The Harmoush-Herba family fled their hometown of Idlib, in northwestern Syria, two years after the start of the war. After three difficult years in Libya, the family of four arrived in Victoria B.C., having been sponsored to come to Canada by the St. Matthias and Friends Constituent Group through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. Sitting down with the family in their welcoming Victoria home, Fiona Bramble and Rojin Ghasemzadeh Mahaleh are treated to the famous Syrian hospitality, and talk about the family’s long journey to safety, learning English, starting a new business, and what it means for them to be here in Canada.
Can you describe your hometown?
SHEDWAN: Our city is called the “green town”; its name is Idlib. The farms outside were so green. We had a big motorcycle and we use to ride around the city every day, with my kids and my wife.
LAMA: When the kids were young (in Idlib), Shedwan could spend a lot of time with us; it was so nice, all that time together. It was a perfect two and a half years.
You left Syria for Libya. What happened there?
SHEDWAN: When the war started in my country, we stayed for two years, watching what was happening. We decided to leave the country to see if we could find a different life for our kids. We went to Libya. The situation there was worse than Syria.
LAMA: When the fighting started on our street, we could no longer go out.
SHEDWAN: The bullets were coming inside our house. We were in Benghazi and the Libyan army was fighting ISIS (Islamic State). We stayed inside for four months. It was very scary for our kids. It was a very hard three years.
What was your path to Canada?
SHEDWAN: My aunt, Raja, contacted us from Canada, and we started to prepare our [application] papers.
LAMA: There is no [Canadian] embassy in Libya, so it’s very hard to do the application from Libya.
SHEDWAN: The application took a long time; we tried many, many times. After about a year and a half, we came here.
How did you feel when your applications were approved?
SHEDWAN: We went to Turkey and we stayed there for two or three months. The [Canadian] embassy called us and we did our interview there. The [immigration] officer said to us: “I accept you.” That was very, very happy news.
LAMA: It was wonderful. Twenty days later, we were here.
SHEDWAN: It gave us a big hope for our family. It was like a dream.
What was your first emotion when you arrived at the airport in Victoria?
SHEDWAN: Emotional, when I saw my brother. I hadn’t seen him in seventeen years.
LAMA: Maybe his tears would describe it for you. I felt happy, happy, happy. Relieved. And a little bit guilty because you are safe and your family are not.
TALIA: I was shy, but excited to see my cousins.
ABDUL-AZIZ: We got lots of candy!
Who helped you the most as you settled into your new lives here?
SHEDWAN: Brian and Nicola (from the St. Matthias and Friends Constituent Group), and Paul McCarthy. I can’t say all the names, but so many people helped us in different ways.
LAMA: Evelyn and Susan (from the St. Matthias and Friends Constituent Group) spent lots of time with us to help the kids start school after spring break. Also, the principal at the kids’ school is wonderful; the teachers and all the staff, they are helpful and kind.
Lama, Brian and Nicola mentioned that you have been awarded two scholarships to the University of Victoria!
LAMA: Yes! I am studying at UVic. In my first semester, my teachers told me that I was doing very good, so they [recommended] me for a scholarship. I was so excited, I called everyone right at that moment from UVic to tell them! It’s a great program. I’m not very good with pronunciation and reading and writing. I’m not terrible, but not good. I need to study academic English because I would like to study to be an educational assistant.
Shedwan, what is your training or occupation?
SHEDWAN: I have been a painter for over thirty years—since I was thirteen years old. I do interior and exterior and also decorative finishing and design. I worked with a local company for a year [when we first arrived], but five or six months ago, I started my own business: The Crown Custom Painting. I’m so happy.
Abdul-Aziz and Talia, did you go camping this past summer?
ABDUL-AZIZ: Yes, we went to Tofino and Sproat Lake!
TALIA: Every morning when we woke up, we go to the beach and see starfish, crabs, snails, and tiny fish.
ABDUL-AZIZ: When we were going into the forest, my cousin saw a bear, and he wanted to get out of his car and scare it away! When I was in my uncle’s truck, I saw a baby bear.
TALIA: We saw a baby bear!
Is there anything you think is strange or funny about Canadian culture or Canada?
LAMA: Yes, actually. Homelessness. Canada is a rich country, a big land, with very generous people. It’s hard to see homelessness. I don’t get it. They have nothing even though it’s their land, their country. This is the only thing surprising for me.
How do you stay connected to your own culture?
SHEDWAN: Actually, we are doing everything we used to do in Syria. The same things. We have big family and a lot of friends here.
LAMA: We try to do our celebrations and meet with other families, but it’s not the same as in Syria. We have a very busy life here, so the routine is different.
What do you miss most about your home country?
SHEDWAN: Everything. Everything. My city. My cousins. My friends. I lost some of my friends. I lost ten of my cousins in this crazy war. It’s just crazy.
Is it hard to reconcile that time with this relatively easy life here? You talked about guilt earlier.
SHEDWAN: Yes. Sure, the guilt. We are always thinking about our cousins, our family there, our friends. I am always trying to help them. Always, as I can, I will help. We lived that life for five years, in Syria and Libya.
How do you cope with that loss and constant fear for your friends and family?
LAMA: At first, it was hard to be safe and having everything and thinking of your friends and family and everyone there [in Syria], but then we said: o.k., we are safe and now at least we can do something for them. In this way, we can live. When we talk to them, they are happy we are safe. And there is always hope.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
SHEDWAN: I want to thank everybody who helped my family; my aunt Raja, who is in Vancouver, our sponsors here—every single one who gave us his time—and I also want to thank the Canadian government because they helped the Syrian refugees. And I want to thank Justin Trudeau. I feel this man is like a brother. We hope to meet him one day. I wish this life for everyone in this world, for everyone. Actually, here in Victoria, it is heaven. It’s paradise.