a cousin behind, it's like leaving a close brother behind."

According to federal authorities, one possible route that can help reunite Syrian refugees with their families is private sponsorship or a "blended" visa, in which the federal government pays for half of the cost and local Canadian sponsors are responsible for helping the family settle in. But the government couldn't provide many details about how many more refugees it could accommodate.

"Syrian refugees may be able to reunite with their families through the private sponsorship or blended visa office-referred programs," Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada representative Nancy Chan said. Over the course of the summer, ministry staff have been consulting with Canadians about their views of new people coming into Canada. But they can't say for sure how many more Syrian refugees will be allowed in at this time.

"Until the 2017 Levels Plan is established, we don’t know how many refugees may be resettled next year."

Chapter 4

Translation: a lifeline for refugees

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Issa with phone translating Arabic, as five-year-old Ubay walks by. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Google Translate, SayHi and other apps for mobile phones have been a lifeline for Syrian refugees struggling to communicate.

Due to high demand, the Al Hamdans waited over a week for an appointment with the local Arabic-English translator in order to make inquiries about their family in Lebanon. The volunteer interpreters are overwhelmed too, busily assisting multiple families.

Al Hamdans ask the interpreter to stay for lunch and chat following our interview. Roqaya is making a rice dish with vegetables and meat, topped with grilled nuts, and salad and labneh (cream cheese) on the side. But the interpreter has to run before the meal — too much happening that day.

May Al Hamdan sitting down for a meal with the family. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Issa says it can't be helped. With so few Arabic speakers in the Langley area, volunteers are stretched to their limit (Kwan suggests the government would be able to find more interpreters if they engaged smaller grassroots associations set up by former refugees).

But even with the interpreter out of the room, the conversation continues to flow in a rudimentary way, thanks to translation technology. When this reporter types out a question on Google Translate, a flash of understanding lights up in their faces, as they nod and reply in basic English.

Issa frequently speaks into his phone, which picks up Arabic and spits out English translations in a robotic female voice. Sometimes, the translation comes out laughably inaccurate, and it's a challenge to make the phone pick up Issa's voice while children are laughing and yelling in the background.

As Roqaya slips off into the kitchen, Uday tries to teach me about the movies he likes watching. His current favourite is Krrish — a Bollywood action series starring green-eyed hunk Hrithik Roshan, dressed in a black superhero costume, fighting mutant villains.

Asked how Uday became a fan of this Indian action series, he looks at me as if I'd been living under a rock for the past eight years.

Everybody knows Krrish,” he asserts. “India, Lebanon, Syria, and Canada.”

In the background, his mother is chopping carrots. Uday wanders in and out of the room, quietly singing parts of "O Canada," lyrics almost none of the newly arrived Syrians knew a month ago.

Roqaya Mousa Almelli photo by Uday Al Hamdan

The relaxed mood at the Al Hamdan's home proves temporary, however, as Issa starts to stress out over the short timeline for bringing his family to Canada. With so few Arabic-English interpreters on hand, Issa is working nonstop to get his nieces and nephew on board with their grandmother and aunt, who have been approved and are awaiting a flight.

He speaks into his phone to convey the utmost urgency of their situation: "Time is tight," the translated message reads.

He's also aware that time for them, too, is running out quickly. Federal funding will run out in six months, and despite the lack of English courses, Issa would like to find a job, and save up for their future. Having been forced to drop out of school himself as a teen, Issa doesn't want his own children to compromise on their dreams.

"I want them each to go as far as they can, and pursue their education to the highest level possible," he said.

The family is on pins and needles today, as Issa's brother Iyad is scheduled to arrive in Canada near the end of the month. They're nervous and worried about whether Zuhair, Marya and Rouya will be able to make it to safety.

Luckily, they won't be navigating these changes alone. The group of Syrian refugees who have arrived in B.C. earlier this year — spread out through Burnaby, Langley, Surrey and Vancouver — are constantly in touch with each other through a WhatsApp group, helping each other navigate challenges in Canada.

The kids will be starting school in September, this time joining other Canadian children. Uday says he's looking forward to joining bigger classrooms. His favourite subject is math, and he wants to pursue his dreams of becoming a civil engineer. He wants to build big projects, bridges, airports, homes. In a world scarred by war and destruction, it seems an incredibly fitting choice.

Al Hamdan family. Photo by Jenny Uechi

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.