I first met them last year. They had just arrived in Canada. A smiling, friendly group, they ran around playing together like any other kids, and were excited about starting school in Canada.
But now a year has passed and the subdued and fearful expressions written across their young faces make me wonder what happened in the time in between.
Three Syrian families who came to B.C. as refugees told me they've had to pull their children from class recently. The children gathered in the room all go to the same school.
"What happened?" I ask.
"We're being bullied by some kids at school," a boy with soft brown eyes tells me.
Have local students been giving the new kids a hard time? I ask.
No. The bullies were fellow Syrian refugee children, just like them, the boy answers.
Children. Playing out old grudges. Acting out of wounds suffered by their parents from a war left far behind. Thousands of miles separate them from Syria, but psychologically, some tragedies followed them here. Both the victimized and the aggressors are still separated by invisible battle lines. Because of their young ages and the impact the story may have on them, National Observer is not identifying them here. But this is their story.
“I was in the playground when they attacked me and my sister," said a young boy in a a husky voice, looking anxious as he recounted how the issue started earlier this year.
The families were nervous, as well. They had originally reached National Observer to tell their story and asked to meet in a Tim Horton's to discuss, but had switched to a more private location for fear of being overheard by someone who spoke Arabic.
The families congregated in one family's home in a low-rise apartment complex where many Syrian families had settled. They arrived one by one, about 10 minutes apart, some looking behind them while carefully closing the door.
The boy recounted that three siblings — new kids to the area, also Syrian, were pushing his sister around, he said. They had arrived shortly after his family had.
He said he approached the children and asked why they were hurting his sister, but they shoved him to the ground.
The boy tried to get his sister out of the park. He said he'd never seen the children before, and didn't understand why they were attacking him. Adults saw the scene and intervened. The fight would have ended there perhaps, but the aggressors lived close by.
He and his sister vividly remembers the insults they hurled at them.
"Your father is garbage from Bashar, garbage from Turkey! You're working for Bashar!" he recounts them shouting. "We'll make sure your family gets deported from Canada!"
As the attacks continued to escalate over time, the boy and his siblings became anxious about even playing in their usual hangouts.
When the brother and sister went to school, the conflicts continued and started to involve other children.
"We wanted to go to school and take English class, but each time, they said bad things about my family," the boy's 10-year-old sister, holding a toddler in her thin arms, said. "They told me, 'Your baby brother should die.'"
Upset parents showed me a photos they took of scratch marks and bruises left on their children. One child was pictured in the hospital. Her parent said she was hospitalized after an altercation.
Some of the children sat on the couch with their parents, while others sat on the floor due to lack of seating. What struck me was how young they were. All were still in elementary school. All were victims of circumstances over which they had no control.
The boy was baffled by accusations thrown at him by children with whom he shared a similar experience of displacement.
“In the beginning, we were all friends here,” he said. "We were just fine."
The parents emphasized that everyone within the area's Syrian community got along with one another, and that the aggressors were an anomaly.
Some individuals I spoke with outside the family, who asked not be on the record, expressed concern over how the war in Syria might have impacted the aggressive children and their parents. They said it was not a good situation and that the children's issues should be addressed sooner, rather than later.
One of the fathers said he had a sense of why a certain family was hostile toward his own.
"They were on the opposition side, and they thought we were sympathetic to the Syrian government," the boy's father explained. He insisted repeatedly he never supported the Assad government in any way shape or form, and couldn't understand why his children were made a target.
According to a 2017 report by Save the Children, many Syrian refugee children who experienced the war had been emotionally affected. But the parents gathered in the room brushed off suggestions that the aggressors may themselves have been heavily victimized at some point, or that their actions may be driven by past traumas.
"Look, I lost half my family in the war. We all lost family members, and we still came out of it alright," one father said. "In my case, people close to me were on opposite sides of the conflict. Some were more sympathetic to the government and others weren't. But we never fought about it."
The boy said he still had friends, and wasn't socially isolated. But he found himself becoming ill at ease in school and around his home neighbourhood.
A taller, slimmer boy in gym shorts said he was often hit and called names in both Arabic and English.
He said the school got involved when the father of the aggressive children showed up in school and started verbally abusing him and other children.
"The school was on lockdown," he said, eyebrows furrowed. He spoke in fluent English, despite having arrived just a year ago knowing only Arabic.
"I saw him push the teacher," he said, his voice rising. "The teacher tried to keep him from coming into our class. He yelled and swore at her, saying the 'F word.' They had to call the police. The police came and talked to us and told him he's not allowed to be on school property."
Several sources confirmed police were called to the school, and that the families had been raising concern for months.
After the problems continued, they pleaded with the school to help. Finally, in October, the three families became so frustrated they pulled their children out of school altogether.
I attempted to reach certain representatives at the school, and a police officer who the families said can give an unbiased account of the conflict. But all became tight-lipped at the mention of this story and refused to comment on the topic in any detail.
"I’m not able to give any background information," one educator commented, saying her staff "will not provide comment on any families that attend schools" in the city.
Another insisted they would not treat the Syrian children's situation as different from that of any other students in the school.
"We're not interested in separating out students from any country for any reason...you know, bullying is bullying," a school spokesman said, after declining to talk in depth about the issue. "It's an ongoing challenge in schools to inform, and educate."
Bullying is a Canada-wide problem, often involving racism or gender discrimination. An African-Carribean Canadian Association in Calgary recently accused a school of failing to intervene in bullying despite injuries and harm caused to a teenage student. In Ottawa, a mixed-race boy and his mother spoke out after the school wrongly blamed the victim for being targeted by violence and racial slurs.
The six parents who gathered to talk wanted to know why the school didn't take meaningful action as their children were physically and verbally attacked over the course of this year.
“Why isn’t the school system in Canada able to protect our kids?” one of the fathers asked. "We're surprised, because we thought this was a safe country. But why can't we protect the children? We adults can handle it, but we worry this issue will get bigger for our children."
One boy's father seemed especially affected by the conflict. He sat with shoulders hunched, and frequently buried his face in his hands. His boy had missed years of primary school because of the war, he explained, and had been happy to finally restart his education.
“My son was so excited to be going to school in Canada,” he murmured, looking at the ground.
With the help of adults, the children wrote down messages in Arabic about how they felt about their situation, being pulled out of school. Their messages read:
"I want to go back to school."
"I love my teacher and my school."
"I'm Canadian and I love it a lot."
"I'm upset. I want my school back."
"I'd love to go back to school."
"I love my teacher"
"I miss my friends."
Shortly after the interview, the parents learned the students who had been targeting their children were transferred to another school.
But peace of mind remains elusive for them.
As long as these families live in the same neighborhood, some fear that rifts from a faraway conflict will continue to impact a playground near Vancouver.