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As refugee arrivals begin, Syrian Canadians look to rebuild their community

Mohamed Masalmeh sorts children's winter clothes collected for Syrian refugees with wife, Alaa, at his apartment in Halifax.

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Every Sunday, Mohamed Masalmeh used to stand in a Halifax park holding Syrian flags and handing out pamphlets about the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the civil war in his home country injured and killed tens of thousands, Mr. Masalmeh was determined to keep the plight of Syrians visible halfway around the world.

But even the face of Syria in Halifax couldn't easily guess at how many fellow Syrians there were in his small city.

"We didn't have a Syrian community," Mr. Masalmeh said. "We're just Canadians who are from Syria originally."

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Across Canada, even in famously multicultural Toronto, there's little perceptible Syrian diaspora. Expat Syrians tend to scatter wherever they resettle, and they explain their estrangement from each other in two ways. They come from a cosmopolitan trading hub and tend to feel quickly at ease in new cultures. At the same time, the long-time surveillance and oppression of the Assad government has made them wary of each other, maintaining aloofness even after decades in Canada.

With 25,000 refugees soon to settle across the country, Syrian Canadians are determined to pave their way and reconnect with each other in the process.

They've done so even across divisions that can remain bitter. Mr. Masalmeh, who lost another cousin last month in the fighting, has filled out paperwork to help resettle people who have supported the Assad regime. "I have to help them out," he said. "I don't like them, I literally hate them, but at the same time I can't blame their children. Their children can't take the fall for their parents' bad decisions in life."

Halifax only has a few hundred Syrian Canadians. Around 60 per cent of Canada's Syrians live in Quebec, as many as 50,000 people, by the estimates of members of the community.

The first migrants arrived in the province in the late 1800s from what was then the Ottoman Empire. France ruled Syrian territory for two decades at the end of the First World War, and Syrian children continued for decades to learn French.

Though few traces remain, a Little Syria enlivened Montreal's old city with grocers and cafés a century ago. A Syrian immigrant started Canada's first Arab-language newspaper in Montreal in 1908, and the first church serving Canada's Syrian Orthodox community still stands in the city.

Newer immigration has settled around Montreal's St. Laurent and Cartierville districts, along with the suburb of Laval. But over the decades, the visible Syrian presence largely disappeared, even after new waves of immigrants, said Youssef Shoufan, the communications director at La maison de la Syrie, a non-profit cultural organization that opened in 2014.

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For Mr. Shoufan, who moved to Canada when he was 7, that meant hunting all over Montreal in specialty spice shops when he wanted to cook a Syrian meal. He tracked down a type of cumin only grown in Syria, a certain kind of pistachio and hard-to-describe Aleppo pepper.

La maison de la Syrie is one of several efforts in Montreal to create apolitical, secular spaces for local Syrians, most of whom are Christian, with an estimated 20 to 30 per cent Muslim, according to federal and provincial government figures.

The distance between Syrians has much to do with the country's regime rather than religious distrust, said Rahim Othman, an IT specialist who has lived in Vancouver for 10 years. B.C.'s lower mainland has roughly 2,500 Syrian Canadians but they were mostly unacquainted, he said. They feared that things they said in Canada could get back to the Assad government, he said.

"When the government knows something … not only they would be harassed, but also their friends and relatives in Syria itself would probably be impacted," said Mr. Othman. "They try to avoid talking openly and socializing openly with people they don't know well."

Recently, however, several Syrians in Vancouver collaborated to map the local spots that refugees might use: grocery stores, mosques and churches. They plan to staff a hotline and a resource centre. Last year, they formed their own chapter of the Syrian Canadian Council.

"Pretty much everyone is united in helping and supporting the refugees," said Mr. Othman. "When it comes to differences, we're resolving them."

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Canada's most geographically concentrated Syrian neighbourhood is in Mississauga. Maher Azem, who moved to Canada in his early 20s, said there are still few businesses in the area that are specifically Syrian. But recently, Syrian chefs, musicians and artists helped throw a fundraising party in downtown Toronto, showing video testimony from Toronto's Syrian community of what they remembered of their childhoods in lively Syria.

Second-generation Syrian Canadians, born in Canada, also have thrown themselves into helping the refugees. In 1976, a man named Georges Frangié opened a Montreal restaurant inspired by Aleppo, the beloved city he left behind. He decorated it with photos of home, produced flavourful mouhamara with the spices of his childhood and gave the restaurant a familiar name: Alep, French for Aleppo.

The restaurant eventually expanded to a popular bistro next door called Le Petit Alep (Little Aleppo). Mr. Frangié passed away in 2005, but his wife, Jacqueline, and daughters Chahla and Tania keep his dream and his bustling restaurant alive. And these days, even though they have grown up in Montreal, Chahla and Tania, unable to ignore the conflict in Syria, have worked extra hours preparing food for fundraisers to help victims of the upheavals.

For Tania, the country's crisis is a source of anguish. "It's your history, your roots, your way of thinking. Knowing that it's being destroyed, that people are suffering and scared, it hurts," she said this week in her restaurant on Jean-Talon St., where her family was busy preparing food for a fundraiser. "We just want to help any way we can."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described La maison de la Syrie as a community centre. This has been corrected.

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