Welcome to Canada: Sarnia’s first refugee family finds peace

Diane Plug shares a hug with Mohammed Al-Khaleel at the YMCA Learning and Career Centre. Al-Khaleel is the father of a family of five Syrian refugees introduced to the community Friday. 
Troy Shantz, Special to The JournalDiane Plug shares a hug with Mohammed Al-Khaleel at the YMCA Learning and Career Centre. Al-Khaleel is the father of a family of five Syrian refugees introduced to the community Friday. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Tara Jeffrey

Raghad Al-Khaleel gently picks up a piece of chalk and begins writing.

Her tiny eight-year-old fingers slowly complete “Thank you Kanada,” before big sister Rooa, 10, rubs out the “K” with her wrist and places it with a “C.”

Decked in blue jeans and braids, they’re in a classroom at Sarnia’s YMCA Learning & Career Centre, along with littlest sister Rahaf, 6, parents Mohammed and Diana, and a roomful of reporters, photographers, committee members and building staff.

They’ve been in Sarnia less than 48 hours, and I’m thinking the last thing they need is a bunch of Canadian strangers taking pictures of them and asking questions.

Instead, they can’t stop smiling.

“Thank you, thank you,” Mohammed Al-Khaleel, 41, keeps repeating. His English is broken but translator Didar Nanakly, also a refugee to Sarnia, chimes in to help.

“There’s a lot of feelings that he cannot even express right now,” explains Nanakly, who has volunteered to help with the language barrier faced by the family of five — Sarnia’s first group of Syrian refugees, who arrived Wednesday night thanks to private sponsorship from a committee representing four Christian Reformed churches in the area.

“It’s hard for him to find the words, but you can see it in his face,” Nanakly adds. “As soon as he arrived, he felt safety and peace. He says he wants to be one of the good people; to give back to this country.”

The former salesman and his family fled Syria in 2012 and had since been living in Lebanon. More than a year ago, he applied for refugee status through the United Nations, he explained, and began the process of coming to Canada. He chose Canada over Germany, the destination of many Syrian migrants, because of its multiculturalism and global reputation.

“It is the country of peace,” he says in Arabic.

Meanwhile, local refugee committee members had been anxiously awaiting their arrival — raising funds, furnishing an apartment and collecting donations from across Sarnia-Lambton.

The Al-Khaleel family arrived in Canada on New Year’s Eve, and after some confusion, were re-routed from Toronto to Hamilton. After all was sorted out, committee members picked them up in two van loads, and headed for Sarnia, where a small group waited in the apartment to greet them.

“We just hugged right away,” Henna Drope said, fighting back tears. “We’ve been waiting for them for so long.”

“Everyone has a role to play,” she added, noting that rotating drivers have already taken them to set up bank and OHIP accounts. Another member, Diane Plug, has made arrangements for the kids to start school at Rosedale in a couple of weeks.

Many students there speak English as a second language, Plug explains, and some even speak Arabic.

“Children are much more resilient than we think,” Plug says. “They can overcome language barriers much faster.”

While connections have been made at the local mosque, the family will first attend service at the First Christian Reformed Church on Sunday. Committee members have also planned a welcoming barbecue where they’ll serve traditional Muslim Halal meat.

Back in the classroom, the girls are seated at a table playing UNO while their mother, wearing a colourful head scarf, looks on.

She’s beautiful. She’s quiet.

I want to speak with her, but I’m reluctant.

This 33-year-old woman just escaped a war-torn region with three small children, and nothing but the clothes on their backs. I feel intrusive, and maybe even a bit ignorant. But I ask anyway. I want to tell her story.

I want to put a face to the results of what a community can do when its people are at their best.

Diana Al-Khaleel points to her girls and, through a translator, tells me, “Just look at their faces. They are so happy.

“It took a long time. But we are happy and comfortable. We are at peace.”

Harry Mennega shares a word with Raghad Al-Khaleel, 8, a member of a Syrian refugee family introduced to the Sarnia community on Friday. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Harry Mennega shares a word with Raghad Al-Khaleel, 8, a member of a Syrian refugee family introduced to the Sarnia community on Friday.
Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

The Al-Khaleel family, from left, Mohammed, Rahaf, 6, Raghad, 8, Rooa, 10, and Diana. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

The Al-Khaleel family, from left, Mohammed, Rahaf, 6, Raghad, 8, Rooa, 10, and Diana.
Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Pastor Harry Mennega looks over a map of Canada with Rooa, 10, left, and Rahaf Al-Khaleel, 6. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Pastor Harry Mennega looks over a map of Canada with Rooa, 10, left, and Rahaf Al-Khaleel, 6.
Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Raghad Al-Khaleel, 8, expresses her family's feelings on a blackboard at the YMCA Learning and Career Centre, while sisters Rooa, and Rahaf look on. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Raghad Al-Khaleel, 8, expresses her family’s feelings on a blackboard at the YMCA Learning and Career Centre, while sisters Rooa, and Rahaf look on.
Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Diana Al-Khaleel shares a happy moment with Diane Plug. Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal

Diana Al-Khaleel shares a happy moment with Diane Plug.
Troy Shantz, Special to The Journal