Syrians call Canada paradise

Photo: Matthew McCully
Matthew McCully
Staff Writer

Last year around this time, the world news cycle was dominated by the arrival of Syrian refugees to Canada.
There was public debate surrounding Canada’s pledge to accept 25,000 refugees, seen by some as overly ambitious and too costly.
Following terrorist attacks in Kenya, Beirut, Bagdad and Paris, a climate of fear developed into a not-in-my-backyard attitude about refugees, based on the uninformed notion that all people from a war-torn country are war-minded.
On a local level, The Record reported on several initiatives in the community geared towards welcoming and supporting refugees in the area.
This reporter sat down yesterday with Rasmiya Abd El Majid and her husband Abbdel Al Mohamad, to talk about their experiences since their arrival in Sherbrooke at the end of January.
“It was a real miracle to have been chosen to come here,” Rasmiya said, “It will never be enough to just say thank you.”
In the same breath, she wished all compatriots in peril the same good fortune to be brought to safety.
Rasmiya and Abbdel had been living and working in a refugee camp in Lebanon for three years when they received the call.
At the time they had five children, two of whom were ill. Their youngest, a newborn, was oxygen deprived upon delivery, and because the camp lacked the resources and the family had no money for private care, the child did not survive.
Rasmiya and Abbdel described the conditions in the camp as very challenging. The whole family shared a small tent. There were no showers, so bathing was done from the sinks in the shared washrooms.
Abbdel said that after three years, he completely lost touch with basic comforts like hot water.
In addition to the living conditions, Rasmiya added that Syrians were often discriminated against when they ventured away from the camp. It was not uncommon at the market to be told, “You’re Syrian, go to the back of the line,” Rasmiya said.
Because their youngest daughter had a medical condition and required regular blood transfusions, it was Abbdel’s responsibility to track down a blood type match for her transfusions.
Earlier in the conversation, this reporter thought the family’s arrival in Canada and subsequent culture shock, paperwork and protocols to follow would have been taxing. On the contrary, Rasmiya said compared to all they had endured, it was effortless.
“It was the best day of my life,” she said, when the family arrived in Montreal on Jan.27. “We never believed this day would come.”
“It was very fast,” Rasmiya added, because their daughter was very sick. The family was in the airport for approximately 10 minutes and signed all the necessary documents, before bringing their daughter for treatment and heading to a hotel for the night. The following day, the family made their way to Sherbrooke.
When they arrived in town, the rest of the family spent 72 hours in a refugee clinic for check-ups and blood tests, while Rasmiya and Abbdel’s daughter spent a full week in the hospital to stabilize her condition.
She is currently awaiting an organ transplant that will hopefully resolve her health issues permanently.
Language has been the biggest challenge for Rasmiya and Abbdel so far. They had never heard the French language before arriving here.
Rasmiya is currently enrolled in French classes. Abbdel was not permitted to continue. Because he is required to bring their daughter to hospital so frequently, he missed the minimum attendance requirement and was removed from the program. He hopes to be able to restart when he has a more consistent schedule.
The first month was intimidating because of the language barrier, Rasmiya said. Luckily, the translators and SANC employees were a big help. The family was given a tour of Sherbrooke, pointing out all the landmarks, stores and facilities the family might need. They were then given a bus pass and quickly got the lay of the land.
Rasmiya said that they have developed a great relationship with their pharmacist, whom they visit regularly for their daughter’s medications. Using Google translate on their phone, they are able to communicate their needs.
The family lives in an area where there are not any other Syrian families, which Rasmiya said has helped with their integration into the community.
“Our neighbours are very nice and very helpful,” she said.
When asked if either of them had gotten their license yet and driven a car, Abbdel and Rasmiya said they are not considering any luxuries right now.
“The kids are number one,” they said, explaining that they are just fine on the bus; a car, along with all its associated costs, is at the bottom of their priority list.
When asked how their children, ages 3, 5, 6, and 7, are adjusting to life in Sherbrooke, Rasmiya said they are very happy.
“They had never been to school before,” she said. “They are excited to learn new things, and they are picking it up quickly.”
The Record asked if they received a tuque from the 25,000 tuques campaign to knit hats for Syrian refugees with a personalized welcome included with each one.
Rasmiya and Abbdel said they did not receive a tuque, but added they did not need a tuque to feel welcome upon their arrival.
Because of issues they had heard of regarding refugees in Germany, Rasmiya and Abbdel were concerned there would be tension when they got to Canada.
“We would like to say thank you for Canadians for everything they did,” Rasmiya said, speaking on behalf of all Syrians. When asked where they are from, Rasmiya said people are particularly sympathetic when they hear she is Syrian.
“They show lots of compassion,” she said, blown away that people would show such solidarity with people they don’t even know.
Abbdel pointed out that along with the pure joy of being able to start a new life in Sherbrooke, the joy is mixed with a sense of guilt.
Both Abbdel and Rasmiya still have family and loved ones in Syria. Some fled to Raqqa, and members of Abbdel’s family made their way to Turkey.
Rasmiya has not heard from her family in five years. Reaching them by phone is out of the question, she said, because there are no lines available where they are.
Abbdel said he tries to contact his family in Turkey whenever possible, and said he is looking for a way to have them sponsored or added to a list so that they could eventually be brought here.
“Syrians call Canada paradise,” Rasmiya said, humbled by the support and sense of welcome she has felt leading up to the Syrian family’s first year in Sherbrooke.