A little over a year ago, two Syrian families began new lives in Winnipeg with the support of Douglas Mennonite Church through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Silava Seyhmus and her brother Guevara Shekhmos, their cousins Riwas Kahil and her husband Jwan Ali, plus their two daughters Shler, 5, and Sana, 3, stepped off the plane in Winnipeg last June greeted by dozens of members of the church.
“We were so tired but we saw so many people from the church smiling and saying hello,” Shekhmos recalled.
Their welcome to Canada stood in stark contrast to the past several years.
The two families hail from the Kurdish region of Syria. Seyhmus lived in the northern city of Haseke and worked as an English teacher for 20 years before she was forced to flee.
“I left Syria because ISIS attacked our region twice and Al Qaeda attacked us once. Our country divided into many forces fighting each other,” she explained. “A lot of terrorists came into our country and destroyed the economy and the education system.”
Seyhmus and Shekhmos fled to Turkey by crossing the border about 5 years ago, but their troubles persisted, even in the relative safety they found there.
“To be Syrian in Turkey it was like you’re a bad person. I tried not to speak Arabic or Kurdish in front of Turkish people,” Shekhmos said.
Kajil and Ali followed their cousins to Turkey in 2016 when fighting and bombing made living in Damascus untenable.
The couple had a baby girl and another one on the way, so leaving was their only option.
“The most important thing was our child, her future, so we left Syria,” Ali said.
Finding home in a new country
Two years after fleeing to Turkey, the families decided it was time to leave the Middle East. They began preparations to come to Canada, seeking sponsorship as refugees.
In Winnipeg, preparations were underway as well.
Dozens of volunteers from Douglas Mennonite Church gathered to find housing and furnish Ali and Kahil’s home. Seyhmus and Shekhmos were able to stay with family in the city until they found their own apartment a few months later.
Adam Robinson, the associate pastor of Douglas Mennonite Church who has chaired the sponsorship committee at church for the last three years, said it was a way of showing care for the families.
“It’s a tangible way of expressing love for people and communicating openness to building relationships, he said.
The families were mostly excited for the move, but Seyhmus said she was nervous.
“I thought it was maybe the same experience which I faced in Turkey,” she explained. “But when I came to Canada and was supported by many people who helped us, I found the opposite.”
It wasn’t easy. Shekhmos said he experienced significant culture shock in Canada. His experience living in a community-focused Middle Eastern culture stood in stark contrast with Canada’s more individual-focused culture.
However, he said the church became like family.
“I look at them and Douglas Mennonite like I’m seeing my relatives. They’re very kind people, they’re very friendly I can’t recognize why they should help us. They don’t know us,” Shekhmos said. “Until now I don’t know why they do this unless they’re angels.”
Robinson thinks community is key to helping newcomers fit in well in Canada and eventually find employment.
“Whether you’re in a Canadian church group or another community group, often that produces the first job opportunity,” he said. “If you’re just on the street with a resumé, it’s not the same as finding work through someone in your community with someone who cares about you and wants to see you succeed.”
Currently, Seyhmus teaches English with the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre, while her brother works construction. Ali is a Skip the Dishes delivery person while he takes English classes and Kahil stays home with their children while learning English.
Now that they’re safe in Canada, the families said they can dream of a future.
For Ali, all his dreams are for his daughters.
“I wish for them to continue their studying and maybe in the future they will hopefully go to university. I wish for them to have a good life, not what we suffered in Syria. We wish for them to have a good life in Canada,” he said.
Ali is looking forward to welcoming his parents to Winnipeg later this month. He’s working with Douglas Mennonite Church to sponsor them through MCC.
Shekhmos and Seyhmus dream of bringing their aging parents to Canada where they can better care for them.