Bilal Masalmeh plays with daughter Remas

Syrian refugees embrace new ‘mother country’

Family forced to flee war in Syria, has since found refuge in South Surrey

Bilal Masalmeh opens a side door to an apartment building behind Semiahmoo Shopping Centre.

Gesturing to a reporter and translator, he heads down a hallway and into his modest two-bedroom apartment.

It’s dark inside – the lights are out and curtains drawn – but lively, as his three children climb living room couches with two friends.

Masalmeh is wearing a Vancouver Canucks T-shirt, and although he can’t speak English, he gives a thumbs up when someone says “Canada.”

Just two years ago Masalmeh and his family were in a much different place, caught in a war zone in his home country of Syria. Now they’re refugees, living in South Surrey and ready for a fresh start.

“Canada for me now is my mother,” Masalmeh, 37, says through an Arabic interpreter.

“I won’t leave it. Even if the war finished in Syria, I won’t go back.”

Forced out

For Masalmeh and his family, life in Syria was good before the war. They lived in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria just 13 kilometres from the border of Jordan.

He had a clerical job with the government. It was safe, and they were happy.

But in 2011 angry protests erupted in Daraa after the arrests of at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school.

Demonstrations were met with violence from security forces, but anti-government protests nonetheless continued across Syria. A great civil uprising had begun – one that would lead to the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The conflict in Syria has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, according to the Canadian government, which has resettled 28,755 Syrian refugees since last fall.

According to government figures, nearly 4.6 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Thousands more have fled to Europe.

Efforts to bring some of those refugees to Canada have been aided by community and faith groups, which have sought to privately sponsor refugees to add to Canada’s commitment of sponsoring 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Masalmeh and his family of five got their tickets to Canada after applying through the United Nations. They were living in Jordan – their home for two years after fleeing violence in Syria.

“Life was very, very tough,” he said Tuesday afternoon through interpreter Youssef Khattab. “We couldn’t stand to stay in the camps. Life was miserable.”

The family left the refugee camps behind to find their own home in Jordan. Aid came to them in the form of vouchers, which were a mixed blessing – shopkeepers would double prices for refugees.

Masalmeh tried working as a driver but refugees were forbidden to work, and police would catch up to him.

“The help we were getting from the United Nations while we were there, it was very little. It was not enough to make a living, that is why I took the risk and tried to do some jobs on the side to make a living.”

Once in Canada this spring, the family stayed one day in Toronto before officials moved them into the Sandman hotel in Richmond. They stayed there for a month, alongside 30 other Syrian refugee families.

On April 1, the family arrived at their new home – a ground-floor apartment in South Surrey.

A new life

Masalmeh’s home is simple and sparse. The walls are bare, there are no toys in sight.

His wife Rasha is out shopping today, and their children – Ahmed, 3, Retaj, 7, and Remas, 8 – are watching videos of Spiderman and Frozen Elsa, on a popular YouTube channel.

Daughter Remas listens as a reporter’s question about why they decided on Canada is rephrased in Arabic.

“I heard Canada was a very nice and safe country, and I want to learn English, not any other language,” she says through the translator.

Masalmeh says learning English is not easy for him or his family. English lessons are just three times per week, on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“Because of the long time between Monday and next Friday, I forget what I’ve learned. It is a new language for us,” he says. “When I’m going outside to look for a job, I need language. No one will hire me.”

The family was forced to leave other loved ones behind in coming here, and they’re still trying to find their way. But they’ve made some friends – there are two other government-sponsored Syrian refugee families in the same building – and the White Rock Muslim Association is helping build bridges for them in the community.

His two daughters are enrolled at Jessie Lee Elementary, and younger Ahmed has already been helped by the health-care system, having received a week’s worth of treatment for asthma after arriving in Canada.

Some neighbours have also extended helping hands.

“We were getting help from some people at bus stops. Although the language is a barrier, still we can communicate a little bit,” Masalmeh says.

Marietta Ostberg is one neighbour who has stepped up to help – finding them small jobs and driving them to appointments. She said the refugees have lost their extended families and support system, and they need help from the community, particularly when it comes to learning English.

“It is absolutely the most important thing. I’m getting odd jobs for them to do… it’s tough. How can you get a job if you can’t communicate?”

A helping hand

Crescent United Church has worked to sponsor numerous refugees over the years, including a Syrian family – which has since settled in the Guildford area of Surrey – along with two other local United Church congregations and the White Rock Muslim Association.

Peter Jones, past-chair of Crescent United’s church council, noted that unlike immigrants, refugees did not ask to leave home.

“They may be very appreciative of a safe haven, but they may miss home terribly. They have family and friends in the country that they left, or perhaps dispersed around the world, or they may not know where they are – whether they’re dead or alive. So it can be a very difficult time.”

Refugees face immediate anxiety with language, money and jobs – things citizens of a country might have had a lifetime to work on.

“It’s hard, is the best word I can think of, for refugees in general,” Jones said.

Language is key to everything, noted Jones. Often there’s a desire for men to pick up a hammer and find a job, but if they don’t get basic language skills, or aren’t able to learn the language in parallel with working, doors aren’t going to open.

“People often ask me what can we do. Well, we don’t need more old clothes,” Jones said.

For those who want to help, Jones encourages people to volunteer with, or contribute money to, existing programs for refugees. Another way is to support non-governmental organizations like UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, which take significant risk in helping people in refugee camps of war-torn areas.

“People who actually come to Canada are just the minority,” Jones said. “Most refugees in the world are not settled.”

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