When Jameel Msatat arrived in Canada 10 months ago, he couldn’t speak English. Hearing the six-year-old Syrian refugee now, that’s hard to believe.
“I learn very fast because I am excited to learn from other people,” he told the Star. “And sometimes my father says something in Arabic and I teach him to say it in English.”
Jameel is in kindergarten at South Nelson Elementary. Those complete sentences are typical of the way he confidently dives into English conversations. His five-year-old sister Leen is not far behind.
Their father Mohammed is getting better in English too, because for the past couple of months this former professional furniture designer has been working as a janitor at the Kootenay Co-op, interacting with people all day in his new language. His wife Tasneem knew a little English before coming here, and she’s working on it too.
“The best thing about school,” Jameel said (in English), “was going cross-country skiing. It happened on the 100th day of school. Winter is fun for skiing and sledding. At school we sled on the hill behind the school. I have 10 friends and I play with them.”
Talking about their life in Canada, the family exudes a gratitude bordering on disbelief. The latest reason: they just moved into a newly renovated house that a Nelson resident has given them rent-free for a year.
This happened at an opportune time because the family is sponsored by the Cathedral Refugee Committee, whose commitment is to support the family for a year after their arrival.
“The beautiful thing about Canada is the group,” Mohammed says about the committee. “They know about our culture and how they have to deal with me and respect my attitudes and my family’s. This made us feel like we belong here.”
He says members of the group always check whether various activities suit them, whether they are culturally appropriate for them, and at the same time they teach them about Canadian ways.
Tasneem said she was surprised by this, and grateful for it.
“Before we came to Canada, I thought it would be hard to find someone like my Mom or brother or other family,” she said. “But I have all of them here. I can feel I am in a family now, my teachers and friends. I have one friend, she is an older woman named Maria. I can see my Mom in her. When I am with her it feels like I am with my Mom. If I forget to phone her one day, she phones me.”
Mohammed talked the same way about Gerry Sobie, one of the members of the group.
“He is like my father. He is always concerned about me.”
Their real families are dispersed. Tasmeen has a brother in Germany, two brothers and her mother in Turkey, and two sisters are in Aleppo, Syria. Mohammed’s parents are in Syria, and he has two brothers in Turkey and a sister in Germany.
They are in constant contact using the messenger app WhatsApp.
“Every day. I talk with Daddy every day,” Mohammed says.
“I talk to Mom every day,” says Tasneem, “but that is not enough for me. I hope to be close to all my family in the future but most important is my Mom.”
Happiness about their new situation, loneliness for their families, and traumatic war memories are all part of everyday life for Tasneem and Mohammed.
“Imagine, before the civil war,” said Mohammed, “if you saw a cat dead in the street. Now imagine after few years of war, walking in the street and I see dead friends in the street. My wife and I have both seen that, we saw them dead. We used to be sad for a cat, and now we see friends and people who belong to us, dead in the street. So imagine our feeling.
“My heart feels about 90 years old. This was so unexpected and so surprising, all the things that came suddenly to our lives and affected our hearts and made us feel old.”
In Aleppo, their neighbour’s house was destroyed by a bomb. So Tasneem and the children moved in with her mother in a different part of the city, and Mohammad went to Lebanon and found work as a carpenter, working 15-hour days, seven day per week, to support his family and his parents and brother.
“Even though we moved to a safer area with my mother,” Tasneem said, “the children heard noises and had nightmares so they were really affected even if they are a bit farther away. And you can not be safe wherever you are in Syria anymore. You have to be prepared for any kind of attack that falls down on your head.”
After a couple of years, Mohammad brought Tasneem and the children to Lebanon. Leen, who was a baby when he left, had forgotten her father and had to get to know him again.
They applied for refugee status and were sponsored by the Nelson group.
Not long after arriving in Nelson, Mohammed was out shopping, hoping to find halal meat — meat that is slaughtered according to Islamic law — and tried the Kootenay Co-op, at its old Baker Street location.
“I saw some staff at the Co-op were eating a watermelon together, cutting it and sharing it, and I thought, ‘Is that real, is this in Canada? That is so sweet, this reminds me of home.’ And I thought, ‘What a nice store. They are lucky to be working there.’”
He never thought he would soon be part of it.
“I am very happy working at the Co-op. People are always smiling there, it is like a big family. I am not saying that just because I am working there, this is the truth. It does not feel strange, it touches my heart and makes me feel at home.”
Mohammed said he wants to make it clear that his enthusiasm for Canada does not come at the expense of his love for Syria.
“I will never forget that I am Syrian, and I am very proud of that, but I hope the rough time will pass one day. Because if I forget Syria, I will forget Canada.”
And what do they think of our Canadian winter?
“I love it,” Tasneem says, “Everything around me is new and white, I love it really and it is fun because I have now my favourite mountain. I play with my kids on the South Nelson school hill, to just slide down, just me and my kids and sometimes with my neighbours.”
She pauses and adds: “But the winter is long.”
Mohammed, who often provoked laughter in his translator (pictured with the family above) who says he is very funny when speaking Arabic, has a slightly different view.
“When we came to Nelson it was wearing summer clothes. They were so fancy and nice. I thought, ‘She is dressing really nice, Nelson,’ and I was so excited that she was so in style. But later when she changed her outfit, so cloudy for a long time, I wondered, ‘Is that the same Nelson that I met before?’ I think her clothes are getting old so she should change them.”
About her dreams for the future, Tasneem said, “I hope to be close to my Mom. That is the most important thing in my life. And I hope to be perfect in my English and to do good things for this country.
“I hope also to be a good sister for every friend here because they give me so many lovely things. I hope to find a good doctor for my eyes. That is a big dream for me.” (Tasneem suffers from vision problems.)
About life in Nelson in general she said, “It makes my heart warm for my kids and their future. I like the school and the beautiful teachers. And it is safe here.”
Tasneem and Mohammad said they want to thank “all the teachers at Selkirk College who helped us learn English and fall in love with English, and Rahaf Zwayne from Syria who always volunteers from her private time to translate. Without her support I would not have got the job at the Co-op. And people from the group, especially Jolene and Dan Thompson. And thanks also to the Selkirk College student Adib Malas who has helped with translation. “
The Star asked Jameel if he wanted to add anything to the conversation. He said, “I want to speak about the school. My teacher, she likes me and I like her too, Mrs. Byers. And I like all my friends. I am going to just talk about when I started school: they were showing us the school and I was very excited to be in the school, and we were gluing coloured trees, and it was very fun.”