"Life is still. It is we who are racing by" Yann Martel (on his webpage What is Steven Harper reading)

Archive for April, 2016

Mobility issues

“Oh my Got! Sank-you! Sank-you,” the kids exclaim as I unload three used bikes that my generous family donated to my Syrian family. The bikes had flat tires from being stored for many years and needed some minor repairs. The son of a close friend, known affectionately as “bike boy,” spent a Sunday afternoon helping repair brakes, replace chains and tighten whatever needed to be tightened.

The moment the bikes were road-worthy, the kids jumped on them and began zooming around the neighbourhood like demons. They occasionally collided as one would suddenly stop unexpectedly in front of an oncoming sibling, but the happiness on their faces at having this mobility was a joy to watch.

Since that Sunday, Bike boy and I have taken the kids on an excursion down the nearby bike paths and have been trying to instil some basic road safety into their daredevil exploits. They are fearless, especially Adam and Daniel, who speed along sidewalks and streets with little heed for traffic. Finding helmets has become a priority.

Matthew is also anxious to increase his mobility. He desperately wants to get his Canadian drivers’ license and has discovered that he can take the learner’s test in Arabic. He has printed off an Arabic translation of the Drivers Handbook so he can begin studying for the written test.

He is always my side-seat driver whenever I am acting as chauffeur. Because I am unfamiliar with the north-east, I often make wrong turns, inevitably causing Matthew to shake his head. He has learned a few simple directions in English – left, right, straight, stop – and I listen to him as he navigates our way through his part of town.  When we go through school zones he reminds me to slow down. “Joan, Joan,” he admonishes as he looks over at my speedometer and indicates with hand gestures to slow down.

I laugh and acknowledge “shway-shway,” which is how the word for ‘slower’ is pronounced in Arabic. I silently grin at the concept of an Arabic-speaking Syrian giving directions to a long-time resident of Calgary.

He has yet to get his bus pass, although Syrian refugees are eligible for a 75 percent reduction the first year. He would much prefer to have his own vehicle, like my Hyundai SUV. I tell him he will need a bus to transport all of his children.

The size of his family has also been a deterrent to my taking the family on any excursions. With seven children, one who still requires a car seat, it is impossible to fit everyone into one vehicle. I “may” have squeezed six of the children into my vehicle to get them to the Saturday soccer league that has been organized for refugees. This wouldn’t meet safety regulations but sometimes necessity requires that rules be stretched a little for the greater good.  Transportation challenges also make it hard for refugees to participate in organized leagues as there is no way for parents to get their children to games in different parts of the city.

Canadians take their independence for granted. We jump into our cars to go to the theatre, get to work or participate in activities. Even without a personal vehicle, we are very comfortable navigating public transportation. This is not so easy for newcomers who don’t speak or read English and whose budget is far too limited to afford more than one or two bus passes. I wanted to take my Syrian family to the zoo, where refugees have access to a one-year membership during their first year in Canada. However, the cost for nine people to take the bus/C-train is too prohibitive.

A fellow volunteer said that when her refugee family is going somewhere, she drives the children while the parents take public transport. It is one way to get everyone to the destination with minimal cost. I also have friends and family who have volunteered to be a second driver when they are able. This requires greater planning for day-trips to such places as the mountains, Calgary events and activities, or even to some of the city’s beautiful green spaces.

The mobility issue also makes them more dependent on me. Next week, for example, there is a parent/teacher interview at the school where five of their children attend. Unfortunately it is located far in the south, nowhere near the C-train. Without me driving them, they would be unable to meet with the teachers to hear how their children are doing. It’s just another obstacle to their integration into Canada that we are working through together.



Syrian sorrows

Today I discovered that one of *Matthew’s brothers was taken by Bashar Al Assad’s troops and Matthew has no idea if he is alive or dead. He can’t ask anyone in Syria because all the lines are tapped. His brother’s wife and three children are now fleeing to Lebanon.

These are some of the fragments of information I gather from the Arabic-speaking neighbours who are helping this Syrian refugee family assimilate into Canada. As am I. I volunteered for the Community Connections program organized through Calgary Catholic Immigrant Services where Canadians are paired with refugee families to help them learn about and integrate into their new country.  For the next year, I will be the big sister, advocate, chauffeur and liaison for this family of nine. Matthew’s family speaks no English so conversations are difficult and much of the information I gather comes from friends who stop by and can translate.

A few days ago Matthew showed me pictures of his farm in Syria. The buildings are nestled into a beautiful hilltop setting and, from a distance, the surrounding landscape looks peaceful and idyllic. One of Matthew’s previous neighbours had sent the photos to show the results of a bombing and raid by Syrian forces. After an air strike on the area, the military descended and stripped the house of everything – lights, doors, windows, even electrical outlets and the doorbell.

The photos show the bones of a decimated home with bare walls, empty windows and leaves littering  abandoned hallways.  Matthew is proud to show me his farm and I can see he is angry at how Asaad’s troops seized anything of value. I think about my father who was also a farmer. He lived his entire life in a small Saskatchewan town, working the land inherited from his father. How would he have survived if he’d been forced to leave it all behind, fleeing to a country that was as alien to him as Mars? I start to cry and Matthew’s wife Nadia also wipes away tears. The children laugh at us. They are adjusting well. I ask Matthew and Nadia if they would ever return.

“No,” says Nadia “My babies,” indicating her seven children. “Canada, good. Canada home.”

Another neighbour told me that the children are still nervous about going into the basement because “that is where you go to hide from the bombs.”

Maybe someday, when there aren’t any more bombs to hide from, they will take me to visit Syria and I will be the one who is the foreigner. They can show me the beautiful country that was once their home and teach me about their culture.

Matthew nods and smiles “Okay, okay,” he says, and gives me a thumbs-up.


*Names have been changed to protect their privacy