For eight months, the family of seven lived in a cramped one-room apartment where they ate and slept with the door sealed shut to keep the mice out.
They had few belongings and no money. Both parents started working, as well as three of the boys. Once they made enough money, they found a bigger space to live in, but their landlord was unkind, and the family had to move again. For the next year, they worked and waited to see if the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) might find them a more permanent home.
It was early 2015 when the government of Canada sent them a text. In September 2016, they boarded an airplane in Beirut. Their destination was a rural city on the North Coast of B.C. A year and a half later, the Atyah family purchased a home to call their own.
Before the war, the Atyah family owned a home in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. The father, Tamman, ran a bakery where he had a machine that pumped out flatbread. Fatima stayed at home with their four sons, Adbul, Maher, Homade and Sayer, and their only daughter, Amal.
Now, Amal, who is 13 years old, retells her family’s story in English. She was the only one with a bit of English when they first arrived in Canada, and now she translates for her parents with ease. Her brothers have also picked up English, especially the youngest, Sayer, who is now nine years old.
From inside the living room of the two-storey home in Prince Rupert, both parents sit with Amal, who is translating the conversation from English to Arabic.
“We were some of the last people who left from Syria because my dad didn’t want to leave. One night that was really bad we said ‘We’re going to leave.’ Some buses came, they took us to a different city that was safer,” Amal said.
But when they arrived, her mother looked in her wallet and realized she had left her ID behind.
“Without her ID she can’t go anywhere, not even to Lebanon,” she said. It was night when her father went back for the ID. “In the nighttime, all the bad people are hiding there,” she added, with a serious look on her face.
Tamman interrupts the moment with a YouTube video he’s pulled up on their TV of Syria before the war. It’s beautiful: rolling green hills, beaches, ancient architecture, lively markets. But in 2011, the civil war began, and now Homs is almost unrecognizable: a wasteland of destroyed buildings and torched cars.
|The Rupert Syrian Refugee Support group meets the Atyah family in the Prince Rupert airport in September 2016. (Rupert Syrian Refugee Support photo)|
The war in Syria has created one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history. As of March 2018, the UNHCR reported 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees. Between Nov. 2015 and Jan. 2017, Canada accepted 40,000 Syrian refugees.
In Lebanon, the Atyah family were one of 15,662 potential applicants who received a text message in 2015 asking if they wanted to resettle in Canada.
“They asked us if we want to move from here and we’ll have a better life,” Amal said. They went to Beirut for security and health screening, and passed.
Meanwhile, the Rupert Syrian Refugee Support group learned they would have a family of seven to help resettle on the North Coast, a temperate rainy city where there are only five Arabic speakers, according to the 2016 Census Statistics Canada.
The group welcomed the Atyah family at the Prince Rupert airport in September 2016, positive yet uncertain of the challenges that lay ahead.
A year of transition
Seeing the family happily feeding guests at their housewarming party in March, it’s hard to imagine the difficulties they faced.
Erfan Zahrai, a professor at Northwest Community College and one of the few Arabic speakers in town, volunteered his time to translate for the family.
“It was intense,” he said. “It’s a different society, different culture, different way of thinking.”
He would help them with banking, school enrollment, and eventually buying a house. But in the first year, when they were renting a home from John Farrell, the chair of the Rupert Syrian Refugee Support group, they would ask Zahrai where was everyone who lived on their street. Even with frequent visits from the group, they felt lonely.
Zahrai, who immigrated from Lebanon, said in the Middle East people are much more social, visiting each other’s homes often.
“Which of your neighbours comes and knocks at your door? It’s rare here. It’s common in Lebanon.”
Language was another challenge, but in a short time, their English improved. Both parents took ESL courses at the college until they found work. Now on Sundays, members of the Rupert Syrian Refugee Group come to visit their home to work on conversational English for an hour or two.
|Tamman, Amal and Fatima Atyah serving up Syrian dishes at the Celebration of Multicultural Diversity in Prince Rupert, Nov. 2017. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
Practising Ramadan in Prince Rupert was another experience. Muslims worldwide fast during the month of Ramadan. In Syria and Lebanon, everyone fasts together. Amal said it wasn’t that hard for her, although her brother Maher disagreed. When it was lunchtime she would just go to the library.
But her mother misses the mosque, the sound and sense of community.
“We used to go to the mosque as a group and you hear the sound, it’s so loud that you can hear it. We all miss that. But my brothers and my mom still pray in the house,” Amal said.
One of the biggest transitions for the family was moving from the hot dry climate of the Middle East to the rainiest city in Canada.
“They often talked about how depressing the rain was and how they couldn’t go outside. The funny thing was for the months I would come to the [rental] house and the windows would all be open and they’d have the heat jacked because they wanted air but they also wanted heat,” Farrell said with a chuckle.
They persevered. Farrell and other members of the support group have taken the family hiking, to the beach, fishing, they’ve gone out for picnics and played soccer. Each month, the family continues to weave themselves into the community fabric.
The Atyah children dove head first into the school system without any English, except for the two youngest, Amal and Sayer. A lot has changed since then.
Abdul, now 18, is the oldest, and he has many talents. Amal calls him the handyman.
“He’s really good at carving stuff. He’s also into music. He likes to sing rap and he also made a rap video and now he’s learning how to play the guitar and piano,” Amal said.
One of his projects brought him to Haida Gwaii, where he presented his short video of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, using English and Arabic to tell the popular children’s story.
Maher is 17. “He’s the exercising one,” his sister said with a laugh. “At the beginning when he came, he was regular. He wasn’t into the gym or anything, and then when he saw the fitness room and he loved it so much he started going and lifting stuff up.”
He goes to the gym daily, she said, and not just one. He has explored all the gyms Prince Rupert has to offer, and he’s also started running and biking.
Homade, 15, was in the other room playing an online video game while we chatted. “He’s always on the computer,” Amal said. The support group has taken him to Good Times Games and Electronics, and he’s also getting into soccer.
Sayer, the youngest, is not shy at all. “He’s really funny also,” she said. But his real skill is burying the soccer ball in the back of the net. He’s become quite the soccer player.
Learning to play
Amal is now 13, and even though she doesn’t say it, it’s clear she’s blossoming in her new environment. At first, when she started Grade 6 at Prince Rupert Middle School, she admitted, she held back. She was nervous.
“I didn’t play because I didn’t know what to do. Then in the second month, I thought, ‘I’m just going to explore.’ I did work at the beginning but then I started to do more work to get myself better and better,” she said.
|Homade Atyah, Maher Atyah, Elena Farrell, Abdul Atyah, John and Ava Farrell hike Tall Trees Trail. (John Farrell photo)|
She decided to make more friends. Her friends taught her to swim. She tried track and field and took second place in running. At the end of her first year, she received 12 awards including the Storm Spirit Award for all her hard work. Her brother, Abdul, also received the award in high school for his woodworking.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, she wakes up early to play in the concert band and jazz band. She is learning to play flute and trumpet with band director Kristy Tillman.
“It was her classroom teacher who thought she should join band. It was interesting to try and get her started on an instrument and not really being able to communicate other than with the music,” Tillman said.
In the beginning, Amal was behind. The other kids start band in Grade 5. But Tillman said she is now one of the leaders in the group.
“From being very quiet, she’s really opened up and it’s good to see her really enjoying the band. She always walks through the door and is excited to be here,” Tillman said.
Music has opened other doors for her as well. In May, Amal is travelling to Toronto with her bandmates to represent Prince Rupert at MusicFest Canada.
With the help of the support group, Tamman found full-time work in only a couple of months. He works at the Rupert Cleaners and Laundry. A couple days a week Maher works part-time with his father, and Abdul works part-time at Shoppers Drug Mart.
After five months, Fatima said she was ready to work too. She cleans rooms at Inn On The Harbour. She also shares her love of cooking with the community any chance she can. She hosted a Syrian cooking class last summer and she’s shared her dishes at the Celebration of Multicultural Diversity event for the past two years.
Tamman said he is grateful for Zahrai, who helped them find work. “He worked really hard for us,” Amal said, translating for her father.
One day in late 2017, the family decided they wanted their own home.
“We waited three months until we found the right house,” Amal said. Friends and members of the Rupert Syrian Refugee Group came to help them move in. For several days, the family worked together to scrub, clean and decorate the home in their style. One reminder of Syria is placed on the living room table. Fatima managed to pack the delicate linen with her and now it’s on display for anyone who comes to visit.
Since that first text message in Lebanon, the Atyah family have from gone stateless refugees to permanent Canadian residents and proud homeowners in Prince Rupert.
“I think I now realize how important buying their own house was,” Farrell said. “It’s pride of place. It means that they’re literally not wards of the state. They are independent and they’re able to carve out their own life here. Buying their own house was the key to that independence of living. It was almost to them like freedom.
“They finally own something.”