If Bassam Sua'ifan seems anxious to start his life up again, it's because he feels like a pause button was pushed the day he fled with his wife and children from Syria.
Things came to a grinding halt for the Sua'ifan family when government men came to visit the family in 2011, the year that anti-government protests against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were heating up.
"They didn't knock. They climbed in through the windows. They kicked open the door," Bassam explains, miming a soldier kicking down an invisible door.
Government security forces stormed in as their then-young children watched. They stomped through the kitchen, smashed plates and cups, threw the food that Yousra had cooked onto the floor. They grabbed Bassam's brother and beat him as the family watched, helplessly screaming. They grabbed Bassam's prized motorbike and set it on fire.
"There was no reason for it," Bassam says with a mystified shrug. "They weren't even looking for any information."
After deciding one day they couldn't take it anymore, Bassam and his wife woke the children up at 3 a.m., and snuck out the door. Their grandmother, and a handful of relatives from their households, followed. They piled into cars and they drove as close as they could to the Jordanian border. They then ditched the vehicle, and began a grueling six-hour hike across rivers and mountains to cross the border.
"It was very hard for my mother," Bassam says heavily. "She was 67, 68."
The years he spent in Jordan after fleeing Syria are a painful story of high pressure conditions.
The family spent four years in Jordan, but Bassam said there was almost no possibility of his family thriving there.
Even after Bassam moved out of Zaatari refugee camp out to a basement suite in Ramtha, a small town in the north of Jordan, he said locals often treated Syrian refugees as outsiders. Bassam was not allowed to legally work (though many Syrian refugees did, at the risk of deportation). His children were separated from Jordanian children at school, and made to come to class at different hours from Jordanian students.
His bright teenage daughter, Fatima, crinkles her nose when asked about her memories there, saying that while some people were very kind toward them, others verbally attacked her family, calling them "bad words."
Bassam was hurt by the conditions in Jordan, knowing his older daughters were brilliant students who had the potential to become doctors or lawyers.
"In Syria, and even Jordan, my children always worked hard and got good grades," he says. "I know they will become something when they grow up."
Rebuilding a community
After almost nine months here, Bassam describes Canada as a place with "all doors open," where anything is possible.
"I think I can be a truck driver for farms, like before," he says. "Or, I am thinking of opening a business. An Arabic food store. I might bring some of my friends together to work on an application to get a business license. There are a lot of Arabic people who have moved here, and this might be an opportunity."
Back in Daraa, in southwest Syria, Bassam worked transporting produce from farms: zucchinis, tomatoes, all kinds of vegetables, depending on the season.
Bassam lives with his family today in Surrey, British Columbia, where sprawling greenery and farms remind him of home.
Recently, Bassam took a driver's license test to be able to use the extensive work experience he had back in Syria. He narrowly failed that exam, and is scheduled to re-take it in November. He's optimistic he can eventually succeed.
Earlier this month, Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum said, when asked about the potential for refugees coming to Canada with no English skills, that he's confident they will eventually find employment.
"You have to understand that we brought in people who were extremely vulnerable. Often, they – almost always, they don’t speak English or French and they have little education. So it takes a while to equip them for success in jobs," he told reporters on October 19. "The good news is that past waves of refugees have succeeded and the children of refugees actually do better than Canadians in terms of education and post-secondary. And so if you take a longer term point of view, I think it’s a great investment for Canada."
While it's not clear at this point what kind of life will unfold for the Sua'ifan family once government aid runs out next February, Bassam is confident he will be able to find some way of entering the workforce. His English is improving slowly, and he wants to build stronger relationships with Canadians so they can find a way to integrate better into the society.
But for now, every day, his time is occupied helping other Syrian refugees adjust to life in Canada.
National Observer met with Bassam Sua'ifan in July, at a 'Thank You Canada' event initiated by Syrian refugees at the Langley Community Services Society. We hope to track him, and families like his, over the course of a year to document their journey to building new lives in Canada.
On a grey October afternoon, an elderly Syrian woman sporting a short brown haircut, walks through the glass door of a nondescript building in the Guildford area of Surrey.
Bassam greets her with a warm smile and handshake. She tells him she's interested in finding work in Canada, possibly teaching or babysitting young children. Bassam assures come to the right place—they're just about to start a workshop relating to Canadian children.
Not long after she arrives, a Syrian couple comes walking in from the rain, the man carrying a large laptop bag.
Canada now has settled over 30,000 Syrian refugees, and plans to take in more. Of the roughly 3,000 who have made the Lower Mainland their home, around 44 per cent have settled in the multi-ethnic hub of Surrey—the fastest growing city in Metro Vancouver.
He and a team of Arabic-speaking volunteers have just opened up a brand new Refugee and Immigrant Welcome Centre building, to help newly arrived refugees from Syria and other countries. Bassam got in touch with an Egyptian-Canadian immigrant, Samir Youssef, who helped raise money from faith groups to renovate a former halal meat shop into a beautiful office. It's located in an area known as "Little Baghdad," with an Arabic food store, a donair-and-coffee shop and an Iraqi restaurant around the back.
New refugees walk in from the rain for a cup of tea and discussion about their problems, for help with applications and job opportunities.
Bassam asks them to feel at home, and help themselves to fresh coffee or tea as they share their struggles with daily life in Canada.
"All of these people have been through so much already," he said. Although Syrian refugees are generally happy to Canada, the long waiting times to reach settlement services has left many feeling like "just a number" in Canada's large system, he said. He makes it a point to welcome everyone warmly, offering a listening ear in Arabic to hear them out.
Every day, for the past few months, it's been like this. Some days, Bassam spends hours talking to refugees and participating in seminars at the centre. Other days, he goes out to see struggling families, including a struggling single mother with developmentally disabled children. Last month, he accompanied a young Syrian man to the hospital after he'd been attacked by a dog and needed stitches.
At his own house a few blocks away, he stores mobility aid devices donated by Canadians, and distributes them to refugee families in need. "The other day, I gave one to a Canadian who needed it," Bassam says.
In the past few months, Bassam emerged as a kind of community organizer for Syrian refugees in Surrey. He keeps in touch with new arrivals constantly through mobile apps such as WhatsApp and LINE. He works with a small constellation of Arabic-speaking volunteers in Canada who arrived from countries like Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon.
Bassam used to do similar work back in the Za'atari refugee camps in Jordan. He helped distribute food to the 80,000 refugees in Zaatari, and at one point even met actor Angelina Jolie and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"There wasn't always enough food for everyone. Some people would cheat, or fight, to get more food," he recalls.
Bassam doesn't like to dwell on life back in the camps. But Saleem Spindari, a former Iraqi refugee who now works as manager for refugee settlement support projects at MOSAIC BC, recalls of his time as an Iraqi refugee during the 90s in Turkey:
"It was the worst time of my life. Two of my nieces died there, due to malnutrition and harsh conditions in the camp. We had money, but no food because you couldn't just buy food."
Since that experience, Bassam has continued to be involved in the lives of other refugees. Some Syrian refugees have come to Canada with severe challenges, such as a developmentally disabled child whose need for 24-hour care leaves the parents housebound and socially isolated.Others have more mundane concerns. One man, a former cab driver, complains that his new residence in Surrey is full of mice. "I've seen seven so far," he says morosely, worried that they'll spread disease to his young children.
Away from the centre, Bassam visits families to see if they are coping and adjusting. He brings bread to a single mother with three disabled daughters in need of constant care.
Many of them have become family friends, and come to his home, where he's set up a traditional room with cushions and mats for guests to come by and discuss.
A home away from home
But not everybody settles into a new life at the same pace.
Bassam keeps himself busy, and doesn't appear to pine for Syria the way some refugees do.
He's managed to bring all of his children to Canada — Mariana, 15, Fatima, 13, Yusra, 11, Yousef, 6, Mohamed, 4, Rahaf, 3, and Karam, 10 months. The older five are all in school now and rapidly picking up English.
But his wife, Yousra Alqablawi, has had a harder time adjusting.
Even though she's a gracious host toward guests in her home, with a smile lighting up her strikingly beautiful features, there are some days an overwhelmed look appears in her eyes.
She's been crying almost daily because her mother has become very sick in Turkey, where Arabic is not the official language. It's a country that has taken in almost two million refugees from Syria, where local compassion has lately been soured by resentment toward newcomers. Yousra wants to fly to Turkey to see her sick mother and offer support. But with four small children in her care, she doesn't have any time to take driving lessons, much less fly to Turkey.
Her face is filled with joy when her sister reaches her by video call, asking how everybody has been.
Yousra puts the phone on speaker, so that all her daughters can listen in and show their faces.
Fatima explains in English that her parents had a well-known family farm in Syria, which was passed down the family for generations. Both Bassam and his wife were raised by parents who worked as farmers. They grew up with the practice of growing vegetables and fruits, so they could always be self-sufficient off the land.
"We were well-known through the neighbourhood for our vegetable garden," she says. Stretching out her arms, she says it was "so big," several times larger than the plot of land in the back yard of their rented home in Surrey.
"We had great lemon trees, olive trees, pomegranates," Bassam added.
Fatima's earliest memory, in fact, was walking in the gorgeous family farm, walking between the green stalks and leaves.
Today, the Sua'ifans have started recreating pieces of their former garden, one vegetable at a time. Fatima beckons me to the front yard, where green chilli peppers hang from vines her parents planted early this year. She takes me behind the fence to the back yard, and proudly shows off the juicy tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, large grape leaves used for dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice), okra, and mulukhiya (a leafy green common in the Middle East).
Yousra walks into the garden in her sandals, plucking ripe green cucumbers into a plastic bowl.
She uses vinegar to pickle cucumbers and radishes herself — they're crunchy and delicious. Yousra grows as much of the family's food as she can and picks fresh tomatoes, chillis and cucumbers for their meals. She's a master at cooking homemade Arabic bread with sesame seeds and spices to accompany her elaborate and delicious home-cooked meals, which the children prefer to any food that can be ordered from a restaurant.
A "painful story"
“I hate the word refugee," Bassam says darkly, through a translator. "We're basically the same people. It's just the time difference. We came later to Canada, other people came before."
To combat negative stereotypes of Syrian refugees, Bassam has been active and social since arriving. While the family was still living in a hotel awaiting permanent housing, Bassam walked out to different churches to introduce himself and let them know his family was here to become friends with Canadians.
He's kept with locals who have met his family, and meets them as often as he can.
A family crisis hit when Bassam's baby son, Karam, fell severely ill with heart problems.
Doctors in Jordan, he said, were indifferent to their situation and demanded an exorbitant amount of money to save his son's treatment — money the family didn't have.
It was then that the family got the call that they were accepted to go to Canada.
The family was unsure whether they could go with their baby being so ill, but realized he would likely die if they didn't take the chance. As feared, Karam became exhausted and sick during the journey to Canada, and had to spend two months in intensive care once he reached Vancouver. Yousra and Bassam visited their baby son daily, anxious and hopeful that he would pull through and survive.
Today, Bassam holds Karam lovingly, singing improvised songs that incorporate his name into the lyrics. Karam’s survival feels like a miracle to the family. The small boy is now a healthy ball of energy, laughing and giggling and crawling on all fours.
“Happy baby!” Bassam says in English, as Karam squeals and waves his arms in response.