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

Just Posted

Surrey Mayor delivering “virtual” State of the City Address on Tuesday. (Screen shot)
Surrey Mayor says city is ‘earning accolades from near and far’

Doug McCallum delivered his second State of the City Address on Tuesday since being elected in 2018

North Surrey Sport and Ice Complex. (Photo: larkgroup.com)
North Surrey rink, Newton playground earn B.C. excellence awards

Awards presented by BC Recreation and Parks Association

Delta council began with an Indigenous land acknowledgement for the first time on Monday, May 10, 2021.
Delta council opens first meeting with Indigenous land acknowledgement

Acknowledgment will be read at the start of each council/committee meeting and City of Delta event

Surrey Fire Service battled a fire at an apartment building in Fleetwood late Friday night (May 14), near 84th Avenue and 160th Street. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey firefighters collecting donations for people displaced by Fleetwood apartment fire

Fleetwood BIA, community association also band together for donations, help

A prowling coyote proved no match for a stray black cat who chased it out of a Port Moody parking lot Friday, May 14. (Twitter/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Cat who chases away coyote asked to join Port Moody, Vancouver police 

Caught on camera Friday, the black cat jumps out from under a parked car and runs the wild animal out of a vacant lot

A forest of dance-protesters outside the BC Legislature on April 11. These participants were doing the Dance for the Ancient Forest in support of the Fairy Creek blockade and against old-growth logging. (Zoë Ducklow/News Staff)
Arrests begin at Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island

Five protesters arrested as RCMP begin to enforce injunction

A thunderstorm pictured in Fraser Valley in 2021. (Black Press Media/Jaimie Grafstrom)
Wildfire concerns sparked after 320+ lightning strikes blasted B.C. yesterday

Approximately one-quarter of the province is currently listed as being at moderate risk of fire

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit released a poster Tuesday, May 18 featuring the names and photos of more suspects involved in the Lower Mainland gang conflict.
Police issue warning for 8 more men involved in Lower Mainland gang conflict

B.C.’s gang task force says it’s expecting ‘violence to continue and escalate’

A restaurant server on White Rock’s Marine Drive serves customers on a roadside patio. Indoor dining and recreational travel bans have been in effect since late March in B.C. (Peace Arch News)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate falls to 411 cases Tuesday

360 people in hospital, up slightly, two more deaths

The Banff National Park entrance is shown in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Minister asks Canadians to camp carefully in national parks as season starts

Kitchen shelters in Banff National Park closed, trails on Vancouver Island will only be one-way

Names of those aboard the ship are seen at Komagata Maru monument in downtown Vancouver, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The City of Vancouver has issued an apology for its racist role in denying entry to 376 passengers aboard a ship that was forced to return to India over a century ago. Mayor Kennedy Stewart says discrimination by the city had “cruel effects” on the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims aboard the Komagata Maru, which arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver mayor says sorry for city’s role in turning away South Asians in 1914

Kennedy Stewart has declared May 23 as the annual Komagata Maru Day of Remembrance

A crew of WestCoast WILD Adventures employees tackled an onslaught of litter left at the ‘Locks of Love’ fence at Wally Creek on May 2. (Anne-Marie Gosselin photo)
Litter woes consume popular ‘Locks of Love’ fence on B.C.’s Pacific Rim

Popular view spot near Tofino plagued by people hanging masks and other unwanted garbage

Vincent Doumeizel, senior advisor at the United Nations Global Compact on Oceans, as well as director for the Food Programme for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, pulls up some sugar kelp seaweed off the French coast in April 2020. He was the keynote speaker during the opening ceremony of the inaugural Seaweed Days Festival. (Vincent Doumeizel/Submitted)
Let’s hear it for seaweed: slimy, unsexy and the world’s greatest untapped food source

Experts talks emerging industry’s challenges and potential at Sidney inaugural Seawood Days Festival

Most Read