Stumbling around the living room like a typical 17-month-old girl, Loujain Shelleh is all smiles until she falls into the corner of the couch in her family’s three-bedroom apartment in Esquimalt.
Her big eyes fill up with tears and she starts to cry. Hanadi, her mother, picks her up and gives a reassuring hug to ease the pain.
The rest of the Shelleh family — the father Osama, 32, six-year-old Abdul-Rachman and Zaid, 8, keep smiling, just like they have ever since they arrived in Victoria from Syria nearly one year ago on Christmas Eve.
Not knowing their final destination, they boarded a plane in Jordan and after 48 hours, were the first Syrians to arrive in Victoria under Ottawa’s push to bring in 25,000 refugees by March.
Their constituency group — five local couples who pooled their resources together to come up with $36,000 to sponsor the family and cover their costs for the first year — welcomed them with open arms, doing everything under the sun to help with the transition into life in Canada.
A year later, the Shelleh family has plenty of reasons to smile. Osama is now working full time as a mechanic while taking English classes at night. Hanadi takes two English classes daily and teaches Arabic to children of refugee families at the University of Victoria on weekends. Their two boys love going to school and are picking up English at a rapid pace, sometimes helping their parents translate.
They also have a car, allowing them the freedom to explore the beauty of the Island, and found a grounding place with other refugee families at the mosque.
Osama beams with pride as he talks about being able to provide for his family once again.
“My work I like,” says Osama. “I am very happy. After one year, I am better in English, working. It’s very good.”
The family comes from Harasta — a district northeast of Damascus that’s often caught in bombings and gunfire. When they fled the violence in Syria three years ago, there were limited check points, allowing them to eventually get to Lebanon where they lived in a refugee camp, then a destroyed apartment block where they cooked on open fires.
Banned from taking a job, Osama worked under the table to provide for his family. Eventually they got on the list to come to Canada. The Shelleh’s favourite thing about living here is that it’s safe.
“There’s no shooting,” says Zaid, who heard gunfire on a daily basis in Syria and witnessed a playmate get killed by a bullet.
“It’s different, but we’re learning slowly about Canada. I look at my home, my children are happy, it’s good, it’s safe. We have a bed and a TV,” says Hanadi, whose family is still in Syria, causing her to worry about their safety on a daily basis given the limited communication.
Hanadi, 25, will go for months without hearing from her mother, who’s sick and living in an area with no electricity. The silence is especially hard since her father passed away when he needed medical attention but wasn’t able to get to a doctor.
“I ask, do you have food today? Do you have bread? Sometimes no, sometimes yes. It’s very difficult,” she said. “Walking in the street is not safe. In Syria we don’t sleep. It’s what’s that? (noise). Go! Go! Every day.”
Another local sponsorship group is in the process of bringing Osama’s sister to Victoria, but it’s not yet known when she will arrive. Asked if he’d ever go back to Syria when the war is over, Osama said only to visit family.
Michael Wuitchik is part of the group that brought the family to Canada and is impressed by how independent the Shelleh’s have become, along with their resilience. And even though the sponsorship is set to expire at the end of the month, the experience has been more than Wuitchik ever imagined.
“They’ll be part of our lives and they are very happy to hear that because they feel that we’re a part of their family,” said Wuitchik, who recently saw the family during a celebration of their one year in Canada.
“This couple is a real problem solving couple. They’ve been through very traumatic times, but when you see Hanadi smiling and how comfortable they are now, you realize just how resilient they are.”