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Name: Nancy Solakian
Home country: Syria
How do you know when it's time to abandon your home? For the family of Syrian-Armenian refugee Nancy Solakian, the moment came after a cousin and six other Christian Armenians had been kidnapped by armed men, after all the windows in the neighbouring houses had been shattered by bomb blasts, after the road to the airport had become such a no-man's land that the family could not bear to look out as the taxi sped along.
That was in October, 2012; she had just turned 16. "We were seeing such devastation around us, we just held hands and prayed that we would have a safe journey," Nancy said recently through a translator, while sitting in her family's quiet apartment in northwest Montreal.
Life had been good in Aleppo. "I was extremely happy," she said. She sang in choirs and took dance lessons, and enjoyed making drawings to give to her friends. She spent most of their time within the Armenian community, which numbered about 100,000 when the Syrian civil war began. Most, like her mother's family, had come in desperate flight from the 1915 genocide in Turkey, which sent a wave of Armenians into neighbouring lands.
That's the background to Nancy's experience as a refugee: Her family has been in this situation before, of having to escape an all-consuming violence that arrives on the doorstep with no apparent reason. The theme of exile was familiar to her long before the guns came out in Aleppo, through tales passed on about escape from the genocide, tales that she recently illustrated for centenary commemorations in Montreal.
At 19, living in a strange land where she speaks neither official language with any fluency, Nancy seems remarkably self-possessed. She may not yet have much knowledge of the country where she's living, but she has a strong and very portable sense of where she's from.
The family's first destination in 2012 was Beirut, a city already crowded with refugees from Syria and from parts of Lebanon near the long Syrian border. Even within the Armenian community, help was hard to come by, and her family didn't like to ask.
"Going to Beirut was like a slap in the face," Nancy said. "We had to find housing, we had to leave everything behind except a suitcase of clothing. I had to leave my friends and the community we had. I had to give up my upright piano that was such a beautiful dark burgundy. Among the things we left, that's the one I miss most."
The school year had already begun in Beirut, and the family needed money, so Nancy and her older sister Mery took jobs in a place where they designed jewellery. Their father, who had run a truck-parts business in Aleppo, opened a shop with their mother in which they sold formal wear – clothes for people going somewhere special.
"My parents have a lot of taste," Nancy said, as her mother quietly refilled our teacups. "They did everything together, the accounting and everything, and it was successful."
But Beirut was never a special place for any of them; their intended destination was even farther from the Armenian homelands. "My mother told us, 'Our dreams are in Canada. If the papers arrive, we're leaving.'"
Their case was taken up by Hay Doun, an Armenian social agency in Montreal formed eight years ago, mainly to offer services to the elderly. Since the Syrian crisis began, however, Hay Doun has become the busiest private sponsor in Canada for refugees from that country, settling more than 700 families. Most come to Montreal, where the Armenian community now numbers about 30,000, clustering mainly in Laval and near the immigrant "landing strip" where Nancy lives now.
The small apartment is in one of a number of dreary, nearly identical walk-ups in an area where almost every building has a vacancy sign on the door. Nancy's mother has cousins in the city who furnished the place for them before greeting them on their arrival at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
The plane touched down in Montreal one night last January. The next morning, in their new home, Nancy opened the curtains of her new room.
"It was snowing," she said. "I watched the snow fall with a warm cup of coffee in my hands. We all literally just sat there and watched the snow coming down and the squirrels running through the tree tops. We had never seen squirrels before. My little brother Garo said, 'Let's go out quickly before it all melts.' My dad explained that it was going to be here for four months."
After three years' absence, Aleppo seems remote to her, especially since the town and the community as she knew it scarcely exist any more. "No one is really left there," she said. "We are at peace knowing that there's no family left in Syria." Her sister's boyfriend, who is also a Syrian Armenian, escaped on the last non-military flight out of Aleppo.
Nancy takes weekly trips around Montreal or in the country with her family, or with people her own age whom she has met through Armenian choirs and dance groups. What she had not done, when I first met her in October, after 10 months in Canada, was to go anywhere in Montreal completely by herself.
She was about to do so a few days after our meeting, to attend a new school where she would continue to try to improve her French to the point at which she would be allowed to resume her regular education. She had carefully mapped out the journey: two buses and two metros, with an 11-minute walk.
"I'm not afraid, but it's something strange for me," she said. There are so many layers of strangeness to pass through, on the long road from becoming a refugee to feeling at home.
Editor's note: Nancy Solakian is a Syrian-Armenian Christian. This story was updated with these details.