Abeer Alkhataba remembers how she and her family felt the moment they learned they were going to be starting a new life in Canada.
“We were so excited. When we got the phone call from the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] asking us if we want to come to Canada, we were so excited,” Alkhataba told the News Bulletin. “I am so happy. We really appreciate that the government gave us the opportunity to come to Canada.”
Alkhataba is just one of more than 40 Syrian refugees who now call Canada and the Harbour City home. Alkhataba, along with her husband, Mahmoud Ali, and their two young children arrived in Nanaimo in March as part of a wave of government-sponsored refugees.
“We are surprised at how clean and beautiful it is here,” Alkhataba said. “The people are kind and friendly. We get a lot of welcoming here.”
Since the arrival of private and government-sponsored Syrian refugees in Nanaimo, the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society has been working with local organizations such as Island Health, United Way, the Nanaimo Women’s Resource Society and Nanaimo school district to address the various needs of the refugee families.
One of these needs is ensuring that refugees are able to integrate and feel welcomed in Nanaimo, according to Kelly McBride, acting executive director of the multicultural society.
She said her organization has been leading a program called family matching, which pairs refugees with society volunteers. Together, the refugees and volunteers participate in all kinds of daily life activities such as picnics, walks or cooking.
“It’s an opportunity for Syrian refugees to meet up with locals and share important experiences,” McBride said. “It helps the refugees feel welcomed and integrate easier into society.”
Alkhataba has been participating in the family matching program since arriving in Nanaimo. She said the experience has allowed her to learn more about Canadian culture, customs and way of life.
“They [volunteers] have been visiting us for awhile. Every few days and weeks and we’ve really enjoyed it. It’s helped us learn more about culture here and it has helped with our English,” she said. “They support us, not just with English, but psychologically and socially.”
Marilyn Ostercamp, a family matching volunteer, said she’s learned a lot from spending time with the Syrian refugees and has come to enjoy Syrian cuisine.
“We are learning things from each other,” she said. “I must admit in the beginning I was nervous because you don’t want to do anything wrong and you don’t know what people have gone through, but then you relax and you realize they’re just like a neighbour.”
Bruce Patterson, another family matching volunteer, said he was compelled to get involved after seeing the horrific images of the Syrian people on the news. He said being part of the family matching program has not only taught him a lot, but has also made him feel like he’s making a difference.
“These are people who have been affected by horrific events and they are so resilient,” Patterson said. “It’s a way of feeling connected and making a difference on one level. You don’t feel so powerless in the world.”
Alkhataba said her family feels lucky to be in such a welcoming country and is blessed that there are initiatives such as the family matching program.
“Canadians accept our culture, our religion and our thoughts,” she said. “We feel safe and we are so lucky to be here. We have a future.”