“Being here in Canada, in Nova Scotia, in Antigonish, gives us hope,” says Rabiaa Al Zhouri, the matriarch of the Al Zhouri family who arrived in Antigonish from Lebanon earlier this year.
The family had been living as refugees for three years.
“Over the past five years, there were times we thought we had lost each other,” she said in Arabic, speaking through an interpreter.
The interpreter is St. Francis Xavier University English professor Joseph Khoury, whose own family immigrated from Lebanon when he was young.
“We tried so many ways to keep our family safe during the catastrophic civil war.
Sometimes it meant my family was separated for extended periods, with little contact, because of disrupted communication networks in Syria and Lebanon.
We thought at times that we had lost each other; it was so dangerous. Now my family, we are all together, and we are all safe, and we are very, very grateful. We are in a good place now,” she said.
We are chatting in the Al Zhouri living room, sitting on comfortable couches which Rabiaa has newly re-upholstered.
Above us, on the wall, are framed photographs of her two sons, Majd and Ahgyed, but not just regular photos. These are selfies with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Al Zhouri family were among the 4,200 people who turned up to welcome the prime minister to New Glasgow on Aug. 16. Majd said.
“How amazing that the nation’s leader would be so accessible. This could never ever have happened in our homeland. We feel so honoured. We feel we have come to a country where truly there is openness and trust.”
The family was sponsored by Syria Antigonish Families Embrace, a volunteer community group.
Rabiaa talked about her new home business: “It started very simply with reupholstering the sofa in my own living room. Visitors were impressed, and encouraged me to offer my sewing skills to the community.”
She said her sponsorship group helped her make a flyer, a Facebook page, and business cards and now her home business is being launched, offering tailoring, alterations and upholstery.
Majd shows us cellphone photos of a magnificent chair which his mother had reupholstered for a client, after her husband Toufic completed repair work on the chair frame.
“We make a great team. We want to stay busy, and active, and offer our services to the larger community.”
She asks people to come visit her table at the Antigonish Famer’s Market on Saturdays.
“Then you can taste Syrian desserts, and ask questions about any sewing you want to have done,” Rabiaa said. “My son Aghyad is there with me, and helps me with translation when needed.”
She also encouraged people to visit her Facebook page.
The conversation then turns to school. Toufic and Rabiaa emphasize again and again that education is the key for young people. Majd tells us that his schooling was disrupted for five years, first with the war in Syria, then as refugees in Lebanon. For the three years in Lebanon, he worked full-time as a sous chef in a restaurant. Now he works part-time at a local restaurant, and works full-time at his studies to complete requirements for a high school diploma. After his regular school hours, he takes a course from NSCC, at the Antigonish County Adult Learning Association.
“This time next year, I hope to be enrolled in the engineering program at St. F.X. I am working very hard to make this dream happen. I have a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “I want to succeed so I can help my family and give back to our generous community.”
Majd will also play the role of Prince Amir in the play Ash Girl, in the Theatre Antigonish production Nov. 17-20 and 26-27.
“This is truly amazing, being part of this large cast, and all the rehearsals. At first I was a little hesitant, because my English is not perfect. With the encouragement of others, I am learning to project my voice, and pronounce clearly. It really builds my confidence. I have to learn to interpret the words on the page; I have to find the really important words and make sure they come across clearly on stage.”
Sometimes Majd was overwhelmed with his new world of opportunities.
“I’ll be honest. At first, my new routine, as of September, was hectic. Overwhelming. I could not get used to leaving the house at 8 a.m. and not returning until 6 p.m. Now I am accustomed to the new rhythm, and have added evening play rehearsals. A full rich day, every day,” he said smailing. His day often starts before school, as a volunteer in the high school’s free breakfast program.
Aghyad, now studying Grade 10, quickly earned the nickname “Mr. Cool.”
He loves soccer, but was unaware that tryouts for the school team had started a week before classes started.
“So I’ll play indoor soccer starting in January. When the world offers you lemons, make lemonade!”
He speaks Arabic, French and English, and marvels at the size of Dr. J. H. Gillis High School.
“Compared to my previous schools, it is much larger; I am happy to meet so many international students. Here in Canada, everyone is welcome in school, regardless of their race, religion, or culture. Canada encourages such diversity.”
Another highlight for Ahgyad, is the credit course in Active Living, in which students get introduced to a variety of physical activities and cannot wait to try kayaking. His long-term study plans are technology-related.
Majd and Aghyad’s very artistic sister, Ranim, is in her first semester at high school and was able to take her first art course.
“I was so surprised that one of my student drawings was selected for GoArts, a summer art show at the People’s Place Library. My upcoming artistic project is to create a “Welcome” poster for the new Syrian family due to arrive in Antigonish on Oct. 11. I am so excited about this.”
In addition to a full course of studies, Ranim is part of a peer counselling group, welcoming Grade 9 students, and doing peer counselling on healthy living. Topics include making choices not to smoke, being active, and other teenage concerns.
“Sometimes younger teens will take advice from older teens. That is the hope in this program. We want the newcomers to the school to be successful.”
Ranim is thinking about a career in business.
Toufic, a proud father, is smiling widely, happy with his family in their new unfolding future together.
“We all know how to work; we have a strong work ethic,” he said.
In Syria, Toufic’s main work was his carpentry and contractor business, with 32 employees. The bread-and-butter of the company was building and renovating. Toufik’s personal woodworking specialty is creating sophisticated decorative inlaid wood mosaics in intricate patterns, which he would custom make for wealthy homes.
His first job was with Bird Bird Construction this past summer, helping to renovate a large building at St. F.X.
“I felt part of the community of workers. I did not feel set apart because I was new on the team, or new in Canada. They even expressed appreciation for a few ‘tricks of the trade’ which I was able to offer from my expertise in Syria. This summer, I worked 7 days a week, all the overtime I could do. I am happy to be working, and to help the company meet its deadlines.”
Toufic’s second job in Syria, was managing his orchard of 500 apple trees and exporting apples as far away as Egypt. He also maintained a family vegetable garden, bordered by olive trees, apricot trees and lemon trees.
When asked about his first backyard vegetable garden in Antigonish, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Very different climate.”
Toufic has hopes for the future, including a personal one : ‘I would like to re-establish a carpentry business, starting on a small scale, knowing it takes time. Perhaps way down the line, I can introduce my specialty woodworking skills, if there is interest.”
In concluding the interview, Toufic sums up the family’s feelings: “We are so grateful to be here. We hear ‘Welcome, welcome welcome’ so often.”
He said the family is grateful to Syrian-Antigonish Families Embrace and the Antigonish County Adult Learning Association.
“And we are grateful for all the people of Antigonish who made us welcome and made our transition here possible. Even though we went through some hard times because of the war, we are now all together, in a very safe community, and our children can continue their studies. So many people have made us feel welcome. We are part of the community.”
Just before we part company, Toufic pensively adds: “In the war, we were trapped. Now we can all breathe deeply. We feel very safe here, and we feel cared for. We feel welcomed in the community. We can rebuild our future. And we can give back to our welcoming community.”
Zané deNoncourt, MEd., is a retired teacher and volunteer ESL teacher. Her family fled Latvia as refugees in 1945
Editor’s note: The Al Zhouri family was interviewed in Arabic by St. Francis Xavier University professor Joseph Khoury who translated their responses.