By Stewart Grant
“I love you, St. Marys!”
Though family matriarch Warda Ajjan Al Hadid may not speak English as easily as her children and grandchildren, these four words nicely encapsulate how this Syrian family feels about their new home in the Stonetown.
Fourteen months ago, thanks to the efforts of the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group, the Ajjan Al Hadid family was provided the opportunity to start a new life here in Canada after war forced them to leave their home country of Syria. They currently reside in the co-op apartments across from the golf course.
Warda and her 20-year-old daughter Marah arrived in Canada on January 9, 2016, followed a week later by Marah’s older sister Maha, brother Mahmoud, his wife Kawthar, and their young children Ahmad and Limar.
This past Saturday, along with St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group chair Gwen Ament, I had the chance to spend an afternoon with the family, except for Marah who was working down the street at Wildstone Bar & Grill. Though I’d never met the family before, I could not have felt more welcome. Warda set out a fruit tray of bananas, kiwi, baby cucumber, apples and strawberries along with a pot of sweet tea and plenty of smiles. “In Syria, the door is always open,” explained her daughter Maha in her quickly-developing English.
Language is the building block of society, and as such, each member of the family has been working hard at studying English to more easily adapt to their new home. Warda, Mahmoud and Kawthar take English second-language classes in Stratford, while Marah and Maha attend the more intensive CultureWorks program throughout the week in London. CultureWorks is an “English for Academic Purposes (EAP)” school and the results of the program are evident based on how skillfully and fluently Maha shared her family’s stories with me throughout the afternoon.
For someone like me who has grown up with the peace that we’ve long enjoyed in Canada, hearing Maha describe the events that led to their arrival here is something I’ll never forget.
Things began to change in their close-knit community in east Aleppo roughly five years ago, when young men from outside countries moved into the area and began organizing protests against the government as part of the “Arab Spring” movement. These protests would occur each Friday, which is traditionally the day of prayer for Muslims. What began as loud protests would later develop into larger attacks and murders against government officials. After waves and waves of violence by these outsiders, the government retaliated by bombing the east Aleppo neighbourhoods where the antagonists had mixed with the general population. Though the government gave prior warning for its citizens to leave, it was difficult to imagine the ferocity of their response until the Al Hadid family felt the bombs rain down around them…day and night…one after another. Mahmoud and young Ahmad were both injured by shrapnel from one blast that occurred just outside their garden. Mahmoud’s injuries later required twelve hours of surgery to repair damage sustained.
The path to leave Aleppo was not easy, as their vehicle constantly had to turn back from roads made unpassable by rubble strewn from destroyed buildings. For a period of time, the family and many others found refuge in villas on the outskirts of Aleppo and hoped to be able to eventually return to their home when things cooled down. However, their stay at the villas was disrupted when Daesh (aka ISIS) soldiers suddenly arrived one evening, forcing the Al Hadid’s to be on the move once again.
Ultimately, the family members made their way to Lebanon where they lived for roughly two years (different family members arrived at different times) but it wasn’t before other close calls with ISIS. Maha described running through a snipers alley until freezing to a halt in total shock when a fellow refugee was gunned down with a blast to the head. Maha’s sister Marah, also present that moment, helped Maha escape to safety. It wouldn’t be the only time that Marah would save her sister. Maha next told the story of the day Marah bravely grabbed her sister’s arm while an ISIS soldier pulled her other arm in the opposite direction intending to rape her. A long argument between the three of them ensued, with the girls defiantly telling the ugly soldier to kill them rather than abuse them in that way. This bought sufficient time for others to arrive on the scene and ultimately they were released.
Incredible, horrible experiences described above should make it clear to all of us how much the Al Hadid family appreciates their new life in peaceful, beautiful St. Marys.
The close connections between people, and particularly between fellow family members, are so important within the Syrian way of life. Without fail, each Friday afternoon would always be a time for the whole family to get together and visit. While Warda is so grateful to have three of her children safe here, she longs to someday have her other children join them in Canada. These grown children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom are married and some with children, continue to live a very difficult life in Lebanon, and hopefully await their chance to find a better life. Fortunately, they are able to communicate daily using the modern wonders of Skype.
In summary, the Al Hadid family is making great progress here in St. Marys. They are working at mastering the language, gaining work experience (along with Marah at Wildstone, Mahmoud has found some work with McKinley’s Eggs and Pathway Woodworking), and developing within the community. The children, Ahmad and Limar, are thriving in their new environment.
Going back to the importance of connections, the Al Hadid family comes from a culture where everyone really gets to know each other. They would know all of their neighbours, and would enjoy spending quality time with trusted friends and opening their home to others. I think there is much we can learn from them, including the fact that they would love to get to know us. They want to be a part of our community and make friends here, so my advice to others is to introduce yourselves to them if you have the opportunity, and to open your hearts and minds.