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Relationships In Montreal, Armenian teen navigates diversity of adoptive home

Until recently, Nancy Solakian has lived her whole life in the close embrace of Christian Armenian communities but now in Montreal, she wants to meet new people.

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

Name: Nancy Solakian

Age: 19

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Home country: Syria

On Nancy's first day at school in Montreal this fall, something happened that may be symbolic. The teenaged refugee was separated from the only other Armenian girl in the class because the teacher didn't want anyone in the class to speak languages other than French.

Until very recently, Nancy had lived her whole life in the close embrace of Christian Armenian communities, first in her native Syria and then in Canada, where she and her parents and two siblings arrived as refugees in January. The street on which they live, in Montreal's diverse Cartierville district, is an epicentre for the city's recent Armenian arrivals. An Armenian church and community centre are just down the road, as is the Armenian school where, last winter, Nancy did all-day French-immersion studies in a classe d'accueil.

Coming to Quebec meant that Nancy and her family had to begin negotiating the strange balance of life in a society that is multicultural, yet determined to make newcomers functional in French. In Syria, Nancy spoke mostly Armenian and used the official language – Arabic – only when necessary.

In Canada, however, things will be different, she says.

"Up till now, I've been completely involved in the Armenian community, but I want to meet other people, Canadians," she says, speaking through a translator in the family's small apartment. "I want to integrate." She is not talking about assimilation. The Armenian phrase she uses literally describes the action of tying things together with rope.

She says her parents are very traditional, culturally and in terms of religious observance. Both are descended from survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 who, through four generations in Syria, kept a tight grip on the mores and culture of their people, in part by staying within the community. They lived in Aleppo, which, before the civil war, had an Armenian population of around 100,000, three times the number living in Cartierville and in suburban Laval.

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Nancy had no trouble connecting with other people when she arrived in Montreal, but these contacts mostly came through her membership in three Armenian choirs and a traditional dance group. All of her excursions into the Canada that lies beyond Cartierville have happened in the company of her family or with an Armenian cultural organization.

"I prefer it that way. I feel more comfortable," she says.

However, beginning classes in the fall, in a more remote school with non-Armenians, meant travelling alone on the transit system for the first time and then studying in a room full of non-francophone students of many origins.

She was told not to sit with the one person who could sustain, in the class, the community network upon which she has relied since birth. And yet, she says, the experience was smooth and non-alienating.

"I didn't feel like a stranger, even on the first day," she says. "After three days, it was like we had known each other for years."

Her group-oriented socializing, and her family's traditional outlook, have meant that dating has not been a big part of her life. "I have dated, a few times," Nancy says. "My family was fine with it because they knew the boy."

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She already has two important criteria for her future husband. "He will have to be a Christian and probably also an Armenian – that's important too," she says. "I made that decision. My parents didn't tell me I must, but I'm sure they also want that for me."

Her family will remain central to everything, she says. Her parents are still relatively young. Her father, who ran his own auto-parts business in Aleppo, now works in a chair factory owned by another Armenian. Her mother is the family strategist, who is good at seeing various options for solving problems, Nancy says. But she already foresees the day when she will be taking care of both of her parents, preferably in a big house where three generations can live and visit.

In a sense, her mother Ani says, Nancy began taking care of the rest of the family as soon as they left Aleppo for temporary refuge in Beirut. That was where the real shock and hardship of exile hit them, she says, and where Nancy's calm and resolute character made a big difference.

"When things seemed too hard to go on, my daughter gave me hope," Ani says. "She was always trying to do something to make us happy. Sometimes I think it's because of her that I'm here."

It seems that the resilience of the Solakians is really grounded in the family circle, and supported by the many concentric rings of their Armenian community. The challenge for all of them is to hang on to what they have, while negotiating the more fluid geometries of Canadian society and social life.

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