“Marhaba,” I say. “Ish mi Craig.”
“Is mi,” my teacher corrects me. “Not ish, is.”
I say it again – marhaba, hello. Is mi Craig; my name is Craig.
My new Arabic teacher is Khaled, a 10 year-old new Canadian with an infectious smile and a great deal of patience. He walks me through some basic conversational words, tweaks my pronunciation and helps me wrap my head around word gender in Arabic. Gender in Arabic works the same way it does in French, which helps.
Khaled is calm, encouraging and emphasizes repetition and contextual word use – all great traits in a teacher of any age. Khaled is also a Syrian refugee. His family fled their home in the ancient capital of Damascus and, after many trials, have taken up residence at the Toronto Plaza Hotel.
Technically, I am dropping in on his English class. Along with a group of twenty-some other Syrian Canadian youth, Khaled is learning the primary language in his new community. I am here with my WelcomeHomeTO team mates Rania and Fatima. Over the past few months, the WHTO team has been visting Syrian newcomers staying in hotels to record their stories and get to know our new neighbours.
There is nothing about Khaled, nor any of the other youth in room that cries out “refugee.” Even those who carry clear scars of conflict, either physical or psychological, are children first. They laugh, they poke at each other, they borrow my phone for selfies or to take pictures with us. Fatima is the favourite until I learn I learn from Khaled that my name sounds the same as the Syrian word for “shovel.” I quickly get Khaled to write Amu Craig (uncle shovel) phonetically in Arabic on a nametag to compete with Fatima’s winning smile.
After seeing some linguistic progress on my part, Khaled decides he likes this teaching business. He thinks he could be good at it. Khaled likes the idea of teaching his new neighbours more about where he came from and how there is far more to Syria than war, more to Damascus than rubble. Every youth we have interviewed has had dreams – to be a doctor, to open a business, to be a an active member of their new community. Their excitement and their aspirations are part of what they have brought with them to Canada.
When the Syrian refugee crisis first hit the consciousness of the Canadian public, it was because of one picture – little Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on a beach, like a discarded doll. The war had been going on for some time before that one image captured the public’s attention. Facts tell and stories sell, they say; the story that picture of Alan Kurdi told was of the worst human since the Second World War.
Canadians heard the story of Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes and, as we always have, decided to act. Campaigns to help Syrian refugees and privately sponsor refugees to Canada popped up all across the country. As government assisted refugees settled into hotels across the GTA to wait for new homes, Canadians looked for ways to partner with existing settlement organizations and even created their own initiatives. Businesses created starter positions to help these new Canadians get a foot in the door for employment. Some groups of private sponsors have even pushed our government to bring more refugees here, and bring them faster.
The good will has been astounding. The outpouring of money, support and engagement has been tremendous. At the same time as we open our communities to welcome new neighbours, it is important to remember that these new Canadians, like Khaled, bring with them more than just war stories.
These new Canadians are engineers, farmers, accountants, musicians, doctors. They are parents, children, grandparents; they have needs of various complexity. Like my new friend Khaled, each and every Syrian newcomer also has something unique they bring to our Canadian community.
There will be many challenges ahead for Khaled and his family. Learning English, figuring out public transit and all the little cultural pieces many Canadians take for granted will all be part of their settlement journey. Fortunately, there are many services and friendly new neighbours ready to assit.
At the same time, there is much these Syrian Canadians have to share with their new community.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a founder of WelcomeHomeTO.