From Far and Wide: Syrian Refugees Start Over In Canada

During last year, powerful bonds of friendship — beyond language and culture — have moved both refugees and sponsors.

By: Annie Sakkab and Leyland Cecco

After tobogganing, Canadian sponsor Elaine Hofer brings Syrian refugee Raghad Al Hamoud back inside to warm up. © UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

In Canada, thousands of individuals, groups and organizations have taken responsibility for helping refugees begin again.

Since Canada introduced its program of private sponsorship in the late 1970s, more than 275,000 people fleeing war and persecution have arrived on its shores.

Research shows that privately sponsored refugees tend to integrate more quickly and effectively, thanks in part to the social support provided by sponsors.

From a tight-knit group in the Yukon who took in a family of 11, to the Syrian seamstress who became a part of the community—these are powerful stories of people opening their hearts and forging new friendships in a welcoming land.

Syrian violinist helps Canadian community hear his song

Sari Alesh teaches Lynelle Mclean to play violin. Before the war in Syria, Sari was a music instructor for six years in Damascus. In Victoria, he now teaches private lessons

Unlike most of the 31,000 Syrian refugees arriving to Canada over the last year, Sari Alesh, 31, did not bring a trade. Instead, among his few possessions, he brought his music.

“I just followed my heart,” he says. “It always told me: ‘You are a musician and you can’t do anything else’.”

“I just followed my heart.”

Before coming to Canada, Sari’s life had overflowed with music. Classically trained in Damascus, Syria, he toured Europe and the Middle East with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, once playing for the acclaimed Lebanese singer Fairuz. But war in Syria quickly put the brakes on his success, displacing him along with more than 11 million other Syrians. In 2014, he fled the Syrian capital and sought safety in Istanbul, Turkey, leaving behind family and his once-promising musical career.

The young violinist arrived alone on the rainy archipelago of Canada’s west coast in February, 2016 — on his birthday — as one of the 400 Syrian refugees resettled to Victoria.

Read Sari’s full story here.

Syrian seamstress becomes a part of community fabric

When a local hockey coach phoned Rabiaa Al Soufi, she didn’t hesitate before agreeing to help. Fifty hockey jerseys were dropped off at her house, all needing name plates sewed on as soon as possible.

“I am grateful that of all people I was able to provide this to them.”

Rabiaa quickly got to work, spending the next few nights hunched over a whirring sewing machine, the yellow bulb casting shadows across the living room-turned-workshop. Her husband and children helped out where they could, eager to make a good impression on the community that had recently welcomed the family.

With skills honed from years of teaching sewing and tailoring in Syria, a heap of finished jerseys piled up quickly. “Even though this is a very simple thing, I am grateful that of all people I was able to provide this to them,” says Rabiaa.

The country’s help could not have come soon enough; the Al Zhouris had fled conflict back home in Al-Qusayr, Syria, for Lebanon and, for five years, had been unable to work or attend school. In January 2016, the five of them were resettled to the town of Antigonish, on Canada’s eastern shores.

When a hockey coach in Antigonish, Canada phoned Rabiaa Al Soufi, the Syrian refugee didn’t hesitate to help.

Read Rabiaa’s full story here.

Christian community welcomes Syrian family to Canada

Elaine Hofer (left) chats with Najwa Hussein, a Syrian refugee in Brandon, Manitoba.

In November 2016, as cold winds swept across the Canadian prairie, Najwa and Reyad Al Hamoud welcomed their third child into the world.

From her hospital bed, Najwa sent out a flurry of excited text messages announcing the birth of her daughter to a new, unlikely group friends — members of a Hutterite colony half an hour away in Brandon, Manitoba.

Brandon is home to approximately 46,000 people and is the second largest city in the Canadian province of Manitoba.

The Hutterites are a minority religious group in Canada, a branch of the Anabaptist Christianity movement loosely related to the Mennonites and Amish. Members live in colonies scattered across the western provinces and are set apart by their distinct clothing — women wear long, colourful dresses and black kerchiefs, while men don dark pants, work shirts and suspenders.

“Our ancestors were refugees long ago — people were always there to help them.”

Paul Waldner, an educator in one colony, was the first to suggest the idea after a visiting Hutterite teacher from Germany told him how the colony could make a difference by helping refugees in need. Paul then approached his father, president of the colony, who told him: “Our ancestors were refugees long ago — people were always there to help them.”

After that, the group stepped up to sponsor the Al Hamoud family from Hama, Syria.

Read the Al Hamoud’s full story here.

From Far and Wide is a series of stories profiling Canadians who have welcomed Syrian refugees with compassion and support. All across the country, strangers, friends, families and communities are creating powerful bonds of friendship that transcend language and culture, when they are needed the most.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated UN Refugee Agency’s story.