Mohammed Alsaleh arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee four years ago, at the end of November. He fled Syria in early 2014 and spent most of the year in transit in Lebanon, before winning a lottery to be sponsored by the Canadian government. It was month before Christmas when he touched down in Vancouver, and Mohammed describes that winter season as a period of “prolonged jet lag.” After years of living through constant war and conflict, imprisonment, torture, and displacement from his home and family, he doesn’t remember anything about Christmas 2014, his first on Canadian soil. Operating in survival mode, the thought of having his family in Canada with him seemed, at the time, nothing short of impossible.
Mohammed considers the following year his first “real Canadian Christmas,” which he spent with new friends, part of a life he built from scratch, a life that would look very different from what he had in Syria, where he was attending school to become a doctor. Though he was surrounded by his network of new friends and thankful to be settling into a more secure life here, Mohammed longed for his family to be able to share in the joys of the season with him. “During the holidays particularly, you feel far away. You miss your family,” he says. “I was sad I couldn’t celebrate with my family, and I wished I could be with them. I always wished that.”
Remembering Christmas in Syria
Mohammed reminisces about Christmases spent with his family in Syria and his Christian community. “Before the war, there was a lot of diversity in Syria,” Mohammed recalls, “There was peace and harmony between people from different religions, and with different beliefs – like in Canada.”
Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, Christmas in Syria comprised familiar activities including taking children to visit Santa Claus, and admiring the Christmas light displays. “On Christmas Eve, the whole sky lights up with fireworks,” Mohammed shares, “[the holidays were] always celebrated with family.”
The onset of war changed everything. There was neither time nor resources for celebrations, and on Christmas Eve the sound of fireworks was replaced with the sound of gunfire. “Instead of fireworks, there were planes, bombs, and death in the sky," Mohammed remembers.
The path to reunion
After multiple imprisonments for political activism, which included documenting and broadcasting videos and images of military brutality, and being caught in possession of satirical caricatures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in his med school dorm room (those belonged to his roommate), Mohammed was forced to flee the country to protect his life. Separated from his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two younger sisters, who made their way as refugees to Turkey, Mohammed ended up in Canada alone.
After several years apart, he determined that the dream of being reunited with his family should become reality. So he set to work. Engaging with his professional and volunteer networks through the Federal Refugee Sponsorship Training Program, and the Immigrants Services Society of British Columbia, Mohammed began raising the necessary funds to bring his family safely to Canada.
By the end of 2017, Mohammed had raised $60,00 - a combination of his own savings, a successful GoFundMe campaign, and significant contributions from an anonymous couple moved to action by his family's plight.
A holiday wish come true
Mohammed's family finally arrived as privately-sponsored refugees on October 17th this year. Mohammed became a permanent Canadian resident just two days before, on October 15th. “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Arriving alone as a refugee, and now, as a Canadian, welcoming my family as refugees,” Mohammed beams with pride. “Bringing them to Canada is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”
Mohammed is thrilled to introduce his family to his friends and his life here just in time for Christmas. Already, they’ve decorated a Christmas tree, and have gone to Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver to see the Christmas Light Festival.
A new year, a new chapter
“No matter who you are, there’s something about the promise of a new year to be excited about,” says Mohammed. “There’s time for reflection, and an opportunity to start fresh.”
Mohammed’s New Year’s hopes are for his family to have a successful transition and settlement in Canada. His youngest sister will attend junior high, and his other family members are enrolled in English classes.
Arriving in a new country, especially arriving as a refugee or displaced person, and not knowing the language, the culture, or any people there, not knowing how to get around, or what support services are available or how to access them, is intensely daunting. Fortunately for Mohammed’s family, they have him and his self-made support network to rely on as the foundation of their settlement into life in Canada.
Services Advisor Pathways
PeaceGeeks’ Services Advisor Pathways project looks to support new arrivals in a similar way. Canada welcomes an average of 300,000 migrants each year. Access to information for newcomers is one of the top barriers to resettlement today. Launching in March 2019, the Pathways app is being designed in partnership with immigrants, refugees, and community service providers, and will help newcomers more effectively navigate their settlement. The app will be piloted in Metro Vancouver, which is home to 153,000 newcomers to Canada, will be available in seven languages, and will be updated by local service providers regularly in order to remain accurate and informative. Find out more about the project here: https://peacegeeks.org/pathways
What can you do?
The holidays are not always an easy time for everyone, but Mohammed views them as a universal occasion, and an opportunity to coalesce around singular issues to give back to our communities and make them a better place for all. Newcomers to Canada are amongst the most vulnerable population groups for whom winter and the holidays are uniquely challenging.
Mohammed’s ideal for an inclusive holiday season starts with smalls steps from all of us: “educate your children. Remind them to wish their classmates from immigrant families ‘Happy Holidays.’ You don’t know what they might be going through. We can all do that, to our colleagues and neighbours too. Share happiness with those around us.”
This year, as you purchase gifts for your friends and families, please consider making a small donation to programs that will provide refugees with a holiday meal or support year-round. You can also donate to PeaceGeeks, which will go directly toward our Pathways app project and our other peacebuilding projects here in Canada and in Jordan and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.
PeaceGeeks wishes Mohammed and his family, all refugees and newcomers, our partners, donors, and volunteers, and their families a Happy Holidays.
PeaceGeeks interviewed Mohammed two years ago. You can read more on his story here: https://peacegeeks.org/news/interview-mohammed-alsaleh-fighting-oppression-syria-building-life-canada-advocating-refugees
If you, or someone you know, are having a hard time over the holidays, selected support services in Vancouver are:
- Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC): https://issbc.org/
- MOSAIC: https://www.mosaicbc.org/services/settlement/refugees/refugee-programs-services/
- The Government of British Columbia: https://www.welcomebc.ca/Start-Your-Life-in-B-C/Services-and-Support/For-Refugees
- Inland Refugee Society of British Columbia: http://inlandrefugeesociety.ca/
- City of Vancouver Guide for Newcomers: https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Growing-Roots-Newcomers-Guide-Vancouver.pdf
- Christmas Assistance at the Salvation Army: https://salvationarmy.ca/britishcolumbia/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6KiNxvus3wIViK_sCh2ZDAp9EAAYASAAEgLi2_D_BwE
- Christmas Support at Family Services of Greater Vancouver: https://fsgv.ca/
Amelia Mitchell is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.