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Fadia Jouny, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, has recently come back from Winnipeg where she gave a passionate presentation about First Nations, and why refugees need to learn more about their history.
“I feel very bad. We’re on their land,” she says in a soft voice, speaking in downtown Vancouver. Jouny expresses herself easily in English, despite missing school for most of her teens because of the war.
Since arriving in Canada in 2015, Jouny has been busy learning not just the English language, but also about Canadian culture, and Indigenous colonization, missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Jouny says fellow refugees are occasionally surprised by her interest in this topic. Why do you care about what First Nations went through? some ask her. The experience of displacement makes her feel close to them, she says.
“I feel I am the same as them, in some way,” she reflects. “The First Nations were moved from their land. I understand what that is like.”
Refugees are often not taught about First Nations when they begin the busy process of settling in British Columbia, says Chris Friesen, the settlement director for Immigrant Services Society of B.C. (ISSofBC).
He says there is "no consistent orientation for newcomers on First Peoples," but that the City of Vancouver was the first city as part of the local immigration partnership to develop a newcomers' guide on First Nations. He explains there will be more programming on a national level to provide that cultural context for newcomer youth in the upcoming three years.
But Bahar Taheri, an ISSofBC special projects coordinator who works with young refugees like Jouny, says she makes conscious efforts to teach newcomers from Syria and other countries about First Nations as part of Canadian culture.
"With the National Youth Leadership Project, which I'm supervising, First Nations history is part of the curriculum," Taheri says. Of the 35 youth she worked with to present in Winnipeg, six including Jouny focused on raising awareness in their own communities about Indigenous people, she says. "We try to teach all newcomers about this so that they know about this right away. They're the ones who have to live and work here now. The youth, especially, will talk to their parents about it, so that they'll have an understanding."
Taheri said the group recognizes the land they are on at all meetings, which she believes also helps raise awareness among refugee youth in Canada.
The information left a strong impression on Jouny, who trudged through snow and slush last month from her home in Surrey to attend an additional class about Aboriginal history last month.
“When I talk to refugees about First Nations, they say, 'Oh, that was all in the past.' But I tell them, no, it’s not just the past," Jouny says. "Still, many people don’t have fresh drinking water. Their women go missing, and we don’t talk about that.”
Disorienting past, uncertain future
Jouny is one of over 40,000 Syrian refugees who have settled in Canada in recent years.
Sitting at a cafe in Waterfront Station, wearing a stylish dark green sweater and jeans, Jouny looks just like any other college student. But a brief conversation with her shows that her life has been deeply scarred by the war.
Jouny was just 14 when she had to run from her home in the coastal city of Latakia in western Syria. She fled her home on her birthday, she says, with nothing but her passport, without even time to pack her clothes or personal mementos.
“I left my soul there,” she says. “I thought we were only going to be away for a week and then coming back. If I'd known I'd never see my city again, I don't know if I could have left.”
Despite the grey weather, Jouny still comes to English Bay almost every weekend to admire the ocean waves, because it reminds her of home.
After escaping Latakia to Turkey, the family ended up in Bosnia, then eventually came to Canada. Jouny speaks despairingly about her father’s choice to return briefly to Syria to check on his sister, who was sick with cancer. That visit ended up separating him from his family, and Jouny is heartsick that they haven’t seen him in five years. She's tried to apply for her family to be reunited, to no avail, because he has to leave Syria's borders in order to qualify as a refugee. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 8025 refugees from Syria were able to connect with their families in 2016 thanks to Canadian sponsors, but this program was discontinued on December 31.
Since her father is still stuck in Syria and her mother suffers frequent, debilitating migraines, Jouny feels responsibility for her family. She had a job she loved as a cashier for the Russet Shack, a restaurant in downtown Vancouver on Robson street, but had to quit to be more available to help her mother.
Thoughts about her broken family cloud Jouny's thoughts about her own future.
“I don’t think I will ever get married,” she murmurs, looking deep in thought. Even though one of her Syrian refugee friends has just gotten engaged in Canada, she doesn't see the same thing happening for her so long as her family is scattered. “If my dad doesn’t come to Canada, how can I leave my mom all alone? And I saw how refugee children suffered because of the war. Having a baby, in this kind of world, it’s not good for him...When I see the children suffering, I think maybe my baby will become like this.”
During five years in Bosnia, Jouny dropped out of the school entirely because she couldn’t speak the Bosnian language. She says her life came to a standstill, living in social isolation.
“In Bosnia, I had no friends. All my friends were just online. It felt like a big jail to me,” she says. “We didn’t have any citizenship. You couldn’t do anything there.”
“But my younger brother misses Bosnia very much. He doesn’t know how to read Arabic because he was so small when we left, and he loves Bosnia more than Syria. He was captain of his basketball team, and traveled to different cities to play for his team. He’s doing okay now, because he plays basketball in school in Canada too.”
The war in Syria has left her family, in some sense, as people without a country.
Her relatives now are scattered throughout Turkey, Sweden, Germany and Bosnia. Asked about her own sense of identity, she says she still has an attachment to Syria and wants to see her hometown if the war eventually ends. But she’s not sure if she’d board the plane as a Syrian, or as a Canadian citizen going to pay a visit.
“It’s something I ask myself all the time,” she sighs. “I don’t know yet.”
Jouny owns a T-shirt that reads, "You can take the girl out of Syria, but you can't take Syria out of the girl." She knows that's the case for her, but that memories of her hometown aren't as strong for everyone in her family.
Becoming a voice for refugees
Jouny shows me a photo of her friends back in Syria. They stay in touch online.
They're two young, long-haired girls in stylish clothes just like her, who wouldn't be out of place anywhere in Vancouver. Jouny says she feels torn when she thinks about young people dying in Syria, while she and her family live safely in Canada.
"Why am I in Canada? Why do they die? It’s just one piece of paper makes a difference between me and my friends in Syria," she says.
Jouny says when she hears people speaking ill of Muslims, she stops and tells them "we are not terrorists."
"I get some problems because I am Muslim, but I don’t wear hijab (headscarf). When people see me, they don’t think I am Muslim, so they'll talk about Muslims in a bad way, and I tell them: 'Stop it, we are not terrorists." Jouny says some Canadians mistakenly believe Syrian newcomers are part of ISIS, but she speaks out to show Canadians that Syrian refugees are regular people, and in fact fleeing from terror.
"In our book, the Quran, we say, don’t kill anyone. It’s my religion. I won’t allow anyone to talk badly about it, because every community and every religion has a group of bad people. When some guys see me, they tell me, 'Oh! But you're beautiful. You should be a Christian.' And I'm like, no."
"If I was to say anything bad about their religion, they wouldn't let me. How can I let them speak badly of my religion? In my family, we have four Christians. My uncle’s wife, for one. Everybody gets along. They are Christian, and we are one family."
Even though Jouny felt silenced during her five years in Bosnia because of language gaps, now that she's in Canada, she's finding her voice. She has emerged as something of a youth representative of Syrian refugees, and has given presentations to help dispel myths and prejudices about Syrian refugees.
Toward inclusion in Canada
Jouny is back in school, attending Kwantlen University, and happier now that she’s made some friends in Canada.
“Just Arabic-speaking friends, though,” she says glumly, echoing the sentiments of other Syrian refugee youth in B.C. who managed to build strong friendships among each other, but struggle to connect socially with other Canadians.
“I want to make English-speaking Canadian friends too, so my English will improve.”
She likes life on campus, calling the university "beautiful," but says it's been hard to talk to students from her class, who are a diverse group coming from 27 different countries.
"As soon as the class ends, everyone just packs their bags and runs to the next class. We don't stay after and talk, because they are too busy and have no time. But I have time, and I want to stay and talk," she laughs.
But she's working on putting herself out there more, and building more bridges between Canadians and Syrian refugees. She attends events to represent refugees and newcomers in Canada, in hopes of connecting with more people in her new home city.
"I want to talk about refugees so people will understand. We didn't choose to be refugees. It was just for survival," she says. Especially because of the anti-refugee policies in the U.S., and its trickling influence into Canada, Jouny says she wants more dialogues with Canadians, to let them know refugees like her are not to be feared.
"I think refugees and immigrants can make Canada better. They’re of all different religions, different opinions, but get along. That’s an amazing thing."
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on Syrian refugees in Canada produced in partnership with United Way of Lower Mainland. National Observer has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories meet its editorial standards.