Cowichan’s first Syrian refugees feeling ‘safe’

“She felt safe in those three days,” interpreter Jihan Abou El Arab said

Just days after starting their new lives in Canada, the first refugees from the Syrian Civil War to arrive in the Cowichan Valley admitted they felt frightened about what was ahead of them — until they met their sponsors from the Mill Bay Baptist Fellowship.

“She felt safe in those three days,” interpreter Jihan Abou El Arab said, translating the words of 29-year-old refugee Faten Dekhan. “She felt the difference from where she was before.”

Dekhan arrived in the Cowichan Valley on Dec. 7 along with her 58-year-old mother, Aisha Jafar, and her nine-year-old son, Mohammed Alnaddaf. The Mill Bay Baptist Fellowship is sponsoring the family for their first year in Canada.

They used to call Homs, Syria, home. When the war reached Homs, they left for the capital city, Damascus. When the war reached Damascus, they moved to a small village between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Finally, they fled across the border into Lebanon, and spent the last two years living with Dekhan’s brother in Beirut.

“So basically, they ran from one spot to another spot into Lebanon,” Abou El Arab said.

Both women are widows: Jafar’s husband died of a heart attack, and Dekhan’s husband was killed in bombings during the war. They have arrived in Canada with only each other. Virtually all their possessions had to be left behind.

“Everything is gone,” Abou El Arab said. “Absolutely gone. They basically came with their clothing and her wedding ring, and everything else is gone.”

When they began the process of leaving Lebanon as refugees a year ago, the UN agency they were working with said there were several countries they could have ended up in: Canada, Australia, Sweden, Netherlands. They didn’t choose Canada, but happened to fit all the criteria that Canada was looking for. Canada’s commitment to welcome 25,000 refugees provided more open spots than the other countries had, as well.

“All the rules Canada put to adopt refugees, they fit everything,” Abou El Arab related.

Mohammed, who would have been starting Grade 1 in Syria before his family left, was a top student in Lebanon.

His favourite subject is science, and he is also looking forward to starting piano lessons and soccer.

There are few concerns that he will keep up with other students his age once he gets started in school.

“I think Mohammed is a very bright boy and he will catch up very fast with the language,” Abou El Arab said.

Dekhan, who has some training in nursing, is hoping to further her education in Canada, while also adjusting to a new home.

“She’s hoping the community will accept that and adopt them as one of them,” Abou El Arab said. “She is hoping she will be adopted by the culture here, and she is actually wishing she will be part of this community.”

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