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Dec22ThuWeetamah Corps welcomes Syrian refugees to Winnipeg. December 22, 2016 by Kristin Ostensen
When asked to describe her experience in Canada as a Syrian refugee, Samar Hosan's answer is short and simple: “Cold,” she says with a laugh. She arrived in Winnipeg in January 2016.
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“It is very nice,” she continues, speaking through an interpreter. “We've felt more like we're human here. It is very good.”
Hosan, her husband and four children are among the approximately 32,000 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada since the civil war began. The Hosan family hail from Daraa, one of the first cities to rebel against the regime in March 2011, after schoolchildren were arrested for spray-painting anti-government slogans. Hosan and her family left Syria soon after, and lived in Jordan before coming to Canada. About three months later, she connected with The Salvation Army's Weetamah Corps.
Located in Winnipeg's north end, Weetamah may seem like an unlikely place for Syrian refugees to gather. But it is just around the corner from 311 Alexander, a former bag factory converted to apartments where many Syrian families live. Hosan heard about Weetamah from friends of hers who live in those apartments.
The corps hosts programs for Syrian refugees twice each week. The Monday afternoon gathering draws about 40 to 50 people, while the Wednesday evening program brings in 60 to 80. The program, which has been running since March 2016, is a partnership between Weetamah, the Aurora Family Therapy Centre and the Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network.
“In the beginning, we'd knock on their apartment doors so that they'd come to our program, but now we don't need to—they're here half an hour early, waiting for the program to begin,” says Roselyn Advincula, community development worker with Aurora. “They're happy, because this is part of their community. They know that they can come here any time and they'll be accepted with open arms.”
Initially, they focused on parent-child programming, singing songs and playing games to help participants to learn English. From there, responding to the participants' requests and needs, the program added an English conversation circle, parenting classes, sports activities and guest speakers on topics such as health, nutrition and stress management.
“I've learned lots of information,” says Hosan, noting she has particularly appreciated the opportunity to practise English and learn about differences between Syrian and Canadian culture.
“People treat us well,” says Haman Alsaref, who has been attending the program for eight months. “We're getting more information about the rules and law in Canada and how to raise our kids.”
Alsaref, who is also from Daraa, first came to Weetamah because she heard the corps was giving away free vegetables. She attends the program with her three children on both Mondays and Wednesdays, and has received additional help from Weetamah and Lieutenant Mark Young, corps officer, when needed.
“I was depressed because my husband's car was stolen, and then I came here and Mark gave me some food and diapers,” she shares. “I appreciated that from him and would like to thank him for that.”
Lieutenant Young notes that many refugees access resources through the corps' family services. Members of the corps, as well as social work students from Booth University College, provide support by volunteering on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Because the Weetamah program includes childcare, it is particularly beneficial for the Syrian women.
“Often they're left at home because the husbands are in English classes,” Advincula explains. “Not every program has child-minding attached to it, so this program at The Salvation Army is making it possible for them to be part of the community, to feel less isolated.”
Though she is grateful to be in Canada, Alsaref finds the separation from her family difficult. She left Syria in 2011 and has lived in Canada for the past year. “I haven't seen my brother for six years,” she says. “My cousin just died recently and I didn't see them. My mother and father had surgery, and I wasn't able to be there.”
Meeting people and making friends has made it easier for Alsaref to bear that separation. “It helps being a part of the community,” she says. “Sometimes I am a little bit stressed, but when I come here, I feel more relieved.”
Building a community through the Weetamah program has also been important for Hosan and her children. Because she is eight months pregnant, Hosan is not always able to come to the program, much to their disappointment.
“They're enjoying it a lot,” she shares. “If we miss one day of the program, then they keep nagging me, 'We need to go,' because they like to play with other kids, instead of sitting at home.”
Lieutenant Young first started to notice the impact the program was having last summer. “I'd look at the park across the street from the corps—children were playing, families were sitting together,” he says, “and it spoke to me—after the horrendous experiences many of them have had, and all that they've had to endure, I thank God that they have that sense of community here.”
Along with opportunities for learning and friendship, the Weetamah program has also given refugees the chance to share their stories more widely through Three Stars and a Wish, a writing program for parents and children.
“They could share their culture, traditions, experiences—whatever they would like to preserve in written form and pass on to the next generation,” Advincula explains. “It was a beautiful experience. In the beginning there was lots of crying while they were telling their stories, but I think it was part of their healing, too, from the trauma that they experienced before coming here.”
The title of the book, which includes a dozen stories, is Jadid, the Sun Rises Again: Our Journey From Syria to Canada. “Jadid means 'new,' ” Advincula notes, “so it means that they're still hopeful that there will be a better future for them.”
Heading into the new year, the program will enter a new phase in its offerings, as many of the refugees begin transitioning off of government assistance, which ends one year after their arrival in Canada. This will include more advanced English-language practice, budgeting tips, volunteer opportunities and work-readiness training—whatever is needed to help ensure their new life in Canada is successful.