Hevin Ahmad has only lived in Winnipeg for a few months, but she is already making a big difference in her community.
Ahmad is Syrian, but left after the conflict escalated and lived in the Kurdish region of Iraq for three years prior to coming to Canada.
Ahmad and her husband had trouble making ends meet in Iraq. She had a job in human resources, while her husband Sabah Issa worked for an advertising firm. When fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi government and allied forces escalated in Mosul, the economic situation in the area quickly deteriorated and they were forced to leave.
“We were refugees in Iraq. We didn’t have anything. We took our salary and put it towards rent and food and that’s it. We couldn’t make anything for the future,” she explains.
Ahmad says life is difficult here because she’s far from her family, but the challenges are worth facing. She had a baby daughter named Tara nearly two years ago and could see no hope for a life for their family in Iraq.
“It’s so hard for me, but it’s better for my daughter, for our future, for her future.”
Ahmad was privately sponsored by the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees (KIFR) with the help of MCC. Now, she and two other privately sponsored refugees who were also supported by MCC to come to Canada are paying it forward by organizing a summer program for newcomer children, youth and young adults.
This summer, Ahmad, Nour Ali and Reem Younes, together with a number of volunteers and other paid staff are working with 50 Syrians between five and 27 years old. Four days a week, the participants learn English, practice their Arabic or Kurdish literacy, go on field trips around Manitoba, do crafts, dance and play sports at the University of Winnipeg and Douglas Mennonite Church. The older participants take workshops on subjects like photography and videography.
The summer program is made possible through a grant from the Canadian government and is facilitated by KIFR.
The aim of the program, Ali says, is to provide a safe place for the participants to learn and become more comfortable in a new setting. KIFR, which Ali founded this year, is well known in Manitoba Syrian and Kurdish communities.
“We think we understand the (Syrian children and youth) more than other organizations. The community trusts us. They know their kids are in a safe place,” he says.
But it’s also about giving back to the community to help them find support and kindness in a new country, the same way Ali and his colleagues were received in Canada.
Ali came to Winnipeg in 2012 through a private sponsorship group at Douglas Mennonite Church. He found work, a community at the church and safety for his family here.
“I came here as a refugee. I always say, when you get help you have to give forward. You have to help more people.”
Reem Younes is Ali’s sister-in-law. She came to Canada two years ago through the same church sponsorship group.
She says she’s involved in the summer program because many of the participants have only been in Canada for a few months. Younes says she knows how it feels to be in a new country where you don’t understand the culture or language.
“I know the way they feel. I came here as a refugee, but sponsored by a church. The church helped me and my husband a lot to integrate into this new home.”
She adds: “The first year it was so difficult, even with kind people. It took me many months to think this is my home, this is my country. I want to help these kids feel at home and forget what they saw in Syria.”