The Globe and Mail is looking at people who have been touched by the refugee crisis in British Columbia, from sponsors and teachers to the refugees themselves.
General manager Khaled Ali is used to helping guests of his downtown Vancouver hotel get dinner reservations or recommending the best sights in the city. But earlier this year, he went beyond his regular duties to shepherd a special group of families into a new life in Canada, doing things such as helping them learn English or bringing them to Friday prayers at the central library branch.
In October of 2015, the first of 15 Syrian refugee families began arriving at the Landis Hotel & Suites, where some groups stayed months until their bureaucratic limbo ended in May of this year and they resettled into more permanent homes.
Luckily, the groups were greeted by Mr. Ali, an energetic 51-year-old fluent in Arabic who, as someone who fled Egypt in the 1990s to emigrate to Canada, could identify with leaving a repressive regime for a more open society in the West.
While the families endured a frustrating period waiting to start new schools, jobs and lives in a new land, Mr. Ali and his staff tried their best to make the hotel feel like a home. Twice a week, the buffet in the breakfast room was cleared out after the morning serving to accommodate English classes for the many children, and the front desk was always a place for household items to be donated to the families.
A year on, Mr. Ali still keeps in touch with a handful of the families, coming to their new homes to catch up or translate some nagging bit of legalese to help them complete an important contract.
The Globe and Mail caught up with Mr. Ali last week as he was preparing to deliver a box of Christmas presents to a refugee family that has now moved into a home in Metro Vancouver.
You said many of these guests arrived with post-traumatic stress disorder. What were the initial days of their stay like?
I felt their pain because I can feel it more than anybody here [in Canada], what they have been through. I can imagine how terrible it was, especially for the kids. I can imagine them hearing the bombs. It’s difficult for kids to understand “why human beings are doing that” or “if I’m going to live tomorrow.” So when they came to the hotel, of course, I tried to make them feel as comfortable as I can, saying this is their new home and they should take advantage of the freedom they’re going to have here.
What advice did you give your Syrian guests?
Try as much as you can to adopt the culture here, because if you do, you will be successful very fast. And try as much as you can to put whatever happened behind you and start fresh. Talk to Canadians all the time, they’re very nice people, they’re very friendly and they will help you as much as they can.
Were there any Canadian customs that you taught them?
[Many Arabic people] eat from the same plate, for example, so for them to go to our breakfast room and touch something and put it back [on the communal platters] – that’s something I tried as much as I could to say “that cannot happen.” Space [was an issue] as well. For example, “if I’m talking to a guest, you cannot just jump in and try to ask me for something.”
How did the other guests interact with these families?
At the time, it was a very big deal and everybody knew about it. They were very welcoming. If you come to my office right now, I have a box, it’s a couple of gifts that were sent by a lady – she lives in Dawson Creek, and she lived in here when they were here and she sent them Christmas gifts. I swear to God, I’m not kidding you, one of the [local] guests was even crying when they first saw [the families].
What did you learn from this experience?
For me, I learned there’s space for everybody in Vancouver. Also, what I learned the most is how wonderful Canadians are. I was really kind of shocked – in a good way – how much people were really falling in love with the idea of having refugees in Vancouver. [For example], there was lots of people coming with strollers, giving them away [to the families].
I knew Canadians have a good heart, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that much.
This interview has been edited and condensedReport Typo/Error