Maher Al Helwani will always remember his first day in Halifax. After arriving at 3 am, he slept, ate breakfast and left his hotel for a walk. “A woman in her fifties came toward me, asked if I was Syrian and then gave me a big hug,” he says. “I felt like my mother was hugging me.”
That encounter confirmed that life in Canada would be good for Maher, his wife Hanadi Sallouha, and children, Dania, 14, Ahmad, 11, and Youssef, five. They had fled Damascus, Syria, after Maher’s sweater factory was destroyed and conflict moved into their neighbourhood. “My wife would leave the house to get something and she’d see broken glass from bullets on her way back,” says Maher.
The family was often harassed at roadblocks because Maher had the same name as someone with a violent history. “We can live on bread only but we need security,” he says. They flew to Alexandria, Egypt, living for 18 months in an apartment, receiving aid from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Maher worked as a tailor and took computer networking courses. Several months after being approved to move to Canada, the family was on its way.
They arrived in late February with one suitcase missing. “Everything I had, all my memories were in the suitcase,” recalls Hanadi. “For two days I didn’t eat.” Luckily it was returned to the hotel where the family stayed for eight days. ISANS found them an apartment in a quiet and convenient neighbourhood and also matched them with a couple who visit weekly and help them settle. “We are like brothers and sisters now,” says Hanadi.
Maher and Hanadi study English in Bedford while the children go to school. “I like every subject, but for me the best is music,” declares Dania, who takes weekly guitar lessons. Ahmad loves mathematics and playing ball with his friends. Little Youssef happily says he enjoys school too. Unlike the others, Dania had already learned some English and French before arriving.
Happiness and relief is written on this family’s faces. “My teacher asks me why I am always smiling; I tell her I am living my dream of studying English,” says Hanadi. She is impressed with Nova Scotians. “People speak slowly to us and help us at the mall and on the street. “Even the bus drivers help us,” adds Maher. “If you smile and tell them you’re Syrian, they will help you.” On Saturdays the family assists other Syrian refugees at the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs and they swim at the Canada Games Centre on Sundays.
Hanadi’s future might include nursing, while Maher’s goal is to work in computer networking. “The main thing for us here is that we have security,” says Maher. “And the children have an opportunity to go to school and study.”