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Home & Design Syrian refugee finds ‘home is wherever my family will be’ after a life in exile

For Nancy Solakian, the sense of having lived her whole life in exile seems to have intensified her feelings about what it is to feel at home.

photos by Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings

Nancy Solakian likes to draw and design things. For Mother's Day one year, the 19-year-old fashioned an intricate silver pendant in which three butterflies surround a heart that encloses her mother's name, Ani. Ani is in the room when Nancy tells me this and smiles with pleasure as she shows me the pendant on a fine chain around her neck. We're sitting in the small Montreal apartment where, since January, Nancy has lived with her parents and two siblings as privately sponsored Armenian Christian refugees from Syria.

Nancy designed the pendant in Beirut, Lebanon, the family's first destination after fleeing the Syrian city of Aleppo. Beirut was never meant to be a new home. "We were just visitors. We knew we wanted to come to Canada," she says through a translator. She was 16 at the time but managed to get a full-time job designing jewellery, which became part-time as she continued her schooling for two more years in Lebanon. She would make her designs on a computer, transfer them to a USB storage key, then give that to the technician who would make the pieces.

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"I loved the work and was sorry to leave it," she says. She would like to become an interior designer some day and already has a pet project in mind.

"My mother and I have a dream," she says. "Ten years from now, we'd like to have a big house with lots of rooms for guests, so that when the grandchildren visit, nobody's crowded, everybody has their space and we can all enjoy being together."

I point out that in 10 years' time, Nancy will be 29. Will she still want to live in the same house as her parents?

"My first home will always be where my parents are," she says. "Even if my sister and I get married, and we will, we will come back home. Home is wherever my family will be."

To get the full sense of those words, you have to know that in some ways, Nancy has never felt at home, even in Aleppo, where she and her parents were born. She grew up believing that home, in the fullest sense, was in the Armenian mother country that she has never known. She spent most of her time in Aleppo within the Armenian community, which numbered around 100,000 before the Syrian civil war began. The church and community centre were right across the street from her house, in a mostly Armenian neighbourhood.

"I spoke Arabic only when I had to," she says.

The sense of having lived her whole life in exile seems to have intensified her feelings about what it is to feel at home. For her, she says, home is primarily about "the blessing of my family being around me, of being at peace together and loving each other in the home, and of holding hands and helping each other in this new life."

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And how would this aspiring interior designer like her home to look? The apartment she and her family live in can't be said to reflect much of their own taste, if only because almost all of the furniture was put there before they arrived, by relations already living in Montreal. Nancy is happy that her parents exchanged the dining room set because "the other one was too old." But she's not especially keen on very contemporary furnishings either. "Classic" – that's the word that comes to her mind. She would like to design spaces in a classic fashion.

The classic usually has to do with forms that have been passed down, that don't change much and that are never outdated. All of that could also describe the strong cultural and familial feelings Nancy has about home. The house of her dreams will have rooms for everyone, she says. Her dream home, however, is one she lives in every day, with those who are absolutely necessary to make it so.

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