A father and mother and their two young children who lived just outside Aleppo, named Syria's Stalingrad because the battle for the city was one of the longest sieges and most devastating conflicts in modern warfare, are now one of three Syrian refugee families living safely in St. Stephen. The Battle of Aleppo, which ended on December 22 after more than four years of fighting, left an estimated 31,000 people dead, with global outrage about reports of war crimes ranging from the use of chemical weapons to the dropping of cluster munitions on civilians.
Ammar Saied says that the whole world watched on their televisions the bombing of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. "This is the truth," he says, noting that most of the buildings are destroyed. "There is no more Aleppo. What is left is just the name."
Saied and his wife Esma and their son and daughter are now living half way across the world, in a different culture that has taken them in. "I feel we are one of the luckiest of the Syrian refugees," Saied says, speaking through an interpreter, Katia Abbasi, a settlement counsellor with the Multicultural Association of Charlotte County. "We had the chance to come to Canada," while other Syrians face formidable challenges, as they are still in refugee camps, on dangerous sea and land crossings to Europe or in countries where they are not so welcome. "I feel safe, I feel happy and I feel lucky."
The journey out of Syria
In the village where the Saied family lived they knew every single person. "All my relatives lived together, 40 families next to each other," recalls Ammar. "Now, if I want to talk with my family members, every day I have to call England, Turkey, Jordan, all over the world. We can't gather together. The main thing I miss is we are no longer with our family in the village where we saw everyone."
While living in Syria the family and others did not have much, so in 2011 when Syrians "went to the streets to stand up for their rights," saying they deserved a better life, Ammar joined in the strikes against the government. But he says, "The people failed me," as he over time wasn't able to tell who was telling the truth or "who loved their country and who did not."
The people who took to the streets then wanted to start fighting the government, and Ammar did not believe it was right "to hold a weapon against our countrymen. I tried to convince my brothers not to do that, but they didn't agree."
Once the civil war started, life became more difficult in Syria. It was only 12 miles to Aleppo, but it would take four hours to get there, as there would be 20 to 25 checkpoints with armed guards and "you didn't know if they would let you go or arrest you." Ammar then began going to Turkey to get supplies for the family, as he couldn't reach the city.
At the beginning of the civil war it easy to cross the border into Turkey, and Ammar could enter without a visa, as he had a passport. Once Turkey closed its border, though, it became more difficult. In 2014, Ammar moved into Turkey, and a month and half later Esma and the two children crossed over into the country illegally, walking through the mountains in the cold and dark. Along the journey their son was praying they would see Ammar again. "God protected us through the way," she says. It was about six kilometres to a mosque where the police could not send them back to Syria, and a man they met "motivated me to get to the mosque in Turkey," she says. "We had to get there so the police couldn't send us back."
Esma says she doesn't want to go back to Syria unless there's a guarantee that there will be no more war. "After what I went through, scared C I can't go through that again." Ammar and Esma decline to speak about what they witnessed during the war, including whether family members or friends were killed.
The family lived for a year and a half in Turkey, where Ammar worked. After 15 months, they were told by the United Nations that they had the option to go to the U.S., with an interview scheduled a week later. Before the interview, though, they received a call telling them that they could not go to the U.S. and their only option was to emigrate to Canada. Ammar recalls that he said, "Thank God!"
In late 2015 the Canadian government committed to accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, with about 1,500 coming to New Brunswick. Most of them went to the three largest cities, Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton, but the Multicultural Association of Charlotte County participated with the federal government in a pilot project to settle some families in smaller communities. Four families, including the Saieds, ended up coming to St. Stephen last April. One family ended up moving to Ontario, where they were able to connect with other family members.
The Maatouk family who came separately to St. Stephen in December 2015 has since moved to Saint John. Laurie Parris, executive director of the Multicultural Association of Charlotte County, says the family "wanted opportunities that a larger urban center would provide." They had friends in Saint John and wanted to be closer to a larger Syrian community with more people their own age.
Living in a new country
Ammar says the family was surprised when they came to Canada. "We had friends, we had a small community, we had people to talk to. We feel overwhelmed with everyone's support."
"When I came to Canada I had my wife, two kids and $36," Ammar recalls. "Now in Canada I have a house, a car, food. We are happy."
Although living in a small town where they did not speak the language or know anyone, Ammar says they have not felt isolated. "We feel surrounded by friends," including the two other Syrian families and Canadian friends. Also, they spend a fair bit of time each day talking with their family members who are now scattered all over the world. However, he is careful about what he says over the phone, as he is not sure if people are listening in.
Ammar still has a brother and sister in Syria who he hopes can join them in Canada. His brother is still in the war-torn country because he works with a nonprofit helping children. Ammar jokes that he also is an English teacher, so he could help him learn the language.
Pointing to one of the differences between the two countries, Ammar relates that if he was driving in Syria and saw a police car he would pray there would be an exit so he didn't have to pass by it. "We fear them. We don't want to be in contact with them." When the family came to St. Stephen "the police welcomed us" and introduced them to the regulations for living in the country. Their two children were hesitant about the police, but the officer offered them a tour of the station. "They told us not to be afraid of the police any more."
Ammar now has his own car and after taking classes obtained a New Brunswick driver's license. He also takes English classes, but he says he will also go to the cafés or coffee shops and listen to people talking. He will then try to make conversation with them, as he tries to learn the language. He says their daughter, who is taking classes at school, is "better than me at English." Their son, who is four, is starting to speak English and will learn more next year when he goes to school five days a week.
Ammar did get a job at a local factory, as he thought it would help him to learn English. However, he would work eight hours a day with no chance to speak the language, so he left, as he wanted to learn to speak English first. He notes that not being able to speak the language is the main barrier to getting most jobs, so he believes he needs another year to learn English and then will find work. He owned a small printing business in Syria and would like to do that in Canada.
Attitudes towards refugees
Although Ammar says he has not heard any negative comments about refugees or immigrants taking jobs from local people, he did hear such comments while they were living in Turkey. "They didn't pay me a daily wage," he recalls about when he was working there. "We begged them to have enough for food for my family." He notes, though, that there are millions of refugees in Turkey, too many for the country to handle. In Canada, though, he says, "We can get a car, medical care, kids in school."
Laurie Parris says she occasionally hears negative statements about immigrants, which she believes come for a lack of understanding. Concerning the comment that immigrants are taking jobs away from local people, she observes, "I say, 'What jobs?' In Charlotte County we have a wealth of jobs and not enough people to fill them." Racist comments can be heard anywhere, she notes. She believes the great majority of people are not intolerant but a small number "get too much attention. We need people to stand up and say that's inappropriate."
While Canadians have been welcoming, Ammar is aware of the distrust of immigrants and refugees expressed by U.S. President Trump, including his travel ban, which bans Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. for an indefinite period. "American politics and the people of America are two different things," he notes. He has two American friends who are kind and come to visit him. "But I hate American politics. The politics of the states makes me feel afraid of going to the states. I don't want to." He won't be crossing the border until he obtains a Canadian passport, adding, "I hope one day to visit our friends there."
The family once did almost cross the border by mistake. Ammar relates that he was driving with his family and ended up on the road crossing the international bridge to Calais. Once he realized that, he did a U-turn to go back into Canada, but then the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer told him he had to first cross the U.S. border and come back. His wife started to cry, and Ammar told the officer, "If we go across we may be there a long time," as they are Syrian refugees. Another Syrian family did make the mistake of crossing the bridge to the U.S. and was held for five hours by border officials. Ammar felt an intense fear during the 15 minutes he was interrogated in the CBSA office. He says he made a joke with the officer, telling him that Donald Trump would be there if he went across into the U.S. The officer told him that Trump was not there, and eventually he let the family back into Canada.
Concerning the U.S. president, Ammar says, "When I can meet Trump I'll ask where his ancestors came to America from. You imigrated to America some day. I'm pretty sure Germans did not descend from Native Americans."
He says he follows President Trump's comments on social media, noting, "He amuses us, because I am on this side of the border, so I can watch and laugh." However, he feels sad about what the U.S. president says and wonders "why people elected him."
Adjusting to a new country
Laurie Parris believes the three Syrian families are adjusting well to life in Charlotte County, noting that it's a long process when one comes to a place where "absolutely everything is foreign C the language, the culture. It's a huge learning curve." She adds, "They need to be encouraged to be independent in the community and find work. The more the community supports them in that the better their long-term settlement establishment will be."
Among the services the association provides are English language instruction, help with government documents and housing and job search assistance, along with instruction about soft skills for work and the interview process. "We help them maneuver through the complex maze of living in a new country."
The association also offers cultural programming for both area community members and immigrants, including events such as a multicultural holiday celebration that includes different cultural entertainment. Monthly get-togethers for women help them network and learn about different cultures. Also, the association partners with other groups for cultural competency training, inviting service providers to learn about different cultures.
The association also helps immigrants obtain Canadian citizenship. "The goal is to make the newcomer and the community work together so the newcomer feels good and wants to stay," says Parris. "We want them to build their life here in Charlotte County, and the end goal is citizenship."
Asked to look 10 years in the future, Ammar says that he hopes he will own a small business, that his children will be doing well in school and his "little girl" will be applying to go to university. He strongly believes in his children's education and notes that in Syria "they never would receive such a good education."
Ammar says many have welcomed and helped them so that they now feel they are part of the community. "They helped us get over the bad things." He adds that the multicultural association "did a great job and oriented us for all we need to know."
"We feel grateful, we feel thankful, and we're looking forward to a brighter future."