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welcoming refugees

The birth of a new life in Canada, literally

Amid a tense week for Muslims in North America, the Alkarnake family grows almost immediately upon arrival in Fort McMurray

Ibtesam Alkarnake poses with baby Eyad after giving birth on Wednesday in Fort McMurray. Ms. Alkarnake held on when her water broke during the flight to Canada, and didn’t want to go to the hospital until sharing a meal with those who had welcomed the family to Canada.

Exactly when her water broke they're not quite certain, but Pastor Doug Doyle suspects early on in the journey – either during the first flight, from Jordan to Germany, or soon into the connecting flight to Alberta.

Ibtesam Alkarnake, her husband, Medyan, and their four children were finally travelling to Fort McMurray as privately sponsored refugees from Syria. They had fled Daraa more than five years ago after their home was bombed; since then, they had been staying at a temporary residence in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

A refugee committee at the Fort City Church began the sponsorship process in late 2015 and, after some uncertainty and delays, a new life was finally within reach. However, there were initial concerns that Ms. Alkarnake's pregnancy could jeopardize travel plans, perhaps dashing the resettlement they had looked forward to for years.

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So when her water broke – about a month before her due date – she kept quiet.

"She held on tight," Pastor Doyle said with a chuckle during a telephone interview from Fort McMurray. "She wasn't in pain, but she was in total discomfort the whole trip."

On Tuesday evening, some 26 hours and two stopovers after the Alkarnakes boarded their first flight in Jordan, the refugee committee and several other supporters greeted them at Fort McMurray International Airport, bearing welcome signs in both English and Arabic. After hugging and posing for photos, church members packed their luggage into several vehicles and drove to the modest townhouse that would become the Alkarnakes' new home.

Supporters await the Alkarnake family’s arrival at the Fort McMurray International Airport.

"We got them settled in and put away a little bit of stuff and, at that point, she discreetly brought our team co-ordinator and the translator to a corner and let them know that her water had broken," Pastor Doyle said.

"We realized she needed to get to the hospital, but then she stopped us because food had been delivered to the [home]. In her need for hospitality, she would not leave until we had all eaten, and eaten together."

Some 10 hours after landing in Fort McMurray, Ms. Alkarnake was taken to hospital, where she gave birth to a baby boy. They named him Eyad.

The Alkarnakes' new life in Canada comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in many pockets of North America. Two days before their arrival, a lone gunman in Quebec City entered the Centre culturel islamique de Québec and shot dead six Muslims, injuring 19 others, during evening prayers.

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To the south, U.S. President Donald Trump has slammed shut the door on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries – suspending Syrian refugees indefinitely – and is vowing to accelerate construction of a "contiguous, physical wall" along the Mexican border.

The Alkarnake family poses with baby Eyad, who was born almost immediately after they arrived in Fort McMurray.

The timing is not lost on Pastor Doyle and his congregation.

"We're very aware that in the middle of the mess of borders in the U.S., and the little bit of Islamophobia that exists across our country and has expressed itself so horrifically, what we're doing is a push back against that," he said.

"We're making a clear statement that many Canadians want to say, which is, 'Welcome to Canada. We're here for you.' As a church family, we're really excited just being able to demonstrate our faith, and the core value of love that is in our faith. It didn't matter the faith background of who we were working with. From our perspective, all people matter to God: Islamic, Christian, or no faith at all."

In the few days since the Alkarnakes' arrival, the refugee committee helped them register with various departments, began teaching them how to use public transit and assisted with grocery shopping.

The cost of living in Fort McMurray has proved to be a bit of a culture shock. While sorting through groceries that the committee had provided, for example, Mr. Alkarnake was floored to discover the price of a loaf of bread.

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"With this much money, I could get this much bread [in Jordan]," he told the translator, stretching out his arms.

But the family is well-supported. In coming weeks, the committee will teach them about banking and enroll the children in school, all while helping them practise their English. Mr. Alkarnake, a truck driver and a mechanic, has a skill set that will be useful for the resource town.

"It's a whirlwind that's a little overwhelming, but they're doing extremely well in the middle of it," Pastor Doyle said.

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