Syrian family puts down Halifax roots

by Amanda Panacci, Chronicle Herald, 12 January 2017.

The Alnaasan family’s house was levelled by bombs in Syria’s ongoing civil war but they’ve spent the last year creating a new home in Halifax.

Abdulbaset Alnaasan, Maisoun Aljaber and their seven children arrived at Halifax Stanfield International Airport last Jan. 22. They were in the first wave of the now 40,000 Syrian refugees living in Canada.

The Alnaasan family: three-year-old Ranem, Maisoun Aljaber, Ayat, Shaimaa, Abdubbaset, Mohammah and Islan.

The government-assisted refugees had no idea what to expect when they first stepped of that plane in the midst of winter.

Aljaber thought they would be living in a refugee camp, like the ones in Greece and Turkey, and that her sons would be enlisted to serve in the army.

They could have never guessed that nearly a year later they’d be sitting in their spacious apartment, located just off Bayers Road, with all their children attending school.

“We hope they will have a better life than us,” Alnaasan said, referring to the seven children surrounding him in the living room.

“We came from a war zone, so we want all the best for them. It’s about a future for them.”

The war zone he is referring to was his lifelong home in Daraa, Syria.

The nearly six-year-long civil war is said to have began in this southern city after the arrests of at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school.

This sparked community outrage, the government’s violent reactions and the rise of a Syrian opposition which is now known primarily as ISIS.

Since the civil war began in 2011, roughly 400,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations. And as of last December, about 4.8 million residents had fled.

The Alnaasan family moved to Jordan in 2009 after they watched as their neighbour’s house went up in flames.

Houses across their neighbourhood were being bombed and they feared it was only a matter of time before theirs got caught in the crossfire. “So we had to go, we had to leave,” said Aljaber, 39, through an interpreter.

“We had nothing,” said Alnaasan, 43, adding that they just had their identification with them, needed to get across to Jordan.

They lived in Amman for more than four years. While there, they were told by a family member that their home had been hit with a bomb as well.

They submitted an application to come to Canada and were contacted by the government shortly after. Once all the necessary checks were complete, they were flown to their new home.

But not a day goes by that they don’t think about who they left behind. “It’s the war, it’s a crisis, and I can’t do anything about it,” Alnaasan said. “The only thing I wish is that my father can be reunited with my mother.” His father is stuck in Syria while his mother is living in Jordan. Alnaasan said his father has a passport but, for whatever reason, hasn’t been allowed to cross the border.

The last time he spoke to his father was three years ago, due to the unreliability of Syria’s phone lines. He doesn’t even know if his father is still alive. If he is, he would be turning 101 years old later this year.

But since arriving in Nova Scotia, Alnaasan hasn’t once thought about going back. “When we arrived here (Canadians) were very helpful; they want to help us,” he said. They describe Canadians as very respectful people, and say they’ve never been judged for their appearance or for not being able to speak English.

While they were living in Jordan, none of their children attended school for four years. But within 10 days of living in Halifax, all seven of their children — from three to 1 7— were in school.

In their spare time, the family goes for walks by the ocean or shopping. Their oldest son drives, and he takes them wherever they want to go, which includes trips to the local mosque and lake fishing in the summer.

“There are many places to go and see. And all of this is nice; it’s beautiful,” Alnaasan said.

The federal government has helped clothe and house them and has provided a monthly allowance of about $5,000. But now that they’ve been here for more than a year, this amount may change.

“The government has done everything, but now we need to try and make it on our own,” Alnaasan said.

ISANS has helped Alnaasan secure a job at a farm in Truro. And they have also provided the family with interpreters whenever they need to attend appointments in the city. Staff will also be driving him to and from the farm. And Aljaber is going to begin taking sewing courses this year to further her skills.

Alnaasan admits Canadians may be curious about Syrian refugees, and have questions for them. But he’s unable to share his story. “We cannot communicate with them. If they ask me a question, I won’t be able to answer,” he explained. They’re hoping to change that by learning English this year.

The family now considers themselves Canadians. But Syria will always hold a special place in their hearts. After all, it was the country in which the couple met.

His father, who was a trader, spotted Aljaber on a farm in Daraa, picking olives from a tree. He knew, shortly after meeting her, that she was the woman for his son.

“But let’s say the war ends one day,” said Alnaasan. “I don’t have a house. I don’t have a place to stay. What am I going to do with all my children?”

Now that the country is divided, it’s no longer the home they used to know. “Unfortunately, Syria is gone,” he said.

And Aljaber has no family left in Syria. “We lost everybody. If I go there now, I would feel like a stranger.” But she says she hasn’t felt that way in Canada. This is their home now.

Of all four seasons, spring is her favourite, when the flowers bloom and her children can enjoy the outdoors again. But when it comes to the bitterness of the winter, the family is still adjusting. They only go outside when they have to.

“This is our second winter here, so by next winter we should be used to it,” he said with a laugh.