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Cell Phone Lifeline   

author: Mandy Martin / photography: Johnny C.Y. Lam

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After six months in Cobourg, Syrian refugees are settling in and are grateful to be out of the war zone. Phones keep them connected to their scattered families, their past and their language, but the biggest challenge now is learning English


We are trying so hard to have an adult conversation. Salem and Fatima meet me after yet another English class. They listen intently to my questions and answer in simple phrases: “Yes, here is good”, “Yes, very cold.”

Their eyes flash with intelligence and goodwill. With shame, I realize I cannot correctly pronounce a single word of Arabic in exchange.

I look with despair across the empty tabletop separating us. Then I’m told Salem and Fatima recognized the tune “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” while learning the English vowels “E”, “I” and “O” here in Canada. It’s the same tune Syrian school children sing when learning Arabic.

Heartened, I ask another simplistic question about food. It’s loaded into a cell phone English-Arabic app held by one of their Canadian sponsors. The text comes back “How do you like your toast?” Salem and Fatima’s eyebrows go up in surprise, the cell phone is shaken (like you kick or swat an appliance that isn’t working) and once again we look at one another across the linguistic abyss.

In the silence, I put away my pen, place both palms of my hands on the table and say, “E, I, E, I, O.”

We all laugh like fools.

Communication is the primary challenge the Syrian refugees and their conscientious Canadian sponsors face as the process of integration unfolds. Though it can happen through the eyes, facial expressions, gestures and cell-phone apps, it is with words we convey our deepest emotions and most complex ideas. English and Arabic have few similarities. You can’t simply guess at what an Arabic word may mean because you can’t readily read the written swirls (read right to left) or recognize West German language-rooted alphabet clumps. For the Arabic speaker (heck, even for many of us), the “rules” of English grammar and pronunciation are alien and baffling in their inconsistencies. Yet learning English is the number-one priority for these war-battered people hoping to find work and build lives here.

As of the end of June 2016, there were six Syrian refugee family units in Northumberland County: three families, one couple and one man (waiting to be joined by his family) in the Cobourg area and one family in Brighton. There are also families and individuals who have landed in Prince Edward County and Quinte West, and more are winding their way through numbing bureaucracy to get here. All have been sponsored by groups of dedicated people who’ve united to give financial and social support for a one-year transition into Canadian society. It’s a story of remarkable generosity and challenging cultural dynamics – steep learning on both sides.

To try to understand the refugee experience better, I spoke to Patricia Rebolledo, Executive Director of Horizons of Friendship, the Cobourg-based international development organization that has reached out to support Syrians arriving in Northumberland.

“I was a refugee from Chile,” she says. “I can put my feet in their shoes. It’s like coming to Venus or Mars. They have been blown here where they have no roots. Your internal landscape is in shambles. When you come from a country with war, you and your children have been suffering a lot of things for years and witnessing a lot of things. To start in a new language is not easy. You feel like a child. No shared language can create a traumatic disconnect.”

The memory brings her – and me – to tears.

“In another country, every task – buying gas, going to the supermarket, how to pay, how to do the line-up – can be a real problem because you don’t know the system. You need a mentor in a new place. Not paternalistic, but someone who helps. It’s a new society with things never seen in previous life.”

That’s where groups like Better Together have stepped in. In January 2015, three Cobourg people from three different churches asked what could be done to assist Syrian refugees. Six ministers from the Cobourg Ministerial Association met and decided to work together to sponsor three to five Syrian families to Canada.

The Better Together Refugee Sponsorship program was born, explains Gloria Peters. Now an affiliation of up to 10 area churches, the group has committed to sponsoring seven refugee families. Two have arrived, one is imminent and three more will hopefully come in 2017.

“Each family has a core team (of sponsor/volunteers) who commit to supporting the family for a year,” says Peters. “It’s a lot of work for the team but, at this point, our two families are settling well. There have been a few hiccups but the refugees have an overwhelming sense of thankfulness.”

FLEEING DAMASCUS| Three years ago, Salem, Fatima and their two daughters, then aged five and six years, fled Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Civil war was terrorizing the populace. Shrapnel shells, bullets and assault-rifle attacks were laying waste to, first, residential areas, and then the very heart of the Syrian cultural and government centre. By 2014, stepping into the street became a high-risk decision. “Home” was no longer a haven. The Al Shraidehs fled, crossing into northern Jordan and registering with the United Nations as refugees. From the outset, after research and discussion amongst themselves and their extended family, they knew they wanted to come to Canada specifically: there is no civil war, democracy rules and human rights are entrenched.

The Al Shraideh family arrived at Pearson International Airport on February 8, 2016 – during the coldest days of winter. Fatima thought they’d landed on the moon, but in the days following the girls embraced the weather and Salem videoed them making a snowman to send to the grandparents in Jordan. The kids were enrolled at C.R. Gummow Public School in Cobourg and the adults started conversational English classes for two months and now attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes four times a week at Trinity United Church in Cobourg.

The war in Syria has resulted in a diaspora of their immediate family. Two of Salem’s brothers are in Syria, two in Germany and one is in Jordan along with Salem’s 93-year-old father and mother. Fatima has four brothers in Jordan, her father and his second wife in Syria with three sons.

Cell phones are the lifelines for these scattered families. “Each family had their own cell phones when they arrived,” Peters says, “and the first thing they wanted to do was connect with their families.” The phones are the photo albums of memory: the house where they once lived (now rubble), a brother (now dead), a streetscape (now vaporized). Sponsors quickly arranged to provide and cover the cost of new cell phones and data plans to ensure the refugees could stay in touch with their loved ones. For computer equipment, there have been some purchases plus donations and tech upgrades to facilitate Skype visits with overseas families. Social media provide more detailed and up-to-date news of home than do Canadian media outlets.

Salem’s arm pops from his side as if spring-loaded to shake my hand when we first meet. When I look at him questioningly, his hand remains extended, he nods, his eyes assuring me this is the real deal: we will shake. The same happens with Fatima. This is a strong signal of acceptance of Canadian social custom. In Syrian culture, there is no shaking of hands or hugging between a man and a woman outside a family. The normal greeting is to put one hand over the heart and nod gently.

They listen intently. Despite the frustration of communicating, their senses of humour shine through: they say they are “in Canada – eh?” smiling at their mastery of this idiom. But there’s a long way to go to fluency. Salem has until next February to improve his vocabulary in hopes of finding employment. As with all the Syrian refugees, sponsorship is good for one year from the date of arrival in Canada. That’s one year to acclimatize and then it’s expected they will be economically self-sufficient – a tall order. The one-year mark ticks silently, a mental stopwatch for all the newcomers.

The young father is determined to get a job – any job – to support his family. He volunteers as a caretaker at the Cobourg Y twice a week and bikes everywhere. “What they want,” says volunteer and sponsor Gary O’Dwyer, “is for the children to grow up and go to school. Salem wants to make enough money to be able to afford to live in a nice place and pay the bills.”

The couple has been warmly greeted by local merchants and are thankful halal meat is now available at grocery stores like No Frills, Wal-Mart, Metro and Foodland. Other items like specialty pickles (turnip and mango), tahini and ingredients used in such dishes as tabbouleh and fattoush, are being considered. The Cobourg Pizza Pizza took pains to ensure halal pizza is available.

Fatima is an excellent cook, says co-sponsor John McDougall: “It’s really good, nutritious, made from scratch, so it takes time to prepare. The flavours are subtle. They make their own yogurt and soups. There are melt-in-your-mouth desserts.” Chicken and rice are staples, a wide variety of fresh vegetable dishes and shawarmas are a favourite. The Syrians delight in visiting, when possible, the Blue Sky mideastern grocery store in Pickering or North York.

“Something all Canadians could learn about Syrians is that they are very sociable. They love to get together, meet new people, have pot-luck suppers,” McDougall says.

“There is an ancient tradition of gathering around food. It is very important. It can be overwhelming if you’re a special guest in their home. They really know how to greet you!” adds O’Dwyer.

FLEEING HOMS | The Syrian Armed Forces launched a concerted siege on the city of Homs in February 2012. The country’s third-largest city, an important cultural and commercial centre for over 2,000 years, was being blown to pieces, people slaughtered. As their house crumbled around them and their car was crushed, Mohammed and wife Heba knew they had to flee. They dug a hole through a wall with their bare hands and, for the next three hours, edged their way beyond their neighbourhood, dodging bullets, bombs and mayhem, a distance they used to make in under 10 minutes.

With only the clothes on their backs, the young couple (married for four years) found and hired a cab to drive them to Lebanon over two hours away. There they registered with the UN to come to Canada as refugees.

Mohammed is a gregarious, athletic young man. He was a pro soccer player for the Syrian national team when they fled, and was able to coach soccer in Lebanon while they waited three years in their rented apartment for news of resettlement. Meanwhile, Heba made some friends within the expat community and their daughter Ritaj was born in 2014.

On December 27, 2015, the family arrived in Toronto where their Cobourg sponsors from Trinity United Church were waiting. The first challenge was settling tiny Ritaj into a car seat, a legal must and a frightening separation for the child. The next days, engulfed in winter clothing, their new boots adding weight and encumbrance, the family was out and about, pushing Ritaj through the snow in a stroller. Escorted by sponsor team members, they sorted out documents, registered for language lessons and visited the New Canadian Centre on Covert Street in Cobourg for guidance.

The Ghrirs “don’t care” what the challenges are: the long winter, the struggle to master English, the occasional bout of sadness, the loneliness. It is good here, they both emphasize. The couple knows one of Mohammed’s brothers is “in jail” in Syria. His youngest brother and cousins were killed. Heba’s father is alive in Syria, while her mother, two brothers and one sister are in Jordan.

They are grateful to be here and are embracing life in Cobourg, where they want to remain to raise their growing family. They love Victoria Beach, the parks, the people, the warmth of small-town life – and above all, the safety. At home and, more recently in their places of exile, it was dangerous to wander into areas where there were actual or potential religious and/or political conflicts. One of the first questions Canadian sponsors are asked by newcomers is, “Is it safe to walk around? Can you go out after dark?”

In July, Cobourg Police Chief Kai Liu, himself an immigrant who spoke no English when he arrived from Taiwan 30 years ago, outlined Canadian policing for an ESL class at Trinity United Church: police cannot enter your home without a warrant, police are here to protect you, bribes are illegal and frowned upon, etc. Speaking through a translator as the newcomers listened intently, Chief Liu was a powerful example of an immigrant succeeding in Canada.

Trinity United has become a hub of support for refugees, guided by the experience of a church east of Cobourg. The small rural United Church congregation from Castleton and Grafton – about 58 people – was the first to step up in Northumberland County, more than a year before the boy-on-the-beach photograph galvanized the world. A father, mother and children aged 4, 9 and 11 arrived in August 2014 from Jordan where they had been living in a house organized by the United Nations. The father, a truck driver from Homs in north Syria, had been out in a car with the family one day when a bomb exploded, showering them with glass. That was the last straw. They drove as close as they safely could toward the Jordan border and then walked at night for two days, hiding in bushes by day. In Jordan, they registered with the UN as refugees, underwent medical and other assessments and eventually got the green light to come to Canada.

When the family arrived, no one spoke English and they were under the complete care of the Castleton/Grafton congregation. It was tough for everyone. “Language is the biggest issue. If you can’t communicate, how can you do anything?” asks the Rev. David Lander.

It was a challenging year – with many cultural lessons learned – and once the sponsorship was complete, the family moved to London, Ontario to be in a bigger city. “They speak nothing but good of us,” says the Rev. Lander. “Now, there’s a human relationship, not just legal or financial. The father phones and keeps in touch with members of our group.”

The experience of the Castleton/Grafton congregants has helped enormously in understanding and preparing for all the subsequent Northumberland County Syrian sponsorships. The Grafton/Castleton group is co-sponsoring with Cobourg’s Trinity United Church the Ghrirs’ other family members who, with luck, will arrive in time to welcome Mohammed and Heba’s new baby boy due this November. Born in Canada.

BRIDGING THE LINGUISTIC DIVIDE| Abeer Al Salihi, from Syria, and husband Mohammed, from Iraq, came to Canada as immigrants in 2014 and have been instrumental in offering help to Syrian newcomers through translation and friendship. English-speaking before they arrived, they’ve also been ambassadors, explaining Arabic and Muslim cultures to Canadians.

It’s Ramadan, the time of one-month’s fasting (no food or water from sunrise to sundown) for observant Muslims, when Abeer and I meet at a coffee shop. Abeer, wearing a hijab, urges me to have coffee although she will not join me. She is open, gracious and friendly.

Before coming to Cobourg, she was told she would not see hijabs in the town, that she may encounter some public backlash. But her husband walked with her to Cobourg beach – and nothing happened.

A civil engineer in Syria, Abeer worked as an engineering assistant in Dubai. In Cobourg, she found part-time employment as a child-care worker at the Y and also as an after-school teacher at C.R. Gummow Public School. Six months in, the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough hired her on a one-year contract as a youth worker assisting young people, many refugees, registering for school, for education assessments, etc. She’s one of a team of three, plus a coordinator. “I’m fulfilled, satisfied,” Abeer says. “I love my job.” Meanwhile, her husband opened his own business in May – Safe Step Service – and it’s going well.

Last March and April, Abeer taught four conversational English classes for Arabic-speakers. They were crash courses in simple social norms to ease people through initial interactions: hello/goodbye, food and drink, please and thank you. She also led conversational Arabic classes for Canadians and continues private tutoring in Arabic for several individuals.

“One Syrian woman said the moment she saw us she felt safe,” Abeer says. “We could explain Canadian life for them. They saw everybody as welcoming and friendly and didn’t understand why; they wondered what the catch was.”

The ESL program, formed in 2015, is coordinated by the Northumberland County Resource Committee on Refugee Sponsorship Groups. The committee is comprised of 13-14 groups who bring resources to the table to support resettlement of the Syrians. The county government also approved a $10,000 donation in 2015 for Syrian refugees. With Abeer now working in Peterborough full-time, volunteers from the New Canadians Centre (NCC) Cobourg, the Help Centre, Cobourg Y and Syrian sponsorship groups throughout the community teach ESL classes at the rent-reduced Trinity United Church in Cobourg. The NCC also runs a Wednesday morning class at the Cobourg Y (which provides free babysitting service). There are beginners’ and advanced classes. The advanced class continued through the summer months.

As I try to wrap up this story, which has been a challenge to work on and is constantly unfolding, I’m flooded with emotion – tears of frustration, of anger, of downright anguish for people caught in circumstances beyond their control. But what joy to see Mohammed Ghrir laughing with his new Canadian friend Ian McKelvey. Two days after the Ghrirs arrived in Cobourg, Ian saw Mohammed across the street. When he learned he was a Syrian refugee, McKelvey gathered up some Christmas goodies and walked across to introduce himself.

Despite the language barrier, they immediately clicked. Now, they “hang out” together, going to the gym, playing occasional soccer games, doing guy things. “Mohammed has come a long way. His English is so much better,” McKelvey says.

As for what we ordinary citizens can do to make the Syrians welcome, Patricia Rebolledo says, “Try to be kind. Put yourself in the shoes of the other. Learn from people who have been through the hell of history. Here we have witness of war, destruction and so on. It’s our opportunity to learn how a country with such successful, educated people ended in shambles. They (refugees and immigrants) do not come to take what others have produced. They come to contribute. We need to make them feel they are part of the community we are all building. To me, a community is a work in progress: always changing, shifting, and all of us are contributing.”

One simple step towards bridging the vast cultural divide is to learn this greeting: Assalamu alaikum. Peace be upon you.

In the spring of 2015, Julie Aldis began talking with a couple who had previously sponsored refugees about what could be done to help displaced Syrians. By word of mouth, the Northumberland Syrian Lifeline group was formed in late August with a focus on helping single women. “Seeing photos of bombed homes, women with dead babies in their arms, lost husbands, in a culture where women do not have the same respect as men, aren’t looked on the same way (as men), we said we’ve got to bring them home with their children,” Aldis says.

The group committed to sponsoring seven refugees aged 21-55: two Iraqi sisters currently in Jordan; a Syrian couple now in Dubai; a single Syrian woman living in Turkey; and two Iranian sisters, who arrived in July. Only the Iranian sisters were processed under the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program, which provides some government funding. The other five are all being fully sponsored by the Port Hope group at an estimated $10-15,000 per person for one year.

The initial application for sponsorship went to a central Canadian government processing office in Winnipeg. There was then a period of time working with the Syrian candidates making sure they had every document they could possibly have – birth certificates, passports, school records, etc. Approvals from Winnipeg were then forwarded to “whatever visa or embassy office overseas responsible for the area where the refugee is currently living. Because so many of the extra Canadian processing offices were closed down after the first 25,000 Syrians came to Canada, those still in the system, or being applied for, have fewer service centres,” Aldis says.

“In February 2016, there were still 10,000 people in the system when the Canadian cutbacks took effect,” she says. “I just keep writing to as many people as I can in an effort to expedite travel to Canada for the refugees.”

Aldis worries about the current safety of Lifeline’s assigned refugees. Some have been previously tortured, and women living alone with no legal status in a foreign country are physically and financially vulnerable, she says.

“It’s probably one of the most frustrating, complicated processes I’ve ever dealt with,” she says. “Part of that is a new government taking over from a government that was in for a very long time. One hand doesn’t talk to the other. The worst thing has been the waiting. You try to keep your patience, you try to be understanding.”

Aldis’s four-storey heritage house on Walton St. will house all the female newcomers.

(Respecting Muslim culture, the husband and wife will be housed elsewhere.) Just like so many sponsors and refugees, the house is waiting, waiting for the next chapter to begin.

BRING: The Brighton Story
In September 2015, Hugh McDonald watched the images of Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a Turkish beach and, like so many Canadians, asked himself, “How can I do something to help?” A core group of like-minded, motivated people came together – Hugh, Helmut Enns, Keith Smith and Christine Hammond – and organized a public meeting in November. “We thought maybe 20 or so people might show up. There were 61 or 62!” Smith says. “We made a presentation and Hugh, a natural, asked anyone interested to stand up. All did! We asked for a list of volunteers and pledges. We came out of that first meeting with $30,000 in pledges.”

The non-denominational and diverse group called itself the Brighton Refugee and Immigrant Needs Group (BRING) and quickly formed subcommittees to handle paperwork, housing, clothing, schooling, ESL and finances. Then they approached a government-approved sponsorship agency, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Peterborough, and were matched with a family whose security, medical and background checks had been completed.

On February 21, 2016, the Alrefai family, originally from Aleppo, Syria, flew in from Beirut, Lebanon with one suitcase each: father Housam “Sam”, mother Dima and three daughters, Talia, Nima and Ciline. “The Peterborough Archdiocese said it was the fastest they’d ever seen a form go in and then a family arrive,” Enns says.

BRING estimates it will cost $35,000 for their one-year sponsorship of the Alrefais. There have been some unforeseen expenses such as dental care, but donations keep coming in. A Colborne dentist, himself once a Vietnamese refugee, donated some initial dental work. “He said it was his way to help pay back,” Smith says.

Things are coming together nicely for the family. Sam and the eldest daughter now have part-time jobs and Sam even has his driver’s licence. The younger girls are enrolled in soccer this summer, and Dima may work in the near future. “Dima says her girls have made good friends and are very happy here,” Smith says. “She has said repeatedly, ‘Thank you for saving my daughters’ lives.’”


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carl wiens

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

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