Hala Jawish is riding her red and yellow mountain bike up and down the sidewalk in front of her family's small house in Windsor, Ont., trying to remember the lyrics to the earworm she picked up during her first week of school.
"O Canada," she begins confidently in thickly accented English. She pauses, then continues tentatively, "we stand up" and then punctuates the end of the line with a spirited, "hey!"
She lets her six-year-old sister, Mirna, one half of a pair of twins, hop onto the seat of the bike and then pedals forward, wobbling precariously on the street as cars zoom by. Her sister, Alysar, 11, and brother, Yhaya, 10, are also weaving down the road on their bikes. None of the kids are wearing helmets.
This danger doesn't register with their parents, who are inside the house. The risks of being a kid on a bike out on this quiet residential street, just a few hundred metres from the Detroit River, are nothing compared to those they faced in Syria and Lebanon. After leaving their home in Aleppo in 2012, the Jawishes finally arrived here as refugees at the end of June.
Walid Jawish, the family's patriarch, is an ocean away from relatives, unemployed, unable to communicate in English and squeezing himself, his wife and their seven kids into a three-bedroom house. But the life his children will have here is infinitely better than the one they left behind, he says in Arabic through a translator.
"They lived the experience, they saw with their own eyes why we left to Lebanon and why we left Lebanon to Canada," he said. "There is nothing I can hide."
Three years ago, the Jawish family fled Syria. It seemed like one day, between breakfast and lunch, their neighbourhood became a war zone. A bomb detonated near the house. A sniper was perched on top of the building next door.
Mr. Jawish was in Lebanon at the time – he worked there as a shoemaker – when his wife, Amina Barket, called to tell him what had happened. He could barely hear her over what he thought was the sound of the vacuum cleaner running in the background. That wasn't a vacuum, she told him, that was a military helicopter flying directly overhead.
By 2 p.m., Ms. Barket and the Jawish kids were in a car, on their way to a town on the Turkish border. They stayed there for several weeks and met up with Mr. Jawish, then made one final trip back through their old neighbourhood to pick up some documents before driving to Lebanon.
Mr. Jawish's hazel eyes widen in horror when he recalls the scene they encountered. "The buildings were on the floor," he said. The streets, usually a beehive of activity, were deserted. In the span of four blocks, all they saw were crumbled buildings and burned-out cars.
Lebanon was to be their permanent home, but as a Sunni family moving into an area where the Shiite party of Hezbollah enjoys broad support, they found their new lives difficult. The garbage collectors routinely roughed up Mr. Jawish; the kids in the neighbourhood bullied Yhaya. Mr. Jawish said life was so humiliating, he would have preferred going back to Aleppo over staying in the southern suburbs of Lebanon.
Another factor that made life in their new home difficult was that in 2013, Ms. Barket was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Health care in Lebanon was so expensive, she would routinely travel through several checkpoints back to Latakia, a town in Syria, for treatment.
When Mr. Jawish received the call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees letting him know that Canada would take in his family, he jumped at the chance. The day before he left Lebanon, Mr. Jawish told a reporter in Beirut he was wary about travelling to this country in the West, where he knew no one, or the language. But returning home was out of the question.
With an allowance from the Canadian government – which is providing funds to support the family for their first year here – Mr. Jawish pays rent on the furnished house. The dining room has two tables pushed together to accommodate the large family. There's a twin bed pushed up against the wall – that's where Yhaya, the family's only son, sleeps. Marwa, 15, and Rama, 14, share a room, as do Alysar, 11, and Hala, 12. The six-year-old twins, Mirna and Miral, share a twin bed in the same room their parents sleep in. The chests of drawers in the girls' rooms are covered with donated Barbies, Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch dolls.
Though there are eight mattresses in the house now, the Jawishes are prepared to squeeze another few bodies into this space.
Mr. Jawish's brother stayed in Syria to join the revolutionary army. When the Islamic State swept in, the militant group claimed those soldiers as its own. His brother was in a van with others and came under a hail of gunfire by the Syrian regime. A bullet entered through the back of his neck and exited through his cheek, leaving him with half a face and a desperation to find safety in the West. He was taken to Turkey for treatment and is in hiding from the Islamic State, Mr. Jawish said. He wants his brother to come to Canada.
Ms. Barket is also concerned for her twin brother's safety. He was with some cousins when they were killed – their throats slashed. His was cut, too, but he survived the attack. He helped take Ms. Barket and the children to a Turkish border town the day war broke out in their Aleppo neighbourhood. He is currently in Lebanon, waiting for his own call from the UNHCR that promises an escape.
The family stays in close touch with relatives, mostly via Facebook. They know that daily bombings continue in their neighbourhood from those updates, as well as from the TV in their living room, which is usually set to an Arabic channel. For now, this is the only media Mr. Jawish can consume, but with English classes, he anticipates that will soon change. Once he gains proficiency, he wants to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in Windsor.
When Mr. Jawish leaves the house at about 4:30 p.m. for a doctor's appointment, Alysar is quick to grab the TV remote to load up her favourite music video, No Other, by the Korean boy band Super Junior. Her handle on English is still shaky, but she has memorized the lyrics to several K-pop songs. Marwa is sitting on a loveseat, staring at the screen, Hala is doing her homework on the sofa and Rama is in her room. The three youngest are outside.
Two hours earlier, before the children had come home from school, Mr. Jawish reflected on his decision to leave the Middle East. In June, he had worried about whether his Muslim family would be accepted here, whether his children would resent him for the upheaval. Those concerns are now a distant memory.
"These two months, it kind of gave them back their entire childhood," he said, grinning.