‘We became a family’: Finding home in Nanaimo from Syria

The Discourse listened to the experiences of three Syrian-Canadians to understand how they found home in a new country.
A man with short hair and a beard smiles on a walkway at the beach, wearing a black apron and red shirt.
Khalid Alali is a Syrian-Canadian who has built a business in Nanaimo. Alali says the joy and comfort he found in Nanaimo mostly came from the people in his life. Rowan Flood/The Discourse

The Tim Hortons is bustling as Abeer Alkhataba and her young daughter settle into a booth. Her daughter peers curiously at her surroundings as she eats Timbits. She then turns to papers where she draws colorful shapes as her mother speaks. Alkhataba begins to tell her life journey, one that starts in Syria and is now in Nanaimo, where she lives with her family.

Alkhataba, who is Syrian-Canadian, a mother and former teacher’s assistant, obtained her master’s degree in engineering before immigrating to Canada with her children in February 2016. 

Her family flew from Jordan to Toronto, where they stayed for two nights in a hotel before coming to Nanaimo. Alkhataba was excited to move because she says her family wasn’t happy and didn’t feel welcome in Jordan. They celebrated their daughter’s one-year birthday in a Nanaimo hotel room, and it wasn’t until March 24 that they moved into their basement suite. 

Moving from Jordan to Canada meant not only moving a great physical distance, but an immense cultural one, too.

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“It was a big shock,” says Alkhataba, who mentions Toronto’s minus 40 weather and overwhelming use of English. 

The Discourse listened to the experiences of three Syrian-Canadians to understand how they came to call Nanaimo home. Years after making it through the selection process, the initial isolation and other cultural differences, they share what helped and hindered the complicated process of resettlement.

Finding home in the early days

Although newcomers receive support from organizations such as Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society (CVIMS), local volunteers and friends played a significant role in helping them find their way around and making them feel at home in Nanaimo.

“We got a lot of support when we came here, from the local people, Canadian people, the government,” Alkhataba says of those early months.

She says her family’s landlords halved rent and loaned them furniture, which Alkhataba explains felt “exceptional.” 

For newcomers on government sponsorship, there is some money to purchase furniture but none provided, explains Elizabeth Herman, a volunteer with Syrian-Canadians. Herman started volunteering independently though did the private sponsoring with the St. Philip by-the-Sea Anglican Church in Lantzville, B.C. 

With private sponsorship, newcomers are directly supported by an individual or group of people, rather than by government funds.

Alkhataba continuously references the volunteers who helped support their transition. On top of logistical support with tasks like finding furniture, volunteers also helped her mentally. 

She remembers the times they took her and her kids to Victoria for the day or the Vancouver Aquarium. The volunteers offered the family something no money or funding could — they allowed new memories to form and “gave us a good time,” Alkhataba says.

For Alkhataba, the language barrier was one of the most difficult aspects of their resettlement. Although she was a teacher assistant at Damascus University and had a base knowledge of English before her arrival, it took time to really speak and understand it in Canada.

“The language is like a wall between you and the new world,” says Alkhataba.

Alkhataba points to an incident in the first weeks of living in Nanaimo where she missed a doctor’s appointment for her daughter because she couldn’t understand the schedule. 

The cultural difference between Syria and Canada is also significant, Alkhataba explains. Women are much less involved with men in day-to-day life in Syria yet in Canada, “women and men are like one person,” she says.

When she went to university and was living in residence she was separated from men. But the lack of gender separation in Canada makes her uncomfortable when she thinks of her own daughters going off to study. As well, she says people often stay with their families until marriage in Syria instead of living with friends or partners.

Even finding food isn’t something that comes easy. Superstore is the only grocery store that sells halal meat, says Alkhataba. As well, she has to pay attention to the candy her children eat in case they contain gelatin that isn’t halal. 

While Nanaimo is a place that feels safe, Alkhataba still worries about her three daughters. She’s concerned they’ll experience racism, and explains that “people will look at you in a certain way.” While she feels and sees the impacts of prejudice, she still attempts to understand it.

“I excuse [strangers] because we are new here,” she says, “They haven’t seen a lot of women in hijabs.”

Even though the idea of her daughters going off on their own scares her, it’s important. She feels immense love for her daughters and has many hopes for their future, such as attending dentistry or medical school. 

“It’s my dream,” says Alkhataba.

Finding home at school

Syrian-Canadian newcomer Rama Altaleb, who moved with her family from Jordan to Nanaimo in June 2018, also recalls feelings of intense excitement when she arrived.

“I keep telling my mom I wish to go back and come here to just feel the experience again,” says Altaleb, laughing.

Altaleb is a 19-year-old VIU student studying science. Her family was privately sponsored and came directly to Nanaimo, where a furnished house awaited them. 

“At first I was just happy and surprised. It was like a dream,” says Altaleb. Like the other newcomers interviewed for this story, she was no stranger to transition, having moved multiple times between Jordan and Syria during her childhood.

Altaleb also recognizes the immense help the volunteers provided. Even small things such as coming to visit them and speaking English was valuable.

“They never missed a celebration,” says Altaleb, speaking about the volunteers, “On Christmas they would bring us presents, that was really cool.”

Altaleb found the amount of support surprising, especially from her classmates and teachers at John Barsby Secondary. She only attended high school there from Grades 10 to 12, yet staff have come to feel like family. School became like a second home and she continues to visit.

“Each time I go there, I cry,” says Altaleb, “I would live at Barsby, to be honest.”

It wasn’t this way initially. Making friends was one of the more difficult aspects of her new life, she explains. Friend groups seemed to already be formed and the fact that she mostly was speaking Arabic created a barrier. 

“The first year I wanted to keep myself safe, I didn’t want to step out of my comfort zone,” she says.

As she became more comfortable in school and began speaking English more, her circle of friends grew. 

“My Grade 12 year was totally the best year ever,” says Altaleb, “I finally understood how things worked.”

She now works as a pharmacy assistant at Rexall Pharmacy.

For Altaleb, having support within her high school was critical in helping her navigate the new environment. She notes the importance of support from teachers and staff especially because it’s a place you go five days a week. “It’s your life,” she says. 

A person in black and red graduation robes sits in the grass with a tree in the foreground.
Rama Altaleb graduated from John Barsby Secondary, which quickly became a place that felt like home. Photo courtesy of Rama Altaleb

Adjusting to the culture and language

Altaleb has now finished her first year of university. She is a hardworking student who enjoys school and likes to get good grades, yet found it challenging.

“University was way harder than experiencing the war in Syria, or being a refugee in Jordan,” says Altaleb, through laughs. “Maybe I’m exaggerating, but it was scary.”

She explains her main fear was failing even though she never has, and ended up with a GPA over 4.0. But university was different from high school, where she held a close relationship with teachers who better understood her situation.

The cultural and language adjustment for Altaleb was easier than it was for Alkhataba or even her own parents, whom she says continue to learn English and struggle because they are older. 

She recalls how it only took about six months to learn English, since she had already learned most of the language before coming. Yet those first months were exhausting as she tried to keep up in class and worried about “sounding dumb in front of students.”

“My brain would be exhausted after one hour,” says Altaleb, “I always had a headache.”

The pressure Altaleb felt in school extends into her family life. As the oldest child to younger siblings, she continues to help her family navigate their new life. She helps her parents with activities such as going to the bank and other tasks they may still find unfamiliar.

Becoming a family

Khalid Alali is a 23-year-old Syrian business owner, chef and student. He moved from Syria to Lebanon before coming to Nanaimo in 2019. 

He originally left Syria when he was 15 because of the war. After spending four years in Lebanon,  he came to meet his sister in Canada. Despite having moved countries before, relocating to Nanaimo was different.

“It was more difficult than Lebanon because there were a lot of people I knew in my country and the language is the hardest,” says Alali, who didn’t speak any English when he first came.

Alali came on a private sponsorship directly to Nanaimo where he lived with his sister. The family connection upon his arrival helped, but he still experienced alarm upon his arrival.

“It was the worst moment,” says Alali, “Everything is different from Lebanon and Syria.”

Volunteers played a memorable role in supporting his transition. They helped him navigate getting groceries, making doctors appointments, and meeting new people.

It’s been almost three years since he has been in Nanaimo and volunteers continue to be in his life, with frequent dinners and gatherings. 

“We became a family,” says Alali.

Alali also used CVIMS upon his arrival but didn’t find it helpful. He explained their services are more tailored to older newcomers.

“It’s not for young people, I didn’t learn anything,” says Alali.

While CVIMS didn’t offer much help to Alali, his English flows easily and he praised the English Second Language (ESL) he takes at Vancouver Island University (VIU) for his capabilities. The ESL program consists of five levels and is 20 hours per week.

His English greatly improved when he started the classes and he explained it’s a better resource for younger people.

“I met a lot of people from different cultures and cities,” says Alali, adding that the classes also helped him find community.

Although Alali has found the ESL classes helpful, he says actually applying to his program was difficult. There are two admission requirements listed on the VIU website for ESL classes. One is that the applicant is a citizen, landed immigrant, or carries a valid visitor or student authorization. The other is that applicants complete a university ESL language assessment test.

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” says Alali, who had no English knowledge when he arrived.

After completing his ESL classes Alali hopes to go into nursing, while still continuing the food truck business he launched with his sister about a year ago. The bright red food truck, called Alkhalid, is often parked at Nanaimo beaches like Departure Bay serving up Syrian-inspired food.

While Alali has found a routine in Nanaimo, it requires continuous work. He works seven days a week, beginning his day by parking his food truck, going to classes and working at the truck afterwards. 

He says he’s motivated to work “to reach [his] goal … to finish the language classes … to get married and to get into the nursing program.” With a smile, Alali explains he’s engaged to another Syrian newcomer in Nanaimo he met when they became neighbours. 

A person in an apron smiles in front of a bright red food truck with the word Al Khalid
Khalid Alali, a Syrian-Canadian, smiles in front of his food truck, where he serves Syrian-inspired dishes. Rowan Flood/The Discourse

‘Step by step,’ adjustment happens

When asked what it takes to adjust to a new life and feel at home, each newcomer echoed one word — time. Alkhataba has been here six years and says it still doesn’t always feel as if she completely belongs. But she adds her friends are critical in her starting to feel more connected and a part of her community.

“It all comes gradually, step by step,” echoes Altaleb. Other Syrian-Canadians in Nanaimo have helped her feel at home. Engaging with people continuously brings Altaleb joy, and she thinks fondly on the memories she’s already created and the ones that await her.

For Alali, improving his English and having stable work has made him feel more comfortable in Nanaimo, although it took about two years to feel a part of the community. The food truck is a way for Alali and his sister to share not only food from Syria but culture and a bit of their home.

“We always play music in Arabic in the food truck,” says Alali.

The notion of home has become complicated for each newcomer. As they build their life in Nanaimo, it doesn’t mean the one they had before is gone — it’s simply further away. They left family members and friends along with a life filled with familiar sounds, smells, and routines.

“When I got here it was like the day I was born,” says Altaleb. She looks forward to the chance to return and see her family. 

Alali feels similar. He has 16 siblings spread between Turkey, Lebanon, Nanaimo and Syria. He misses his parents in Syria, and explains the complexity of going to visit them with the ongoing war has kept him away.

Alkhataba also longs for family gatherings she once had with grandparents, uncles and aunts, but she says she will only take her family back to Syria “when it’s safe.”

She also misses the Adhan, the Islamic call to public prayer that echoes out of mosques throughout the day. She misses the voice of the prayer. She hasn’t heard it since being in Nanaimo. But sitting at the cafe, surrounded by coffee makers whirring, she speaks a bit of it as she whispers “Allah.”

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