June 6, 2016, is a date that has been engraved in Aham’s memory.
That’s the day he turned three. That’s the day his family landed in Canada.
Fleeing the siege of Homs between the Syrian military and the opposition, Aham’s parents, Abdul Najjar and Ektemal, and three siblings, Farouk, Alaa and Molham, were uprooted to Jordan in 2013. Aham was born in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Aham, now 8, has no recollection of Syria except through stories told by his family. His parents are grateful for that, because the others have terrible flashbacks of shelling, shooting, burning and their hometown being obliterated.
Abdul and Ektemal, both 44, believe they had a good life before the civil war erupted. “We had a house with a swimming pool. We had two cars. We had a farm. We had a rich life.”
“They are all demolished,” said Abdul while showing the pictures of his house in ruins and cars buried in debris. His brother in Homs sent him the photos.
Once called the capital of the revolution, Homs is now a city of widespread wreckage, a landscape of grief and sorrow. For Abdul, the memory of the thriving and cosmopolitan city makes the present reality even more difficult to swallow.
Ektemal’s sister still lives in Homs after Ektemal’s uncle and cousin were both killed in the decade-long conflict. “She will be fine. Inshallah (if Allah wills). We are lucky to be alive.”
Sponsored by a group of five from Richmond Hill, the Najjar family made their way to Canada from Jordan and settled into a new life.
Due to affordability considerations, the sponsor group found an apartment and furnished it for the family just outside Richmond Hill, said Sajida Habib, one of the sponsors.
Having been previously employed at a grocery store, a construction site, a shawarma restaurant and SkipTheDishes delivery, Abdul currently works part-time at a butcher shop.
Although the family is not living in a house with a pool anymore, they appreciate what their sponsors have done for them and are content with whatever they have.
“Canada is beautiful, safe, people (are) friendly, good education (for children). Feels like home.”
Abdul and Eltemal speak English but the couple are learning more advanced English from online courses every evening for an hour.
For the younger generation, it is more natural to acquire new languages at school when they already see a future for themselves. Aham says he wants to be a teacher. His brother Molham wants to be a doctor.
The 12-year-old also dreams of a visit to his homeland. “I was three when I left Syria and I don’t remember much. Aham has never been to Syria. When the war stops and peace stays, we’ll take him back to see our home in Syria.”
There are many sponsors within the Richmond Hill community and some Syrian families have settled down well in the city, said Habib, who herself was born in Tanzania, raised in Pakistan and came to Richmond Hill in the 1980s.
“I know a Syrian family that has settled here very well. In fact, one of the sponsors handed his business to them as he was retiring. Incredible people our Canadians are.”
York Region has done a great job at promoting itself as a diverse community and for meeting the needs of newcomers, according to Welcome Centre Immigrant Services.
“Diversity is an attraction because it makes for a dynamic community,” said Janice Babcock, manager of the Markham north welcome centre.
Interesting trends have also been noticed in how different ethnicities gravitate to different municipalities, such as the Chinese community in Markham, and the Persian community in Richmond Hill, according to Donna Hall, manager of the newcomer employment services at the welcome centre.
The immigration centre continues to provide all the same services amid the pandemic in a virtual setting. But Babcock said post-pandemic some services may continue to be offered virtually since it has reduced some issues such as appointment cancellations.
“Hopefully we will have the best of both worlds,” Babcock said.
— With files from Aileen Zangouei
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: They left Syria, but Syria didn’t leave them. That’s what reporter Yoyo Yan felt after talking to a Syrian family about their resettlement in Canada and embracing their new life.