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