WELCOME TO THE COUNTRY
The small community of Altona, Man., was settled in the 1880s by Mennonite refugees. In 2016, it opened its doors to five families of Syrian Muslims seeking a refuge of their own. Erin Anderssen reports
It is a breezy June afternoon on the Manitoba prairie, the sun midway across a sky of soft clouds, and cultures are clashing over two sets of young tomato plants growing in a garden.
The debate revolves around which plant will bear more bountiful fruit: the Syrian tomatoes that grow flat along the ground; or their vertically stemmed, domestic counterparts, already standing guard at our feet.
Championing the Canadian side is Shaun Friesen, retired principal turned hobby farmer, who has lent out the half-acre field in question. Defending the Syrians is Ahlam Dib, who arrived in Canada with her family this winter, Middle Eastern refugees transplanted to the farming town of Altona, population 4,100, about 115 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
"I showed Ahlam how I would do it," says Shaun, standing over the Syrian plant, hands in his pockets," and she said, 'Noooo.' "
"This," she says confidently, pointing to the half-buried stalk, and forming a circle the size of a cantaloupe circle with her hands, "make big, big, big tomatoes – big!"
"I am very curious," Shaun says with a grin, "to see how this all turns out."
Having embarked on the largest national welcome of refugees since the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s, Canadians may express much the same sentiment. Since December, nearly 28,000 Syrians have arrived, settling across the country as they rebuild lives lost to war. Yet, as prospective private sponsors lined up en masse, small towns found themselves defending their ability to play host to the newcomers. Sponsorship commitments last only a year; and so, some critics asked, why put vulnerable families one place, only to see them move to a city once the 12 months have passed?
Undaunted, more than 65 towns lined up to sponsor Syrians. And Altona, located 10 kilometres from the U.S. border, in Manitoba's Bible Belt, has taken more than most: So far, 34 refugees, all Muslim, have landed here. Ahlam Dib and Ahmad Daas, along with their three daughters and four sons, were among Manitoba's first. Two more families – brothers, with their wives and children, arrived on New Year's Day, and a family with 11 children landed two weeks later. The arrival of a fifth family, still pending, will bring the town's count to 45. Not so many by city standards – but it represents roughly one per cent of the local population. "There is a lot of love in small places," says Amy Loewen, an Altona sponsor and young mother, "for people who need a home."
At the garden on this afternoon, surveying the green stalks that have travelled, as seeds, halfway around the world, carried in a suitcase by a family who lost everything, including their own farm, questions abound: How will they fare in this new soil? Have they been planted for success? Will they bear the rain to which they are unaccustomed?
And suddenly, it seems like we're not talking about tomatoes anymore.
Altona was founded in 1880 by German-speaking Mennonites, who had emigrated from Russia and Ukraine to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. It's still a church town, even if attendance, as everywhere, isn't what it used to be. The local Christian radio station plays in the waiting room at the doctor's office. The residents joke that it takes three minutes to get anywhere, which Google Maps repeatedly confirms. People drive the speed limit, down ruler-straight streets sensibly labelled with such on-the-nose monikers as 4th Street Northwest and 2nd Avenue Southeast.
Even before you add a strange language and a hijab to their profile, strangers stand out here; pulling into a parking lot, on my second evening, I was stopped and quizzed by an Altona constable in a white pickup truck, roof lights blazing in the dark. "I noticed a rental car driving through town," he said. "Just checking."
Policing may be Altona's one slow business: There's work for most anyone looking – Altona has a cutting-edge publishing company, a canola-processing plant, a farm-equipment designer – and a virtually non-existent crime rate, although "we still lock our doors," one local points out. It's only sensible. That's the character Altona presents: sturdy, and sensible.
One exception may be its sun-faded, 23-metre-high painting, on an easel, of van Gogh's famous Sunflowers, because, as one resident puts it, "Every town must have the world's biggest something." The second exception may be the willingness – indeed, eagerness – for a place of mostly conservative-leaning white folk to welcome a group of Middle Eastern strangers who follow a markedly different religion, along with their 35 children, and all the demands that places on a small rural community. Some arrived sick. Most could hardly say "Hello" in English. They knew next to nothing about Canada, let alone Manitoba.
So, not easy. And hardly – at least on the surface of things – sensible. In the U.S., residents of places not unlike Altona have angrily protested against plans to place Syrians among them.
Curwin Friesen is chief executive officer of Friesens, an employee-owned printing company founded in 1907, and Altona's largest business. (Among its claims to fame: printing Harry Potter books in Canada, and the yearbooks used in the TV show Glee.) Mr. Friesen travels often in the States, going for dinner with his suppliers. When he mentions that his town is sponsoring so many refugees, and that "we're excited about it," he says, "There is just this blank stare, like, 'Are you guys crazy?' And, 'Boy, I hope it works out for you.' "
Altona, as it happens, has been working this out for nearly a decade now. It began with Ray Loewen, who owns the Chevrolet dealership in town. In 2001, in the aftermath of a Central American earthquake, his youngest daughter travelled to El Salvador and Guatemala, where she helped to build houses and repair schools, and was surprised by the generosity of people left with so little.
This started Ray thinking: "Surely if we have so much, we could share more." He founded an organization, called Build a Village, with a group in town. First, they built houses in El Salvador, after raising more than a million dollars across the province. Then they decided to participate in Canada's unique private-sponsorship immigration program, which allows group of citizens to essentially become guardians for incoming refugees for one year, covering startup costs, organizing housing, and providing social support.
Working with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the group sponsored their first refugees, from the Darfur region of Sudan, in 2005. "After that," says Ray, "the families came from all parts of the world." Countries such as Colombia, Tanzania, the Congo and Iraq. And now the Syrians – altogether, about 200 people, in 30 families. In some cases, a family would arrive, and Build a Village would set to work sponsoring their relatives who had been left behind.
Last September, Altona volunteered, through the MCC, to take five Syrian families of any size – two months before the heartbreaking picture of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, lifeless on a Turkish beach, brought the plight of Syrian refugees into shocking relief.
As has happened across the country, churches are doing the heavy lifting – in Altona, four Mennonite congregations and the United Church, each assigned to a family, with Build a Village co-ordinating, and a local government-funded settlement agency called Regional Connections covering off supports such as English classes. The churches each have formal sponsorship committees – about 15 people on the first-call list, with members taking on tasks such as transportation or medical care.
Many people outside those churches have also chipped in, with donations of furniture and housewares, or money. At the first meeting to discuss sponsorship, Mr. Loewen expected maybe 40 people – twice that number showed up. Among various fundraisers, a local landscape photographer collaborated with the Friesens to print 1,100 copies of a calendar to sell for $20 a piece. They were gone in less than a week, raising enough money to cover the cost of sponsoring one family.
Not that there aren't skeptics in Altona. "It would be silly to say that everyone is equally supportive," Mr. Loewen says.
You can hear some of those doubts, expressed carefully, at Cap's Café in the Altona Mall, where locals – mostly over age 50 – congregate regularly on weekday mornings. "The big concern is that they should do as the Romans do," says a man in a striped shirt. "Very often, we have to change. It is nice their being here, but they should abide by our rules." He declines to give his name, and also to expand on which rules he might mean.
"All it takes is one or two for something bad to happen," says his friend.
Who will cover the costs? What if we accidentally let in a terrorist? These are some of the things people wonder, if you poke deep enough. But, chat for a few minutes longer, and they've already softened – to the notion that it's the right thing to do for people in need. This is no Mexican-border wall; more like a good once-over, a weighing of the case, before the door opens.
"We need people," says Striped Shirt, "so if our schools and health care can handle it … "
"It must have been pretty bad over there," a third coffee drinker observes to table-wide agreement, "for middle-class people to make a run for it."
It doesn't take long, in almost any conversation about the refugees, for someone to quietly observe that Altona was built by immigrants – ones who also arrived with language barriers, and who weren't always so popular with their neighbours. Military service conflicted with the Mennonite faith, and when the First World War broke out, that hardly endeared them to those with husbands and sons headed to the front. (In a deal with the government, some, like Mr. Friesen's Ukrainian grandfather, took the designation conscientious objector during the Second World War, and worked for the province without donning a uniform.) It isn't strange, in Altona, to catch people still having conversations in low German. The hijab isn't that out of place, either; between the local conservative Mennonite and Hutterite colonies, Altonans are used to seeing women in various forms of headdress.
As Terry Mierau, a local farmer, puts it, anyone really opposed to the newcomers isn't "thinking out loud" much any more, having assessed the general mood of their neighbours, who have either met the newcomers, or donated furniture, or know somebody helping out.
Terry, although not directly involved in a sponsorship group, has become friends with Ahmad Daas, after selling him his first flock of sheep. (More on that later.) He recalls a meeting to discuss whether his church would take on a family. "A couple" gentlemen stood up to ask a version of the same question: "If we still have homeless in Canada, or wait times in health care, how can we take in more people?" But his church voted resoundingly in favour of sponsorship, and a few weeks later, he says, the donation plate at an evening hymn sing was stuffed with $4,000.
The fact is, Mr. Mierau notes, farmers can imagine, better than most, the sorrow of walking away from your own land – your home – let alone knowing it's probably forever.
Empanadas, kibbeh, and a dash of English
On a Tuesday morning, in the kitchen of the United Church, several women have gathered for a cooking lesson – which is really a practice-speaking-English class. There is Hanan Ahmed, a tall, elegant woman from Sudan – last year, her daughter was the second princess in Altona's Sunflower Queen Pageant; a young woman from the Philippines, who came to study and ended up marrying a local man; a mother from Colombia, who has been tasked with teaching everyone how to make empanadas. By the stove, frying up kibbeh, Ahlam Dib is in deep conversation – Arabic with a sprinkle of English – with Amal Abueraiban, a former Palestinian refugee who came to Altona from Iraq six years ago. Her husband now owns his own body shop in town.
The women eat together, at a long table in the church hall, and the conversation drifts to a money lesson they once received together. Amal and Ahlam, especially, recall with shock the amount of money the instructor, a man, recommended, in his sample budget, should be set aside for hair appointments. "Very bad wife," says Ahlam, laughing.
English classes, taught by volunteers, follow upstairs. There is another class tomorrow, at the mall, provided three times a week by the government. A home-buying seminar is planned, and a job fair.
Canadians tend to think of Syrians as homogeneous – and in many ways, the families that have come to Altona do have similar stories. They abandoned Syria for Lebanon, and their departures were not prompted by a single event, but by watching, over time, as conflict and war boiled over around them. The fighting between the army of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, and, later, fighters for Islamic State, destroyed their neighbourhoods. Electricity went out. Food ran short. People began to go missing. It wasn't safe to send children to school.
One day, for each family, the tipping point came, and they packed up their lives and left. And when the war showed no sign of ending, they left again, this time for Canada.
Mohamad Hamam was a mason who went back and forth to Lebanon to work because the pay was better, returning home to his village outside Aleppo, the UNESCO-designated heritage city, and site of endless fighting, now in ruins. As the war progressed, he worried that poverty and desperation might drive his oldest sons – then teenagers or soon to be – to take up guns for whichever side would pay them.
Mustafa Al Said Hammoud and his brother, who is also in Altona, left their family's printing press in Idlib, the city southwest of Aleppo where the first rumblings of the civil war sounded, as protests against the government: youth demanding jobs and better education. During a conversation over breakfast in their apartment, Mustafa's wife, Mona Al Khatib, talks about the protesting "children" who were shot by the army, about her uncles who were thrown in prison, and how she believes that her family name is "on a list," making it impossible to ever go home.
"It is still my country," Mustafa says, in English. But, using Google to translate, he explains that it is also one he no longer recognizes. Before the war, he says, religion didn't matter between friends; now, that has changed. Mustafa draws lines in the air with each hand: "One side, here" he says, "one side, here." Pointing to the empty space in the middle, he says, "This is us."
His family was not fighting for either side – but they were in the war nonetheless. Still, he says, almost as an aside, they don't talk politics with Ahlam and Ahmad, who, coming from the capital, Damascus, where Assad's army was the only thing holding the fighting back, have a different perspective.
The Daas family lived a comfortable, middle-class live in Damascus. Ahmad and Ahlam worked at a hotel during the day, and Ahlam had a dress shop in her parents' home that she opened in the evenings – until threats starting appearing in writing on the door, followed one day by an armed man ordering her to close up for good. In their neighbourhood, the fear of kidnappings grew; an uncle of Ahlam was taken by an armed gang, and released only when the family paid a hefty ransom.
The Daas family also had a farm, outside the city, bordering the Damascus airport. It had olive trees, sheep, dairy cattle, rabbits and chickens – even ostriches. When the airport was bombed in late 2012, during a rebel siege of the capital, the Daas farm was also hit. On Google Earth, you can see what look like splotches of white paint – near the barn, the farm house, on the edge of the olive grove. The family heard what had happened from neighbours; it was never safe to travel to the farm to see for themselves. In 2014, the property was bombed again in another attack on the airport. By then, the Daas family had already been living in Lebanon for a year.
For Ahmad, this loss elicits a deep grief: Mention the farm, and he avoids eye contact, eventually slipping away for a solitary cigarette. Even Ahlam, who otherwise seems so stoic, tears up when she talks about it. The farm clearly represents the life they lost, and the family, still in Syria, whom they don't expect to meet again, especially – this, their 14-year-old son, Ali, tells me quietly – his father's mother. She weeps every time they Skype, on days when the Internet is working in Syria. The day they flew to Canada, she was turned back at the tightened border between Syria and Lebanon, and didn't get to say goodbye.
Eleven children, a single suitcase
Mohamad Hamam – so far now from his life as a mason, and his stone house in Syria – stands at his barbecue, expertly rotating lamb and beef kebabs in the backyard of his rented Canadian home, on a cozy street in Altona. At the table nearby, a group of sponsors and Mohamad's wife, Widad Dalala, and his eldest child, Abdo, are having the side-by-side conversations that so often happen at these gatherings of Canadian sponsors who don't speak Arabic and the refugees who are, by day's end, exhausted by the task of stumbling through English.
Widad, quiet in a crowd, is putting ground beef on metal skewers. Mohamad is serving up the meat, rolled inside soft pita bread, brought in by the box from a Middle Eastern grocer in Winnipeg, the kebabs then wrapped in grocery-store flyers. Around them, their children – the Hamams have nine boys and two girls – aged 11 months to 17 years – kick a soccer ball, or ride their bikes. The youngest daughter, Rawan, 3, is keen to demonstrate to me that, since my last visit, she has learned the word for knee.
The first time I met the Hamams, sitting in this same backyard earlier in the week, the children came up one by one, throughout the visit, introduced themselves, and shook my hand – even Rawan, and five-year-old Hasan. (Hussein, the baby, would squawk in his bouncy chair whenever someone spoke his name.) Ahmad, who is 13, carried out drinks of Coke with ice on a tray, seemingly unprompted, while his parents smoked, and chatted with two sponsors, Amy Loewen and Hollie Buhler. Usually the group gets by with a homegrown edition of "Arabenglish" charades; but, for my benefit, the Hamams were relying on Amal Abueraiban, from the church-kitchen cooking group, to translate.
Asked what surprised them about Canada, they demur. Finally, Mohamad brings up the weather, which already makes him more Canadian than he knows. "The winters are long, and the summers are short," translates Amal.
"That is a problem for all of us," laughs Amy, who is one of the first-contacts for the family, among a large group of sponsors.
"I want to hear what surprised Widad about Canada," Amy persists.
"I love everything here," is the translated response.
"Really, Widad?" Amy responds. "Really?"
Amy knows the truth: It has not been an entirely easy six months. When the Hamams appeared in the baggage area at the Winnipeg airport in January, they were greeted by a crowd – the sponsors, and members of the Syrian families who had already arrived in Altona and wanted to welcome the latest arrivals, as well as Amal's daughter, Doaa, who came to help translate.
Mohamad recalls spending much of the flight from Toronto to Winnipeg trying to figure out what he might say to those who greeted them – more than a little stressful, since he didn't know any English; it was with a rush of relief that he heard his family's name being called. The sponsors had caravaned up to Winnipeg (trying to memorize the names of the children, from oldest to youngest, along the way) with extra cars so they would have trunk space for the luggage they expected a family of 13 to bring.
But then a single suitcase, tattered and torn, is all that slid down the conveyor belt.
"We were all standing by the luggage cart," says Amy, retelling the story over lunch the next day, with Ted and Darlene Enns-Dyck, the married pastors of the Seeds of Life Community Church, which has taken on the Hamam family. Recalls Darlene, "Somebody pulled off the suitcase, and Mohamad said, 'Okay.' And we said, 'We'll get your bags.' And he said, 'This is our bag.' "
" Halas," says Ted, using an Arabic word, that means to be finished. "That's it."
"That hit us hard," says Darlene. "It was hard to hold it together."
Besides a change of clothes for the baby and five-year-old Hasan – and the winter jackets they had been given by immigration staff in Toronto – all the family brought was their prayer rug and a Koran.
When they arrived in Altona to the six-bedroom house, carefully furnished and stocked by the sponsors, Widad said not a word, and went straight up to bed.
"So, we had to adjust to that," says Amy.
They worried. "Not every newcomer family who comes, you make a connection with," says Ted. "You don't know what you are getting."
"But by the second day," says Amy, "we were all getting kisses. The energy in the home changed very tangibly."
Complicating matters, the sponsors had been told that their family had health issues – but not what they were. Soon, they realized that Widad had been walking for days on a sprained ankle, afraid to say anything lest it prevent her family's journey. A few weeks later, Hussein, the baby, became so ill with a respiratory infection that he had to be hospitalized and then rushed overnight to Winnipeg, where sponsors kept watch with his parents outside his room.
He had been sick, it turned out, for what was possibly months, but the Hamams explained that, in Lebanon, they could not afford to take him to the doctor. At one point, nearly the entire family was taking antibiotics, all of them organized on a shelf in their Altona home. Still, the infection soon spread to some of the children of the sponsors, including Amy's young son.
"There is a bond that is created in crisis," says Amy. By the time everyone was well again, "we were no long sponsors. We were friends."
"Brake," says Jim Parry-Hill, in a tone that suggests he is not, at this moment, watching his Toyota Tercel heading in reverse, toward a tree, on the lawn next to a stranger's driveway.
Khadija Daas, the eldest daughter of Ahmad and Ahlam, is behind the wheel. Once a week, Jim and his wife, Ann Finch, pick her up with her sister, Khaldeye, for driving lessons. Ann sits in the back, quietly observing. On this occasion, having pulled into a driveway to turn around, 20-year-old Khadija has forgotten to look behind as she backs up.
"It's a good idea to see where you're going," deadpans Jim, when, after a few attempts, we are back on the street again.
"We have learned to use schway, schway, a lot," grins Ann. (Schway, schway is Arabic for slowly.) The sisters, who obtained their learner's permits not long after arriving in Canada, are having a great time. Driving lessons, with their various instructors, are never turned down; for starters, they are a chance to get out of the house. In Syria, their mom Ahlam has explained, women rarely drive – there is technically no law against it; it is just something the men do. Now, it's a source of pride among the Syria women that they may be able to pass their driver's exams this fall. Point in favour of small towns: It's a lot easier to learn how to drive here than in the city.
Driving lessons are only one item on a list of responsibilities for the sponsors. Especially for families this large, there is an endless round of doctor and dentist appointments, school registration, grocery-store trips, shopping for clothing – and that doesn't include the fun stuff: birthday parties; trips to the Winnipeg zoo; winter skating on the local rink.
Nada, 16, the Daas family's youngest daughter, suffered nerve damage to her right arm in Syria in an accident at the farm when she was a child, and can't use her hand. The family's sponsors have already booked an appointment with a specialist. Ahlam, 39, is also pregnant – the sponsors have lined up an obstetrician in nearby Winkler. On the day we meet for lunch, Amy receives a message that Abdo Hamam, the eldest of Mohamad and Widad's children, has fainted in school and been sent to emergency; Amy, Darlene and Ted leap on their bikes and head to the hospital. (He was seen promptly, and sent for tests, which came back clear.)
On one visit to the Daas family, Dorothy Braun, a retired assistant school-board superintendent, and the point person in their sponsorship group, arrives with a full binder and a checklist – she covers the details of preschool registration for their youngest boy, Jawad; inquires about the need for a donated freezer; ticks off summer swimming lessons for the boys, and a doctor's appointment in Winnipeg; discusses the approach of Ramadan. "When you are fasting," she tells Ahlam, "we don't want you to feed us." (The sponsors are always served food, even when they just pop in.) Ahlam looks personally insulted. " We fast," she says, "You not fast. No problem."
"I was surprised by how much work it was," says Amy, looking back on the past six months. "I would see Darlene's number on my phone and think, 'Shoot, who needs an X-ray? Who is in the hospital?' It was intense."
Here, the sponsors in Altona suggest, is also where small towns have an edge: Everybody knows everybody, one way or another. The sponsorship committees include nurses, teachers, business owners – or people related to them. The town's high-school principal, who's also on the Hamam sponsorship team, has the keys to the gym – so the kids were able kick around a soccer ball, even on the coldest winter evening. In the school halls, teachers already know the Syrian kids. Doctors at Altona's medical clinic can usually see patients on short notice – one of the physicians even speaks Arabic.
In some cities, there aren't enough child-care spots for English-language classes, so women have to stay home – that isn't an issue in a town like Altona, where there are plenty of volunteers to help. And when 14-year-old Ali Daas and, his brother Mohamad, 12, started a Facebook page for a lawn-mowing business this summer, one neighbour told another, who told another. ("A&M Lawncare," Dorothy reports, "is flourishing.")
Much of what needs doing comes together with an exhausting combination of hand gestures, pointing, single-word sentences, and stumbling around with Google Translate, which is famously unreliable. "Moose" in English roughly translates to "very big deer" in Arabic, covering the basics. But "blood test" translates to "bullet," which, needless to say, is hardly reassuring to the newcomers. Quizzed by her sponsors on the ingredients in her cookies, Widad's typed response produced the English answer "obesity," but she'd entered "fat" in Arabic, and what she meant was "vegetable oil."
You can see how quickly conversations go south, often in funny ways. Ted once asked Mohamad and Widad a question about their relationship, and the answer that Google produced was "We bathed together." (Says Ted, "I assumed it was a metaphor.") Google Translate also seems to have a predilection for bawdy talk, no matter what's being asked – Amy recalls a simple query that became something about an erect penis. "There's a computer programmer out there," says Ted, "who thinks this is the best prank ever."
But imagine, says Rita Wiebe, a retired nurse who organizes medical care for the Daas family, the amount of faith that needs to be placed in a stranger who can't really talk to you, in a country you don't know, with rules you don't understand. At the dentist, she says, "you point to your own mouth, you show them your own cavities, you make sound effects – vrrm, vrrm – and then they have the dentist tell them, 'Okay, I am going to pull your tooth out.' And they just have to trust you."
Love songs for Widad
It's a Friday evening in early July, and lots is going on in the Daas household. Ahlam and her oldest four are taking special delight in telling the story of how Khadija fell in love. Meanwhile, Jaime Friesen-Pankratz, one of the family's sponsors, has come by to give the two older girls a driving lesson. Plans are under way for Ramadan, which starts early Monday morning, particularly the planning of the 3 a.m. family feast before their first fasting day officially begins. Ahlam, who has a habit of putting a half-peeled banana in your hand before you even know you're hungry, has ordered us to the table to try her homemade cheese. There's no refusing her. (As Ali points out, unnecessarily, one day, "My mom is the boss.")
It's a running joke, in the Daas home, and one that gets an airing tonight, that Ahmad would not survive the taking of a second "Canadian wife," though he likes to tease Ahlam about it. (To which she may respond by pretending to stab him with a fork.) Ahlam's father has three wives back in Syria, where polygamy is not uncommon – not counting the three that he has divorced. She has 30 siblings. But the story goes that when family offered Ahmad an extra dowry for a second marriage, he wisely declined.
The family are happy to share these stories, taking special delight in the one about how Khadija met her fiancé. In Lebanon, while she was attending school to become a nurse, a young Syrian named Ibrahim spotted her as he drove by.
"We wait at the bus," says Khaldeye.
"Beep! Beep!," says Khadija.
"Khadija says, 'No …' " Ahlam says.
"Every day, they are waiting at the bus, and he came by car," says her brother Ali.
Eventually, Ibrahim found an intermediary who knew the Daas family, and presented himself at Khadija's home, ostensibly to meet her parents. It was a wise move: Ahlam liked him right away.
"Khadija, just look …" Ahlam says.
"Khadija, maybe …" Khaldeye pipes in, grinning.
"Morning and night, every day, he would come to home," says Khadija. "After three weeks … love."
"So Ibrahim and Khadija talk," says Ahlam.
"Talk yes, but no kiss," laughs Khadija. "Mom … police."
Joking aside, when set against the lives of most Canadian-born teenagers, the complicated gender expectations of the newcomers become apparent. The girls don't roam the neighbourhood as their brothers do, something that gives the boys the advantage of making friends more easily. (During a chat at the high school, the crowd of Canadian boys who have bonded with Ali and Zein Hamam explain that, among the traded information, they learned to swear in Arabic, and the Syrians were introduced to Slushies.)
At a women-only spa night, meanwhile, organized by one of the churches, the hijabs stay on – it's a warm night, but the party is being hosted in an Altona home, in a glassed-in room, which means the women stay covered. "Maybe a man is outside," Khaldeye explains to me. There's no dancing, either, if men outside the family are present. But that night, Khaldeye rises to dance with her sister to the Middle Eastern music that someone has found to play on an iPhone, swaying her hips and waving her hands as if caressing the air. Asked who taught her to dance this way, she says, "My dad." Ahmad, as he displays at the Hamam's one night, with Mohamad on the drums, is the dancer in the family.
"I don't like to think of myself as someone who stereotypes people," says Amy Loewen, but when you hear that a family is coming from a patriarchal part of the world, and the wife, at 35, has had 11 children, you make certain assumptions. You prepare to 'make space' for that. "I am surprised by how different things are than what I assumed they would be."
For starters, she says, "I don't think Widad changes a diaper." The nine Hamam boys do the chores and the cooking; Ahmad, who seems particularly older than his 13 years, cares for the baby. When Mohamad passed the learner's test for his driver's lesson, a group of sponsors came over to celebrate; he stopped them at the door. Widad had failed on her first attempt, and he didn't want her reminded. "When Widad is sad," Mohamad told Darlene, "we are sad."
After dinner, during visits, Mohamad will often bring out his drum and croon what are clearly love songs, his eyes on his wife usually seated beside him. "What are the songs about?" Amy once asked one of the boys. "My mom," he told her, "always my mom."
The sponsors will say they didn't anticipate so much warmth and laughter, though such preconceptions, in retrospect, seem ridiculous. They weren't prepared for homes where guests are promptly served tea or plates of fruit, or ordered to the dinner table, where they will eventually watch their first empty plate be loaded with seconds. (Among the many practical uses the sponsors have found for the word halas, using it to stop the flow of food ranks at the top. "No halas," Ahlam will respond firmly to any such protests, and add two more kibbeh to your plate.) And along with the bottomless plate, an unending welcome mat. "You didn't," says Darlene, "expect to be invited for dinner every night."
Tucking the worry away
Not that Altona's newest arrivals don't worry, every day, about their relatives still living in Syria. Ahlam has a scar on her arm, where she burned herself at the stove upon learning that a favourite cousin, a chef, had been kidnapped and murdered by rebels in Syria. (An alert popped up on the family's Facebook timeline.)
But, they also carry on, tucking the worry away, while they study, and host, and adjust to life here. A visit on a recent Sunday afternoon finds Ahlam and her family on the couch, watching a soap opera in Arabic. Or half-watching; Ahlam is on her phone, scrolling through Ramadan greetings from family, and Ali is texting. In other words, looking not unlike any Canadian household gathered round the box.
Above their heads, on a bristol board, affixed on the wall, is a verse from the Koran, printed carefully in Arabic by Ali. Loosely translated, it means "You keep your religion, I will keep mine, and we will be fine." Not long after they first met, Ray Loewen says, Ahmad told him, "Your God. My God. Same God."
So, life is an exercise of moving forward, without forgetting. For Khadija, this may be the hardest; she and Ibrahim were engaged in Lebanon. When it came time to leave, her parents kept the connection quiet – Ibrahim was not listed with the United Nations as a family member, and they did not want their eldest daughter left behind. "For Ibrahim and me, it's very hard," says Khadija, who speaks to him nearly every day, on the free video app Imo. Her parents and siblings also speak to him often. "He is my son now," explains Ahlam.
A few months ago, Ibrahim refused to appear on video for three days. Her family learned, from him, what had happened, but to protect Khadija they did not say. She now knows: When he went to get paid for his construction work, he was badly beaten, leaving a cut over his eye, and a deep bruise on his cheek, and he didn't want Khadija to see.
You are safe, thriving even, and the people you love are trapped. You learn to live with that, too.
Safety, and raspberries
Not everyone stays. "This is a humanitarian endeavour," says Curwin Friesen, "not a population strategy."
"We don't own them," says Rita Wiebe.
But it still stings, and of course it would. A few years back, when five related Palestinian families – a mother, her three sons and a daughter, and their children – left Altona for Hamilton, Ont., not long after their year was up, the sponsors took it hard. An Iraqi family moved to Saskatoon – the father, an engineer, was hoping to land a job in his field.
Cindy Klassen, a member of Build A Village, and one of the government-paid immigrant-settlement workers in town, recently received a call from an Ontario town looking for advice to manage the arrival of refugees. "It's not the coming that's the problem," she says, "it's the leaving."
Altona's sponsors say they are focused on offering the best start, whatever happens next. The local school board received extra funding for English-language training – the high school used that money to provide separate classes for the Syrian students during the day to push their English along as quickly as possible. While the Hamam kids missed school in Lebanon, the Daas children had been able to attend – and they are more than keeping up, for instance, in math.
The Syrians show no sign, at this stage, of wanting to leave. The Hamams are hoping to purchase the house they live in now, with financial help from their sponsorship group. Mustafa Al Said Hammoud and his brother know that if they work hard enough at English, their printing experience back in Idlib makes them strong candidates for a job at Friesens – they have already had a tour of the press. (And Friesens needs workers – this spring, the company brought in a group of Filipino workers, under a program that allows businesses to nominate immigrants they want to employ.)
Summer work has been found: Khadija, for example, is working in the kitchen at a local pizzeria; Kaldeye started babysitting at the family resource center this week. The men have a lead on some odd jobs, and the sponsors are investigating future education and more permanent employment possibilities. As for the Daas family, they want to be farmers.
Sitting in his backyard, on that first afternoon, Mohamad Hamam, who once feared his sons would carry guns, told me that his biggest comfort in Altona is not worrying about his kids. He won't lose sight of them, as might have happened in a big Canadian city. Even the little ones can bike up and down the sidewalk. Ahmad can go alone after supper to the IGA to buy milk. They attend a school where they are not even allowed to bring a knife in the lunchbox to cut their fruit. His son Ziad, 14, a fine soccer player, can grumble freely about the quality of the Canadian game.
And Ziad's father can sit with his wife, and with the Canadians who consider them friends, and bounce his healthy, curly haired 11-month-old baby on his lap. "No English, no Arabic," Mohamad says, blowing raspberries at Hussan. "Only happy."
Glimmers of a harvest
In the garden, Ahmad Daas wanders ahead by himself, his hands clasped behind his back, pacing with sure steps over the dark soil. Everywhere else, conversations flutter past, the rules are new or strange, and life is an exhausting act of interpretation. But here, he knows what he is about. And today is an especially good day.
He is just back from buying seven more sheep, bringing his flock to 19. They are kept on a property outside town, recently acquired by a young lawyer and his wife, who wanted to help the refugees and found that they could also benefit from the experience of a veteran shepherd. The sheep have been purchased from Terry Mierau, and the plan is that there might be a market for local halal meat – the kind butchered as the Koran dictates.
"He paid for the sheep – that was very important," says Terry, recalling the first day he met Ahmad. "And he walked around that day, and the smile on his face said, 'I've got sheep. Part of me is back.' Their world is turned upside down, but part of it is back. Farmers get that."
As he walks his garden, Ahmad's day gets even better. Bending down, he spots the beginning of a zucchini, shaded under a leaf. He calls Ahlam and Ali and Shaun over, and they stand and stare at it, like a treasure found. It is the fruit of one of the Syrian seeds they carried with them, a sign that the radishes and corn and beans and okra and eggplant, planted in Canadian soil, may also bear fruit. Ali snaps a picture, to show their sponsors.
Some day, says Ahmad, maybe next year, he wants a bigger plot of land.
" Inshallah." God willing.
But for now, this is enough. "Good garden," he says, to no one more than himself.
Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer with The Globe and Mail.
Zado Mimassi, a volunteer with Ottawa Community Immigrant Services, provided translation assistance for this story.