Syrian refugee family settling into new life in Burnaby, B.C.

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The Globe and Mail is looking at people who have been touched by the refugee crisis in British Columbia, from sponsors and teachers to the refugees themselves.

Raid Abazeed and Manar Ahmed just had their baby when the call came asking if they would be interested in moving from their exile in Jordan to Canada. A month later, the young Syrian refugee family was on a plane to Vancouver.

They were part of the the first wave of government-assisted refugees arriving in Canada after the newly elected Liberal government promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the new year.

Today, after living in Canada for nearly a year and moving from two different addresses, the family has settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Burnaby.

“If your family feel safe, you feel this is your place, your country,” Mr. Abazeed, the family’s 31-year-old father, said while his one-year-old daughter, Salma, happily danced across their living room to Arabic children songs.

The couple said they remember opening the first pages of the Canadian government’s A Newcomer’s Introduction to Canada, where they found the question: “What do you think Canadians look like?”

Ms. Ahmed said she thought at the time that “maybe they [Canadians] look like Europeans – white, tall, blond hair, blue eyes.” But she said she was surprised to learn Canada’s population is very much diverse, formed by immigrants like herself.

“You’re welcomed as a family. Everywhere, everybody wants to help you, everybody wants to introduce you,” Ms. Ahmed said.

The family has taken part in Canadian festivities in the past year, such as Canada Day. “I felt part of the community,” said Ms. Ahmed. She giggled and said she just didn’t go out on Halloween because she is still too afraid of the costumes.

Mr. Abazeed said his English improved significantly over the year, which motivated him to apply for a job as a bus driver with TransLink, the Vancouver region’s transit authority. “I passed the first test and I did an interview last Tuesday. I am just waiting now,” he said.

“Because in the past six years, almost all life in Syria stopped, so you almost stop thinking about your future,” Mr. Abazeed said. “Now we’re in Canada, there’s a lot of opportunities to start with, better, other projects you can do here.”

Ms. Ahmed also has a friend who helps her with English lessons every week. But she said finding a job is still hard for other families as they need more time to learn the language and integrate, on top of the high costs of living in Metro Vancouver.

All government-assisted refugees are provided a monthly support allowance, which mirrors the base rates of the province’s income assistance program. On top of that, they also receive a transportation allowance so they can access settlement services, community resources, language classes and employment searches.

The Syrian couple first met in Jordan two years ago, while volunteering to help Syrian children with disabilities caused by bombings.

Both had to flee Syria as the war and massacre continued unabated.

Ms. Ahmed cried as she remembered when the Syrian military stormed into her house in Damascus, took her 52-year-old father and brutally spanked him in the streets, apparently because he was looking at the soldiers from his balcony.

“Someone told us you should leave your home tonight because the [Syrian] military would come,” Ms. Ahmed said. “And someone got us out of city.”

Mr. Abazeed said the situation became impossible for him and his family in Syria and they had to go to Jordan when the regime started to indiscriminately arrest people at the country’s checkpoints. “If they didn’t like your name, if they didn’t like your family name, they would just arrest you,” he said.

But he noted there were moments when he forgot about himself and the situation in Syria.

“The first one was when I met Manar. I just stood there, shocked,” Mr. Abazeed said while looking at his wife “The other moment was when I saw Salma the first time. I am a father now, what should I do? The third one was when I came here, from the airport I was like it’s a huge transition for us. We were in the Middle East and now we’re on the other side of the world.”

The Syrian couple said they have big plans for their future, including having another child and bringing the rest of their family to Canada. They said when they left their family in Jordan, it was like “your soul came out from your body.”

Mr. Abazeed, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, said he also wants to go back to school for a Masters degree or PhD. His wife also said she wants to go back to school and to work.

“And for Salma, I will leave her to follow her own dream.”