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Syrian refugees, Zina Moustafa, centre, her son Wahid Yousef, left, 13, and daughter Riham Yousef, 15, pose for a photograph during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the Surrey School District English Language Learner Welcome Centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday December 15, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Syrian refugees, Zina Moustafa, centre, her son Wahid Yousef, left, 13, and daughter Riham Yousef, 15, pose for a photograph during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the Surrey School District English Language Learner Welcome Centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday December 15, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Arts program for Syrian refugees in Surrey, B.C. is music to their ears Add to ...

The Globe and Mail is looking at people who have been touched by the refugee crisis British Columbia, from sponsors and teachers to the refugees themselves.

When embattled Aleppo is under evacuation and it’s unclear what has happened to your family there, it could seem trivial to be answering questions about a recent concert experience in Vancouver. And yet the group gathered at the Surrey School District’s English Language Learner Welcome Centre beams at the memory still.

“This is the first time in our life to see something like that; I was dreaming to see a place like that in my life,” Zina Moustafa says of her experience seeing the Vancouver Bach Family of Choirs at the Orpheum this month. “It was a dream and now it came true,” she continues, speaking through interpreter Izabeil Philips.

That Sunday afternoon, 61 people who use the Welcome Centre travelled to Vancouver for Christmas with the Bach Choir. The outing was funded through the Canada Council for the Arts’ Welcome to the Arts program. The pilot initiative, announced earlier this year, invited arts organizations to apply for funding to offer tickets to refugees. The Welcome Centre connected with the Vancouver Bach Choir as well as The Arts Club Theatre, which provided more than 30 tickets to its current production of Mary Poppins. “I wonder what goes through their head when they go to a performance,” says Natasha Klein, the Arts Club’s director of education. “We know we’re going to go to the theatre and be entertained. We take it for granted. But these families – they don’t know what to expect.”

The refugees knew nothing about Mary Poppins – they hadn’t seen the movie or heard the music – and it was an evening performance with a long trip back to Surrey afterward. So Ms. Philips and her colleague, Irina Ahmad, settlement workers who organized the outings, figured some families – especially those with young children – might bail at intermission.

They did not. Rather, they were reluctant to leave. Afterward, the kids stood on the sidewalk, dancing and giving the show’s songs a whirl in their newly acquired new language. “They were even trying to sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Ms. Ahmad reports.

At the Orpheum, for many of the young people, it was their first time at a live concert. They were struck not just by the music, but by the setting – snapping photos of the stage, the ceiling, everything around them.

“Even when they went to the washroom, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Ms. Ahmad says.

She adds that they were amazed to see children participating. “Oh, children on the stage? Maybe I can be an actor.”

Ms. Moustafa’s son, Wahid Yousef, 13, may have fallen asleep toward the end, but he loved the concert and would like to see more.

“I like everything – the songs, the place, the people,” adds his 15-year-old sister, Riham, with Ms. Philips translating. “I like the songs so much, the Christmas songs.”

The family, originally from Aleppo, is Kurdish – and thus targets. They had moved to Damascus for work, but when the war started, they returned to Afrin, north of Aleppo, then to Erbil, Iraq, then to Beirut. They arrived in Canada last January, under a private sponsorship. In Syria, they had a large, three-bedroom home and owned a supermarket. In Surrey, the family of six lives in a cramped two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Ms. Moustafa works nights as an office cleaner in Burnaby. Sometimes the older kids come along to help.

Most of the family converted to Christianity when they were in Lebanon. Ms. Moustafa begins to cry when she explains that her mother and one brother are still in Aleppo, trapped, while cousins on both sides of the family have been abducted. Her husband’s cousin, a cab driver, has been missing for three years. They don’t know what has happened to him.

“We still have hope,” Ms. Moustafa says, in tears.

Minutes later, she brightens as she talks about the performance at the Orpheum.

“I can relax and go on that mood so I can be comforted a little bit and ease all my pain when I hear the music,” she says.

“That’s why we started doing that,” Ms. Ahmad says. “Just to take them away from their home, from their worries, always watching the news, bad news, and just to go and relax and don’t think about these things and just enjoy the time.”

Conductor Leslie Dala learned backstage that there was a group of Syrian refugees in the audience. Toward the end of the event, he welcomed them, spoke about music being a universal language and said he was humbled to have them there.

“Music is transcendent,” Mr. Dala said this week. “We can try to connect, using music as a bridge.”

The audience applauded warmly and enthusiastically.

“I was happy,” says Hozan Abou Zied, 17, another Syrian refugee from Aleppo who attended. “And it surprised me that they acknowledged Syrian people,” he adds, tearing up, with Ms. Philips translating.

Another Syrian refugee who attended, 18-year-old Yousif Al-Hirmiz, says hearing the music brought back happy memories from home.

Ms. Ahmad, who used to live in Syria, says the benefits of the program go far beyond a couple of hours at a performance.

“The children in the homes, they always see the parents worrying or crying or talking about life in the past or how hard it is here,” she says. “It means a lot just to take them away from this environment and have some fun together and to see your children happy and forget about everything.”

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