The Arafat family were terrified when they fled their home in Syria. Now they are finding new hope and happiness in a Canadian mountain community.
By Leyland Cecco and Annie Sakkab in Whitehorse, Canada
From a bay window, the elder Arafat children, along with their parents, watch as a swirl of costumed children crisscross the snowy streets.
With each ring of the doorbell, the family exchange uncertain glances, still not quite sure what to do. Then, one of the older children breaks the impasse, bounding down the stairs and handing out candy. It is not long before the youngest Arafat children are travelling from door to door with their neighbours, bags heavy with confectionary – their very first Halloween in Canada.
In January 2016, Hussein and Fatmah Arafat, along with their nine children, were resettled in Whitehorse, capital of north-west Canada’s Yukon territory. Privately sponsored by a group of residents, the Syrian family’s arrival capped a long escape from a country that once was safe enough to call home. They followed in the footsteps of thousands before them – searching for a new chance is braided into the Yukon’s history, when prospectors made their way into the mountains in search of gold more than one hundred years ago.
Just 15 days after moving to Whitehorse, barrel bombs leveled the family’s first house in a village near Hama, Syria. Now, thanks to local sponsors, their second sits in a neighbourhood bordered by thick stands of pines.
For a family used to the dusty rolling hills of a warm climate, this vast territory felt like a new world, wrinkled with mountain ranges. Nestled in a valley and divided by the fast-moving Yukon River, the Arafats were relieved to find that Whitehorse had many comforts – grocery stores, movie theatres and recreation centres.
“Here, I feel for the first time in five years that I’m free.”
“One of the main reasons that Hussein has explained to us that he wanted to come to Canada was to give his children the opportunity for a good education,” says Raquel de Queiroz, a nurse practitioner and lead sponsor of the family. Before her own arrival to Whitehorse two years ago, her work for Doctors Without Borders in the river basins of Colombia had hardened her resolve for helping others. “It’s the right thing to do,” she says.
Volunteers registered the younger Arafat children in schools within weeks of arriving in Whitehorse. For the two eldest daughters, Hussein and Fatima realized a Catholic public school offered the best opportunities.
Wary, they approached the principal, afraid that their daughters would be forced to remove their headscarves.
“He asked me, ‘Would you ask me to remove my cross?’,” recalls Hussein. “I said no. He told me he understands that people have their own way of living and can’t ask us to give that up.”
School in Canada has opened up a whole new world for the children.
For a long time, Hassan’s dreams of becoming a pharmacist seemed impossible. The eldest child, he remembers his father pulling him out of high school in Syria just one month before his final exams, terrified that he would be conscripted into the military. After a frantic rush, the family were able to escape to Lebanon. But Hassan was unable to attend school for the next five years, as the family struggled to make ends meet in exile.
“Here, I feel for the first time in five years that I’m free,” he says. “I can go out and move around. I can learn.”
Hassan is set to begin classes at the Yukon College in January 2017. And, after four years without consistent schooling, the youngest girls are overjoyed to be back in a classroom. “The first day they came back on the school bus, they were literally jumping up and down,” recalls sponsor Raquel. “And I thought, ‘How many kids in North America jump up in down in happiness going to school’?”
The sponsors attribute much of the community’s warm welcome to the photo of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s small body washed up on a Turkish beach. For them, and millions of others across the world, it opened a brief window into the human cost of war, spurring the Whitehorse community into action.
“Our first fundraiser was a spaghetti dinner,” says Raquel. “We made spaghetti for 200 people at the school. And we sold out in 20 minutes. I thought people were joking. ‘Really? We sold out already?’ But we did.”
Eager to become members of the community, the two eldest Arafat brothers quickly found work. Hassan stocks shelves at a pharmacy and Ismail works everyday at a barbershop. Both outgoing, they engage customers in English as a way of practicing conversation. But for their father, also eager to contribute to the community, steady employment and language is a challenge. Fibrosis in his lungs prevents him from working long hours in exhaustive jobs. Still, in the darkness of winter, the former truck driver works the dough of a local bagel company, helping to make upwards of one thousand bagels each day.
“It shows that they’re hardworking people,” says Raquel. “They want to improve on their lives. They want to pursue their dreams.”
In addition to working, the family have embraced the local lifestyle. The sons and father are now keen fisherman, casting lines into the Yukon River in the summer and shivering on the ice in winter with their sponsors. The children spend their weekends skating and swimming with new friends from school and the neighbourhood.
Over the last year, Canadians have helped resettle over 31,000 refugees displaced by conflict in Syria. While few of those can be found in the north, Whitehorse has already welcomed two families and a student, with plans for more.
A week after the novelty of their first Halloween, the Arafats host a dinner for their sponsors and other volunteers as a gesture of thanks. Plates piled high with kibbeh and tabouleh give guests a taste of what their hosts have left behind. Fatima hovers around the house making sure that plates remain full, while her sons and youngest daughters chat in newly learned English with the guests – conversations that would have been impossible a year before.
Just before the party ends, Hussein sneaks out with a plate of leftovers for a friend’s son who was unable to attend.
Because, the Arafats reason, that’s what neighbours do.
From Far and Wide is a series of stories profiling the Canadians who have welcomed Syrian refugees with compassion and support. All across the country, strangers, friends, families and communities are creating powerful bonds of friendship that transcend language and culture, when they are needed the most.
Originally published by UNHCR on 22 December 2016.