Skip to main content

The Albik family -- dad Ziad, 33, mom Boushra, 24, and son Elyas, 1 -- is living in Claresholm, Alta.

One-year-old Elyas Albik and his parents have a love affair with Alberta's nightlife, but it's not what you think.

Ziad, 33, Boushra, 24, and Elyas fled Syria for Lebanon in 2015 and arrived in Claresholm, Alta., last month thanks to members of the Faith Community Baptist Church who sponsored them.

A couple of weeks ago, they went for a walk in the dark for the first time in five years. For Elyas, it was the first time he had been out at night in his life. Instead of the sounds of bombs and gunfire, all they heard were the chirps of crickets.

"It feels like we're free," said Ms. Albik.

Unlike Syrian refugees sponsored by the government, who are making their homes in cities, privately sponsored refugees settle in their sponsors' communities, some of which have populations smaller than big city high schools.

In Claresholm – population 3,758 – the Albik family is settling in amidst the spacious, wheat-filled backyards.

The only barber in Claresholm recently retired and Mr. Albik, who has worked as a barber since he was 13, is hoping to fill the spot. (His father is travelling to Damascus to locate proof of Mr. Albik's barber license.)

Ms. Albik, who has a degree in psychological counselling, now enjoys taking Elyas to a preschoolers program where she's met other parents in the community.

"They fit in wonderfully," said Art Hildebrand, the pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church.

"Not only do they have a new home, but we've got a new barber in town."

Because Claresholm doesn't have public transportation, members from the church often give them rides to do errands, even heading an hour away to the nearest international grocery store.

They recently had the opportunity to go to Calgary, also more than an hour away, to meet up with other Syrian refugees. They went, but Ms. Albik says they regretted it, not because they didn't enjoy spending time with other Syrians, but because they missed Claresholm.

"We feel loved," she said. "We feel like we're home."

Across the country, the population of Chipman, N.B., stood at 1,291 before church groups created the Grand Lake Refugee Project to help bring the Rafia family to their new home.

They arrived in early February to a pale yellow house, filled with donated furniture, clothing and books from the small retirement community, just minutes from the Salmon River.

The family of six – dad Mohamad, 53, mom Raghda, 41, son Ali, 15, daughter Duha, 12, son Ibrahim, 11, and son Sami, 9 – left Syria for Jordan four years ago. Two of Mr. Rafia's brothers were executed and Ms. Rafia has lost contact with her family.

Dawn Burke has been helping the family adjust to life in Chipman.

Ms. Rafia joined the Women's Missionary Quilting group in town, and caused the quilters to stop in their tracks one day when, out of the blue, she spoke a couple of words in English, said Ms. Burke.

The children are in school now and are using sports as a way to bond with their classmates until they learn English. Mr. Rafia says he's excited to fish for salmon and hunt. He'd also like to get his driver's license, but he has to learn English first. To help, some church members have obtained ESL certificates to teach the family.

As they settle in, volunteers are shuttling the Rafias to Fredericton, which is more than an hour away, so they can attend ESL classes and cultural events, and shop for groceries they recognize from home.

Across Canada the cast of good Samaritans helping in smaller towns are often refugees themselves.

When Tahera Al-Harazi heard Port Colborne, Ont., would be welcoming two Syrian refugee families, she knew she had to do something.

Ms. Al-Harazi fled Uganda in the 1970s for Canada. She now runs a local laundromat in the city with her husband. They donated two brand-new bunk beds for the city's newest residents – the Musa Agha family.

"To have new refugees come here and flourish is good for the whole community," she said. "It makes not only Port Colborne, but Canada, a better place to live."

The Musa Aghas arrived in the lakeside city on New Year's Day.

Belal Musa Agha, 34, his wife Hiba El Khoury, 27, and their children Jana Musa Agha, 8, and Fares Musa Agha, 4, fled Syria for Lebanon three years ago.

When they first arrived in Port Colborne, they were nervous, though those fears are lessening now that they are taking ESL classes and the children have settled into school.

"I love the quiet, and people are so nice," said Ms. El Khoury.

The St. James and St. Brendan refugee sponsorship group in Port Colborne was originally planning to sponsor only one Syrian refugee family – Mr. Musa Agha's brother and his family. However, when his brother said they wouldn't feel right leaving the Musa Aghas behind, the churches decided to sponsor both.

They now live across the street from each other. Their houses are a stone's throw from local parks and Lake Erie.

One of their favourite activities is walking along the open beach, watching the sun sink behind the calm shores.