In an institutional stairwell of the New Canadians Centre (NCC), Natalie Napier presses Michael VanDerHerberg on the question of birthday parties. Two children who arrived in Canada in the fall are having birthdays—Anas is turning 14, and Sedra is turning 11—and Natalie wants to know if, failing other possibilities, the NCC itself could host the party on site.
She’s asking in her capacity as the Co-ordinator of the Near North Enders, one of many volunteer groups throughout the city working with the NCC to welcome Syrian refugees, in a unique and innovative program for which Michael is the lead. Anas and Sedra, their younger brother Hamza, their parents Maher Babbili and Nibal Al Attar, and Maher’s mother Hend Babbili spend some of their leisure time with the Near North Enders, while the NCC assists with the considerable paperwork involved in being a refugee.
As the family’s appointed ambassadors of North American daily life, and with many of them raising children of their own, the Near North Enders are resolute about showing the Syrians how a child’s birthday here is celebrated: cake and candles, balloons, streamers, songs and games, the whole bit. Friends and unexpected gifts.
This isn’t possible logistically at the Maher and Nibal’s home because of a lack of social space: Syrians living in a Canadian home, they have had to fit an extended family into a structure designed for a nuclear family, and the dining room and living room are an improvised in-law suite for Hend. It works fine, but you can’t host a kid’s birthday in a North American way there.
Organizing children’s birthday parties is something all parents do, and the Near North Enders, as parents and as downtown bohemians and veterans of the music scene and the service industry, are skilled and savvy fun facilitators.
But the stakes in this case are so very high.
A few days after the conversation about birthday parties, Donald Trump, a xenophobic demagogue elected President of the United States on a wave of hate and resentment, issued a ban on travellers from a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, entering the country, the first of what will likely be many attacks on the rights of Muslims to issue from his government.
Two days later, an armed and hateful young white man entered a mosque in Quebec City and murdered six people, in a sickening echo of the arson attack on Peterborough’s own mosque a little over a year ago. Islamophobic rhetoric from the Conservative Party that took off during the last federal election and burns on in the party’s leadership race, is almost certainly to blame for the violence.
The relationship between families like Maher and Nibal’s and the neighbourhood groups that are helping them acclimatize are a kind of template for a stance of generous hospitality, in defiance of increasingly aggressive xenophobia. The outcome of the experiment will create an environment for the refugees who are already here, as well as for future refugees.
Whether his America-first policies lead to more or fewer foreign wars, global instability is likely to increase under Trump, and, alongside rapid changes to the climate, is going to mean more people displaced. Undoubtedly more people will be wanting to come to Canada, whether xenophobes want them or not.
What happens here this year is important. Peterborough is its own little human laboratory, a trial balloon in a global storm.
The arrangement that pairs Syrian refugee families with neighbourhood groups is the product of an administrative innovation, created by the New Canadians Centre under the auspices of the federal Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship, that is custom-built for Peterborough’s particularities.
Refugees traditionally enter Canada in one of two ways, as Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) or under the sponsorship of a private group of committed volunteers. GARs are supported financially by the state, at rates roughly equivalent to provincial social assistance, for a period of one year, but have only very formal supports in place; privately sponsored refugees are generally better provided for, and have more informal, personal support—in a word, a relationship—but the program is inherently exclusive, as it requires raising significant funds privately.
The NCC’s innovation was to establish a hybrid model, in which groups of volunteers would form support teams, modelled on private sponsorship groups, to provide personal support for GARs.
The idea came together shortly after the 2015 election, in which the Liberal Party campaigned on a promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country, while the Conservative Party championed a racially coded pledge to defend “old stock Canadians” from “barbaric cultural practices.” The Liberal message was the winner, and Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister.
NCC staff who had been to a meeting of the Canadian Council on Refugees in Hamilton, Ontario in November 2015 heard from Deborah Tunis, the Trudeau government’s newly appointed Special Advisor to the Minister of Immigration on Syrian Refugees, on the plan to set up refugee centres across the country.
The idea developed organically, Michael says, in a multi-actor meeting at the NCC late in 2015: the group asked, “what if we invent something in which teams volunteer for each family,” essentially the “relationship aspect of private sponsor program” but formally GARs. The hybrid system allows groups to essentially mimic the private system, but with very limited funds.
The story of the Near North Enders and their Syrian friends begins with the journey of Abdulkhalek Alahmad to Canada last summer. A self-described atypical refugee, Abdul speaks English and, as the younger son of a wealthy, educated family, has brothers and sisters working as highly skilled professionals in the Middle East and North America. He’s cosmopolitan and ambitious, and was well prepared by his previous experiences to start a new life in Canada.
A good student and a gifted athlete, Abdul did well in school, in an intensive, standardized curriculum covering Geography, Philosophy, English, and Arabic. He enrolled in Damascus University, where he wanted to study media, but his parents, both of whom were economists, persuaded him to study economics. He enjoyed university and made a lot of friends, and he fell in love with a classmate.
Abdul was known by friends to be critical of the Assad regime, though he was never active or particularly vocal about it. The state was omnipresent in everyday life, often violent, always watching and listening. “A beggar could be a spy, or a vendor could be,” he remembers. “At your job, for sure, there’s a government agent.” In such an environment, most people kept quiet about politics.
Then all of a sudden that changed. In March 2011, peaceful demonstration began every Friday, first in Daraa Governorate, then in Homs, then in Damascus. Abdul wasn’t involved directly but he was supportive of the protests. (“I know the government very well,” he says flatly, “I know who is guilty and who is innocent.”) The protesters called for freedom and the police and security forces started arresting them by the hundreds. Then they started shooting at protesters, then there were snipers in the streets. The city was getting dangerous.
“My family told me to go, but I refused because of my girlfriend,” he says. She was still in university, and he needed to stay with her. “I didn’t fear shooting, but my friends before the revolution, know I’m against the government. I feel if somebody told the government, the police… ” he says, trailing off. “People knew what I thought.”
Reluctantly, after making arrangements with his girlfriend’s family for them to marry, he took a job in Dubai in 2011, working as a bank teller. He didn’t like it there. “Every day I talked with my girlfriend: ‘Please tell me to go back!’” So he returned to Damascus and started a consulting firm. But the timing was very bad.
The fighting had taken its toll on the economy. “We had two projects or three, then the majority of manufacturers closed one by one. No more projects.” Whatever else it was becoming, Syria was a bad environment for business.
“I endured this sorrow. I lost everything in this war.”
Then in the fall of 2012, Abdul received notice that he was being conscripted into the army. For his girlfriend, who had refused to leave before, this was the tipping point. “She said ‘Please leave, I will follow you.’” He travelled to Egypt and she flew to Cyprus, where her parents were living. She booked a ticket to travel to Egypt, where they would marry, but she made a final trip to Damascus to finalize some documents. Then, no news. Months passed. Probably she was killed. Maybe somebody kidnapped her.
Abdul cried every day for two years: “I endured this sorrow.” He never saw her again, never learned for certain what had happened to her. “I lost everything in this war.”
He spent a year in Egypt, grieving and working for a charitable organization that supported refugees, then he went to Turkey. There was a lot of work to do supporting refugees in Turkey. But, he said, “Turkey will treat you as refugee.” The economy was struggling and, with little work, there was a lot of resentment of the Syrians who had found themselves there.
His job was good, his work challenging and important. But when his passport expired, he ended up in an administrative catch-22: he couldn’t work in Turkey without a valid passport, but if he returned to Syria he’d be conscripted. He applied to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and, after a number of tests and then an eight-month wait, he was headed to Canada.
Maher and Nibal lived in Damascus, in an area near the centre of the city called Al-Midan. Maher managed a supermarket, and they had extended family living around them. The kids were in school and they would visit family. Life was good, and they were happy.
Things changed for them slowly. At the start, the fighting was on the periphery of Damascus, but in 2013, the war entered the city. Families started to leave, some for good, others just staying with family elsewhere for a while. Bombing and fighting would extend for weeks. When you came back, your home might have been bombed.
The situation deteriorated quickly. At work, Maher would get a call from Nibal saying it wasn’t safe to come home; sometimes it would take him a few days to go back home. Eventually there was nowhere safe to stay with family, nowhere the war wasn’t happening. Bombs would hit the electrical grid and power would go out for days. If you left your home you’d be kidnapped or shot by government snipers.
The final straw came one day when, just after dropping the kids off at school, a massive car bomb exploded nearby. Maher, who had been making his way to work, joined a large crowd of parents running to the school to get their kids.
It was no longer safe. It was time to get out of Syria.
The family flew to Lebanon, and then to Egypt, where their timing was unfortunate. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown four months after they arrived, plunging the country into chaos and violence. They were once again at the mercy of rival armed forces. If the military caught you, you’d be sent back to Syria; if a gang did, you’d be robbed or killed. Once again they left, this time for Turkey.
There were a lot of Syrians in Turkey, but they weren’t much connected with them. They stayed two and a half years in Turkey. Eventually a friend urged them to register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. When they did, they were told they were going to Canada.
They arrived on October 4. It was beautiful, the trees and the fall colours. But soon it got very cold, and that was a difficult adjustment. From the start, though, Maher noticed, walking around, people would smile and greet him, wordlessly but warmly. After living in Turkey, where Syrians were easily identified and treated as outsiders, this was a noticeable change.
Between the New Canadians Centre and the Near North Enders, all their needs were met. They had all their paperwork and administrative support from the NCC, and the neighbourhood group threw a party for them—an unexpectedly personal welcome. Anas, Sedra, and Hamza immediately had Canadian kids to connect with.
Just after Christmas, the Canadians and Syrians went skating together on Chemong Lake. The kids, according to Natalie, were “indefatigable in their desire to learn to skate.” Everyone was a bit cold, layering being an unfamiliar practice to people from warm, dry countries, but it was great fun.
The kids are a little different, more serious, mostly because they’ve grown up in a war zone and their Canadian peers haven’t. “They’re a bit more grown up,” Natalie says, and with their depth of experience, “people might feel silly inviting him to a party.” But it is early in the program—month four of a full year—and already both sides “can’t see it ever ending.”
When I ask about the motivation for getting involved in the GAR support group, Natalie tells me about her elderly neighbour Larry, who was alone and depressed after his wife died, and dove into work with the group when it started. He raised a large amount of money for the group, ostensibly from various people but, Natalie suspects, actually his own.
“He’d pretend others were donating, but it was really him,” she says. “It clearly gave him a lot of meaning and purpose when he was having a hard time.” When Larry died, his family donated some of his estate to the NCC. “They noticed what a huge difference it had made in his life.”
Other Near North Enders point to their family histories, all of which involve immigrant experience.
For those who were white and English-speaking and did manual labour, though, it wasn’t as difficult an adjustment, Patricia Donnelly observes. “The knowledge based economy is big barrier—compared to Irish, English immigrants who had factory jobs. It was still a struggle but there were different challenges.”
For Shannon Mak, whose father came to Peterborough from Hong Kong at age 12, she’s very aware of the fact that “it was a really shitty time for a kid who didn’t speak English.” So they all “get something out of this, even if it’s just avenging our parents’ childhoods!”
The New Canadians Centre “showered us with praise,” Patricia says, laughing, which “made me feel a bit gross.” It’s not exactly a heavy burden: they’re friends, they’re a part of their community. “We all have to make meaning of our lives,” Patricia says, “and we have relatively easy lives.”
As a seasoned world traveller, Abdul was well-prepared for the experience of adjusting to an unfamiliar country. “My situation is a little different,” he says. “I can speak English, I have experience looking for a job.” Because of that, he says, he didn’t spend much time with the support group. “In one week I learned how to get around.”
Now he’s in school, and working part-time at Sears in the menswear department, planning to start a business eventually but focused right now on education. He still has a strong relationship with the NCC, both as a client and as volunteer, working with other Syrians, helping to ease their adjustment.
“I help Maher and his family,” he says, “I help everybody.” He works as an interpreter, and he volunteers with kids too.
Once an award-winning athlete, Abdul coaches basketball, coaching Syrian kids and Canadian kids together, helping to integrate Canadian families with Syrian families. “This war made my skills deteriorate,” he says, laughing ruefully, “but now I start again.”
In the next few days, he says, he will release his first film, a short entitled From Syrians to Canadians. Now, six months after arriving, he considers Canada his country. “I’m lucky cause I’m here.”
Photos provided by Natalie Napier and Patricia Donnelly.