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Opinion: From a war zone to the warm heart of cold Canada

The recent media attention surrounding sponsoring Syrian refugees to Sudbury coincided with an anniversary I had almost forgotten — the 30th anniversary of my own arrival in Canada in one of the coldest months of the year. Jan.
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A family of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada on New Year's Eve. File photo.
The recent media attention surrounding sponsoring Syrian refugees to Sudbury coincided with an anniversary I had almost forgotten — the 30th anniversary of my own arrival in Canada in one of the coldest months of the year.

Jan. 17, 1986, I arrived in Timmins where the temperature reached a bone-chilling -42 and land was nowhere to be seen for the blanket of foreign white snow that was everywhere. I came to Canada as a sponsored student on a scholarship from the Harriri Foundation (set up by an independent Lebanese businessman to educate hundreds of young Lebanese away from the civil war raging in my country).

We were fanned out around the world, and by luck or chance or extremely good fortune, I arrived in Northern Ontario — first to Timmins to learn English and then to Sudbury to study electronic engineering technology at Cambrian College.

I remember thinking to myself, “I survived a civil war only to freeze to death in a new country all alone.” It’s funny when I think about it now, but at the time I was a 20-year-old spoiled boy all alone in a very strange world.

Some of my most endearing memories were back in those early days when the generosity of Sudburians and the Cambrian College community quickly led me to appreciate how lucky I was. I recall one lasting memory of my first Christmas in Canada. Foreign students who could not return home for the holidays had nowhere to go. I wasn’t looking forward to the long days at residence by myself. As fortune would have it, that it didn’t happen.

One of my classmates from Azilda invited me and another Lebanese student to his home for the holidays and I was wrapped up in the warmth of the season by the generosity and hospitality of this family. I recall being shocked at the amount of presents under the Christmas tree, and being humbled beyond words when they passed along one of those gifts to me, with my name on it.

The Cambrian College community took good care of its foreign students and provided many resources to help us adapt to our new “home.”

All of these memories came flooding back to me when the world’s attention focused on the Syrian refugee crisis.

The culture shock is enormous when you can’t speak the language. Adapting to new customs, cuisine, day-to-day life and, yes, the extreme cold is beyond difficult. Our new residents will need time to adjust. They will need help and patience as they try to process leaving a war zone and adjusting to a completely different way of life.

I’ve no doubt they are anxious to find jobs, for their children to attend school, to start the process of building a new life. One of the greatest emotions they will have to deal with is angst — angst that they got out when hundreds of thousands of their neighbours and friends did not.

That angst and anxiety, while certainly a source of stress, is temporary and worth it: Our new Syrian neighbours can look forward to a great life here in Greater Sudbury. They have already experienced the tremendous support and the genuine empathy of Sudburians. The helping hands we provide will not only help them adjust, it will help them prosper.

As I launch into my 30th anniversary year as a Canadian and a Sudburian, I watch this community come together to rescue these families and I feel an enormous sense of pride — pride that I am now “one of them” who’s always willing to help. But it also reminds me a big part of the reason I was able to become “one of them” is the circumstances that allowed me to escape civil war so many years ago, and the luck that brought me to Northern Ontario. It’s an interesting perspective.

So, to our new Syrian neighbours I say this: Ahlan wasahlan (Welcome home).

Abbas Homayed is the publisher of Northern Life.


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