In the living room of his two-bedroom Esquimalt apartment, Osama beams from ear-to-ear as he points at a flat-screen television sitting on a table.
“TV?” he asks cautiously. I nod with approval, then look at his wife Hanadi, holding her wide-eyed eight-month-old-daughter Loujain.
Hanadi points at the table in the dining room and tries to say the word table in English. Their two boys, Abdul-Rachman, 5, and eight-year-old Zaid are glued to a computer playing games.
It’s been nearly three weeks since the young Syrian family flew from Jordan to Victoria. They are eager to learn English and settle into their new life in Canada. Osama’s face lights up with every English word he can add to his limited vocabulary.
“The people of Victoria are very kind,” he says with the help of a phone translater. “The difficulty is the language and knowing the area, but there is good support.”
Ever since the family arrived in Victoria in mid-December, they’ve been assisted by the group of five Victoria couples who helped bring them here.
For about a year, Michael and Shelley Wuitchik had been thinking about ways to help Syrian refugees. Once they saw the shocking photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in September, the couple decided to put their thoughts into action. (Kurdi drowned after the boat his family was on from Turkey to Greece capsized.)
The Wuitchik’s rounded up a group of four like-minded couples, pooled their resources together, and came up with $36,000 to sponsor a Syrian family and cover their costs for the first year in Canada. Ottawa chipped in another $9,000. They’re also working with the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) of Greater Victoria — the sponsorship agreement holder, meaning it has signed sponsorship agreements with the federal government to help refugees settle in Canada.
The group (known as a constituency group) wasn’t informed the family of five was coming to Victoria until three days prior to their arrival. Making the 48-hour journey included stops in Toronto, where they met the Governor General, then Calgary where they were on their own to navigate through the airport.
Unsure if anyone would be meeting them in Victoria, the family arrived to see the smiling faces of the five couples who helped get them here. Michael couldn’t help but feel emotional.
“It was very moving. It was kind of a thrill when the 25-year-old woman (Hanadi) kissed her (Shelley) three times on the cheek and she smiled,” said Michael, noting the family looked relieved the long journey was over.
“You just know it’s one of those moments in your life you won’t forget. Everybody felt really good in our group.”
The family is the first to arrive in Victoria as part of the government’s plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February. In B.C., 400 were slated to arrive by the end of 2015 and a further 1,500 in the months to follow.
So far, British Columbians have applied to privately sponsor about 220 Syrian refugees. Of those, Victoria is expected to get at least 10.
Jean McRae, executive director of the ICA, hopes to see a few more families arrive in January, but isn’t sure when exactly that will happen.
“Processing is moving quite quickly in Canada. Once the cases go to the Visa posts the timing is less predicable, although way quicker than normal,” she said, noting ICA is currently working with about 25 local sponsor groups at various stages.
To prepare for the first family, members of the constituency group searched for accommodation, then collected items the family would need to start their new life, such as furniture and clothing.
When the family arrived at their new apartment, Michael said the two tired boys sprung to life once they saw their bunk beds that had a stuffed animal on the pillow. Hanadi beamed when she opened the fridge and cupboards, and saw they were stocked with food, including some from the Middle East.
Since then, the group has been assisting the family with navigating around the city, setting up bank accounts, filling out forms for school and finding grocery stores. Michael said the spices at the Bulk Barn brought a smile to Hanadi’s face because the store smelled like Syria.
“Everybody has commented on how rewarding it is and how appreciative they are,” said Michael. “I think they’re a very resilient family. They don’t ever back off from anything. They are open to everything, always trying the language. They just seem like they want to get into it.”
On Christmas Day, Michael had the family over for Christmas dinner where they feasted on roasted lamb. It was the first meat the family had in two years.
Originally from a district northeast of Damascus, the family fled to Lebanon two years ago where they first lived in a refugee camp, then rented a home. Working as a mechanic for a living, Osama was banned from taking a job in Lebanon so he worked under the table to provide for his family (who did not want to publish their last name due to safety reasons). Eventually, they got on the list to come to Canada.
Osama describes the last few years in Syria as a deadly situation.
“They were attacking everybody, killing everybody,” he said, adding he didn’t find peace of mind until he arrived in Toronto, where he was surprised by the warm welcome.
“It’s been strange, but I feel like I’m coming home….Victoria is good.”