Osama and Hanaldi feel like they’re living in a dream.
Ever since the Syrian refugees arrived in Victoria with their three young children in mid-December, they’ve been welcomed by the community with open arms.
Most days are spent learning English so Osama can begin working as a mechanic like he was before the war. Learning the language has been easier than the couple anticipated, but they still have a long ways to go.
Their two young sons, Abdul-Rachman, five and eight-year-old Zaid, are enrolled in school and started playing in a soccer league. Osama recently passed the written portion of his drivers licence — an accomplishment that makes him smile.
“Everyone is treating us very nicely. It’s been very positive,” said the 32-year-old Osama through an interpreter, adding he’s thankful for the five Victoria couples who sponsored his family and are covering their costs for the first year.
Although life in Canada is treating the couple well, the safety of their loves ones back home weighs heavily on their mind.
Communication with those living in the war-torn country is limited. Hanaldi, 25, will go for months without hearing from her mother, who’s 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. Living so far away makes the couple feel helpless.
“The worry is always there about the family’s safety,” said Hanaldi through an interpreter. “It’s very difficult for them to leave the area where they are now because it’s besieged.”
Osama and Hanaldi come from Harasta — a district northeast of Damascus that’s often caught in bombings and gunfire. When the family fled Syria two 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 things the couple witnessed during their time in Syria isn’t easy to shake. Hanaldi has watched members of her family die and so has her son Zaid. For the first time in years they finally feel safe.
Osama read a lot about Canada prior to his arrival and knew coming here isn’t easy without sponsorship. Now his sister and her children are also being sponsored by a group based in Sidney. It’s not known when they’ll arrive, but Osama is thrilled.
For Michael Wuitchik, who rounded up the group of sponsors to bring Osama and Hanaldi to Canada, the experience has been more intense than he expected.
Wuitchik sees Osama and Hanaldi a couple times a week, taking them places so they know how to get around. The young couple sees him as a father, he added, creating a sense of family. During dinner conversations, the group often talks about life in Syria and the cultural differences between the two countries.
“Sometimes they’ll see a billboard and they’ll be a bit shocked to see women in their underwear and things like that,” said Wuitchik. “It’s amazing to me because they’ve been through such difficulties. They improvise, they are always asking to be able to do more. They are people who absolutely never complain.”
The couple, who did not want to use their last name due to safety concerns, were the first to arrive in Victoria as part of the federal government’s plan to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada.
During the first two weeks of March, 155 government-assisted refugees arrived in Victoria and have begun moving into more permanent accommodation.
According to Jean McRae, executive director of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, several families have taken accommodation in Duncan and several more may do the same due to the shortage of rental housing in Victoria.
Accommodation is still needed for more than half of the refugees and McRae estimates another 50 are expected to arrive throughout the year. Anyone with housing leads is asked to contact the association through their website, icavictoria.org.