Ayham Abou Ammar and his wife Dima Naseraldeen pose for photos with their children Nour, 8, left, and Alan, 5, right, in their apartment Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in Montreal. Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ayham Abou Ammar and his wife Dima Naseraldeen pose for photos with their children Nour, 8, left, and Alan, 5, right, in their apartment Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in Montreal. Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Syrian refugees overcoming war memories brought back by COVID-19

A total of 45,919 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada by April 2017

Five years after the first of them arrived in Canada, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have had to adapt to COVID-19 lockdowns that brought back the memories of war horrors and upset the lives they had begun to rebuild.

On Dec. 10, 2015, following a promise by the Liberals during the 2015 election campaign to make it much easier for them to reach Canada, the first plane bearing Syrian refugees landed in Toronto.

A total of 45,919 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada by April 2017 and more continued to arrive under other programs after that.

Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold.

“In the beginning, we were worried and scared,” she said.

“Suddenly, streets were empty, stores were shut down. It was something similar to war.”

Before coming to Canada, Naseraldeen spent years with her family in a suburb south of Damascus hiding from mortar shells.

She said the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic put them in the same profound anxiety they had lived with in Syria.

“We would always hear the sirens of ambulances and wait for the news,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

Bayan Khatib, the co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, said Syrian newcomers she worked with told her they were locked down in their homes in Syria for months or a year at a time because of the constant bombings outside and their inability to leave town.

“Everybody wearing masks must have been difficult to see, too, for people, perhaps, who are coming from areas that were attacked with chemical weapons,” she said.

Khatib’s organization is based in Mississauga, Ont., and provides services for newcomers in several cities in Ontario.

She said a lot of Syrian families came from places where the schools were shut down because of war, so when the schools were closed earlier this year, they must have felt horrible.

“Experiencing the second lockdown now in their new home as they’re trying to live life in a safe place, sure has been very challenging and extra stressful for them.”

Before the pandemic, Naseraldeen, 34, pursued a passion for drawing and participated in a few art shows with other artists in Montreal. Her first show of her own at the Montreal Art Centre was put off from May to December, then scrubbed.

“It was a disappointment” she said. “First, (the show) was delayed and I thought that would give me more time to prepare, then it was a shock that it was cancelled.”

Her husband Ayham Abou Ammar is an actor and a musician. In February, he finished shooting his part as the lead actor in a Canadian movie about a Syrian family that moved to Canada, but the movie release was also put off until next year.

“It was supposed to be screened at several festivals, but it was all cancelled,” he said.

Abou Ammar, 36, said he feels he lost the joy of watching his first movie on the big screen.

“It’s a turning point to see your work in the cinema,” he said. “I still hope it will be released next year.”

READ MORE: Syrians gradually integrating into Canadian society, latest report finds

Abou Ammar has taught music to youngsters in Montreal occasionally, but with limited participation due to physical-distancing rules.

The career shift was more dramatic for Noor Sakhniya, who finished his training to become a pilot last year in Ottawa, almost four years after landing in Canada with his family.

Sakhniya was hired by Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife in December 2019 but was laid off in March because of the pandemic.

Returning to Ottawa, Sakhniya, 23, had to work in survival jobs including making deliveries and as a personal grocer.

“You work hard for four years and you spend a lot of money on the training and on your dream … then, you (have) to let it all go,” he said.

“I believe it’s not just my case. It’s the case of many pilots, whether they’re beginner pilots or pilots who have years of experience, they will have to let it go due to the pandemic.”

He used to be active in organizing events for the Syrian community in the city and he coached a soccer team for immigrant kids last year, but all of that was on hold this year.

“In our countries, we were used to having a circle of support from family and friends … For many Syrians, during the war, they all moved together into their family houses to support each other,” he said. “During the pandemic, it’s really hard to do that, especially here in Canada (where) you don’t have family sometimes. Even though you have family sometimes, it’d be hard because you have to isolate yourself.”

He works now at a manager in a restaurant in downtown Ottawa. Expecting aviation to be slow for many years, he’s planning to study aerospace engineering at Carleton University next year.

Naseraldeen also is creating a new career path for herself in case she is not able to make living of painting in the near future. She finished training as a makeup artist recently.

She said it’s difficult for her to paint artwork now, with the amount of uncertainty that COVID-19 pandemic has put her in. Yet she said she still has hope.

“We were living in a war zone and we lost our jobs and homes and there was always hope,” she said. “I’m always optimistic … and I’m sure good things will follow.”

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusrefugeeSyria

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Cowichan Valley School District is holding an online session to discuss the future of Koksilah Elementary School, closed since 2013. (File photo)
What’s the future of the old Koksilah Elementary School?

The district is hoping to collect feedback on options for the future of the school.

Jim Neiser of Neiser Sales, Service & Rentals Ltd. died suddenly on Jan. 4. after suffering an apparent cardiac event at work. (Submitted photo)
Prominent Lake Cowichan businessman Jim Neiser dead at 63

Lake Cowichan Mayor Bob Day said the long-time laker will be missed.

The Judy Hill Gallery took home top prize for its window display during the Christmas season from the Downtown Duncan BIA. (Submitted photo)
Business notes: Judy Hill Gallery wins festive window display contest

A look at what’s going on in the Cowichan business community

Environment Canada is forecasting snow for the east Vancouver Island region the weekend of Jan. 23. (Black Press file)
Up to 15 cm of snow forecast for Duncan area this weekend

Snow to begin Saturday night, according to Environment Canada

Sorting food to deliver to community members isolating due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Back row from left: Philomena Wilson, Sosefina Aleck, Ethan Wilson and Lucetta Wilson. In front is Kennedy Aleck. (Submitted)
“Let’s share a meal even if I can’t sit with you”: Cowichan woman’s food drive helps feed members in isolation

Positive response to missing ceremonies and rising racism benefits dozens of households

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission school district

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways in Mission, B.C.

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Disgraced Kelowna social worker faces another class-action lawsuit

Zackary Alphonse claims he was not informed of resources available to him upon leaving government care

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Most Read