Nour Alabdallah vividly recalls her harrowing 12-hour escape from Damascus through the mountains when she was seven months pregnant.
She travelled on foot with her husband and son through the night, terrified a sniper would strike them at any moment.
Alabdallah was one of six Syrian refugees who shared their stories with The Journal last week at the YMCA’s Newcomer, Immigrant and Refugee Centre in Sarnia.
Kasra Mohammad, 40, spoke of the unrelenting racism that dogged him and his family in Syria.
“I was treated differently because I am Kurdish,” said the father of three. “We weren’t allowed to buy a house or send our children to school.”
They are among 51 Syrian refugees who have settled in Sarnia-Lambton over the past two years. Most were privately sponsored by local church groups; one family through government sponsorship.
They all suffered devastating hardship before arriving in Canada. Rebuilding their lives here has been challenging, but also an enormous opportunity, they say.
“We want to thank everyone in Sarnia,” said Mohammad, who found work in construction five months after arriving in October 2016. He spoke no English then, but now converses well with the help of interpreter Halla Abdulwahab, a settlement worker at the centre.
“I want to thank Canada for the sponsorship, for the help and support,” said Alabdallah.
At age 24, she and her husband have four boys and are happy they live in peace.
But the war haunts Alabdallah and she worries about her mom and other family in Syria.
“I like it in Sarnia,” she said. “But I miss my family a lot. I Skype my mother all the time.”
She was heartbroken to learn after escaping that her family home near Damascus had been raided. One brother was shot and injured. Another was kidnapped and hasn’t returned.
She tries to distract herself from the war by caring for her family, studying English at the YMCA’s newcomer centre, and helping in its daycare centre.
About half the adult Syrians in Sarnia-Lambton have found work, said Roxanne Gilroy-Machado, supervisor of newcomer services.
“Not everyone gets a job. Some have to rely on social services after the one-year sponsorship runs out,” she said.
“We call it Month 13 and it’s a huge deal. After sponsorship is over, they either transition to employment or Ontario Works.
“We have to remember the trauma they’ve experienced. Some were kidnapped, some tortured, and they are unable to work because of physical disabilities or mental wellness challenges.”
Some have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), she said.
The YMCA is committed to creating a safe place for the refugees. Most attend English classes there, and get help with everything from finding a doctor to filling out government forms.
It’s obvious how much the new Canadian residents appreciate the newcomer centre.
“Coming to Sarnia is hard because everything is new, but the YMCA helped us a lot,” said Mohammad. “I think of the Y as my second family.”
A few weeks ago, he and his wife received news that Habitat for Humanity Sarnia-Lambton will build them a house next year.
“It’s so much better for us here,” he said. “In all this time, no one asked me if I’m Kurdish. In Syria, that’s the first question they ask. I love to live in Canada. It makes me happy.”
Najah Khaifh and her husband Hamza found work and a new life in Forest. It’s a long way from their home in Aleppo where she was a schoolteacher, but it’s safe.
“The town is small and the language is hard,” said Najah, 40. “But it is better for our three children.”
She works in the kitchen at Skeeter Barlow’s Grill & Bar in Bright’s Grove and her husband works at a greenhouse near Forest.
One day she hopes to teach again, she said.
Ezzeldeen El Ahmad and his family are the most recent arrivals in the group.
He left Syria in 2012, spent time in Lebanon, and was sponsored by a church to come to Petrolia eight months ago. El Ahmad, his wife and five children were farmers in Syria.
He found work at Heidi’s Independent Grocer in Petrolia last month. This month, El Ahmad’s wife gave birth to their sixth child.
“There were a lot of people being killed where we were. Syria is on fire,” he said. “Now we are safe. We can sleep when we are in our beds.”