A family who fled the war in Syria two years ago has just moved from Castlegar to Nelson because of a job opportunity here.
Omar and Amna Alzidi and their sons Hussain, 8, Obada, 7, and Taim, 4, now live in Rosemont. The family arrived in Castlegar from the Middle East just over a year ago.
Obada’s and Hussain’s English is clear evidence of the extraordinary language learning abilities of young children.
“My English getting way, way better,” says Hussain.
He says he loves school. Asked to decide what subject he likes best, he ponders hard but just can’t decide.
“My favourite thing is school because I like school so much. Sometimes they take us skating or walking in the forest. We do things outside. I like this very much. We didn’t skate so good but now we are getting so, so good at it.”
Obada decides to commit himself on his favourite subject. It’s math.
“I love math too.” says Hussain. “I am really good at math. One hundred plus one hundred is two hundred. See, it’s so easy. I can do that to two million.”
The Alzidi family is from the outskirts of Damascus, which is also the home city of Rahaf Zwayne, a Syrian Selkirk College student who has lived in Nelson for a couple of years and who translated for this interview.
In Syria, Omar was a chef and a restaurant owner with a specialty in meat dishes. Now he’s working in the meat department of the Kootenay Co-op.
“Our life was so beautiful before the war, it was very settled,” says Amna. “We had beautiful and peaceful times and enjoyed every single moment in Damascus.”
But after the war started, the government forced Omar to close the restaurant earlier each day because they didn’t want people on the streets in his area. He and other businesses had to shut down for lack of income.
Life was dangerous and there was fighting in their neighbourhood.
“So many checkpoints and security,” says Omar, “and so many government rules, no electricity, no phones, they cut everything and sometimes there was no water. These things are your life. It is impossible to raise the kids because it is not safe in so many ways.”
They stayed for four and a half years, then gave up hope.
“When you feel death is coming to your door and it is going to get your family and your kids,” says Amna, “you think, I don’t want to lose my family so we have to find a solution.”
Omar says people were being arrested or killed for no reason in the street.
“Even with all our hope, eventually we lost it,” Omar says. “Things were getting worse and death was getting closer. The kids couldn’t go to school any more. We want our kids to be well educated and have a normal life.”
They worry about their parents and siblings still living in Damascus, with whom they occasionally communicate when the intermittent electric power and phone service allow it.
The family first moved to Turkey for a while and then were accepted as refugees by Canada. On the flight here, headed for Castlegar where a community group there sponsored them, Taim got sick and was taken by ambulance from the Vancouver airport to a hospital.
This was the family’s scary introduction to Canada.
“It was very tough and hard on the child,” Amna says, adding that she was grateful that the hospital staff were kind and supportive.
In fact that is their main impression of Canada so far, from the first day they arrived in Castlegar: the kindness of Canadians.
“Walking in the street we did not feel awkward,” Omar said. “People would smile at us and they made us feel at home.”
Syrian family settles in to Nelson (March 2016)
Asked what they noticed right away about Canada and its culture, they say they find it strange that dogs are considered part of the family here. And seeing wildlife is an exciting new experience for them.
“You are walking in the street and you expect a bear in front of you,” Amna says. “We don’t have wildlife in Damascus. We love it and we are happy to see deer.”
“There are eagles in Canada too,” Hussain chimes in.
Amna and Omar say they want to get busy learning English, making a living and contributing, and getting a good education for their children. They don’t want to dwell on how different life is in Canada.
“There is not much difference in life here, we do not see anything that is new to us. There are some differences in culture.”
Omar thinks people here are more independent and individual in their outlook.
“Canadians are individual but kind. Individual means for example everyone has their own life and own space and try to protect that space. But they are still social. They are social but in different ways.”