Feature Story

“They Call It Syria Town”

In a shrinking city in Canada’s only shrinking province, one of the country’s largest Syrian refugee communities has found an unlikely home. Inside the tentative transformation of one family, and one city.

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by Kate Wallace
photography by Scott Munn‏

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eham Abazid spreads the Thursday flyers across the living-room floor—the blanket for the evening meal that will break the fast of Ramadan’s first day. At sunset on May 27, in a tidy three-bedroom apartment in Saint John’s Crescent Valley, Reham and her husband, Mohammad, and their two children, Haidar and Rous, gather for their second Ramadan in Canada. Reham’s younger sister, Rozam, and her husband, Qasem, are here too, and their three children.

Four adults and five children, the family is a slim slice of the big clan the sisters come from—seven grown siblings with children of their own, now scattered to Jordan and Europe. “Today, I am crying,” Reham says, “because I can remember all my family together for the meal, and I don’t have them here.”

Nearly 17 hours after their fast began, they gather around the feast, sitting on the floor to eat. An Arabic soap opera plays on the TV as Reham passes bowls of noodle soup across a generous spread of Syrian dishes. Laid out on the newspapers are bowls of ful (braised fava beans with chopped tomato and parsley), fattouch salad, pickled cucumbers and peppers, a platter of roasted meat, pita bread, rice and peas, legumes stewed in tomato sauce, and a crystal bowl of fattet hummus, a savoury chickpea bread pudding.

There’s little talk as they all dig in, sipping water, orange juice, and erk-sous, a sweet licorice drink, between bites. The kids, too young to fast, roughhouse on the margins of the meal.

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Mohammad AL nijjar smokes shisha following dinner and prayers on the first full day of Ramadan.

After dinner, Reham’s husband, Mohammad AL nijjar, lays his prayer mat out in the living room, facing east. He leads Haidar, six years old, in the prayers for the first time. Later, the men smoke—Qasem cigarettes; Mohammad sweet, fragrant shisha. The sisters tidy up, Rozam cleaning dishes as her sister wraps up the abundant leftovers. Over dessert of sweet mint tea and flaky nut pastries, the family talks about their first full year in Canada, and their hopes for the one to come.

“They always speak Arabic, these three,” Reham says, gesturing playfully at Mohammad, Rozam, and Qasem. So she acts as translator. More than a year after arriving in Canada via Jordan, where their claims as government-sponsored refugees were approved after several years of limbo, they’ve all studied English, but Reham’s fluency far exceeds theirs—as does her dedication to her new hometown.

“I feel very good here,” she says, hand over her heart. “When I came, there were many people, they bring many things: ‘What do you want? What do you need?’”

Her husband, still struggling with English, feels the pull of cities with larger Arabic-speaking populations. The question of staying in Saint John or leaving remains unresolved between them; before he landed a job at a car dealership at the end of June, Mohammad was almost ready to pack up the family. Now he’s decided to give the city another year.

‍For Rozam and Qasem, the problem isn’t Saint John but exile itself. Their thoughts turn frequently to Dara’a, the hometown they were forced to leave behind, and where they want to return, even as the Syrian civil war grinds on. Much of Qasem’s family are still there, and he and Rozam worry for them constantly.

But the family isn’t alone in Saint John. More than 100 Syrians live within a few blocks in this small neighbourhood in the city’s north end, and that night over dinner, the family’s conversation was punctuated by the popcorn sound of fireworks in the streets outside—others marking the first day of Ramadan.

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Reham Abazid found a near-instant community after arriving in Saint John. She's become a translator, community organizer, and friend to other refugees and co-workers.

Citywide, nearly 600 Syrian refugees have arrived in barely more than a year, an enormous number relative to the metro area’s 126,000 people. Proportional to population, Saint John was one of Canada’s top urban destinations during last year’s refugee settlement efforts, with only Moncton and Trois-Rivières absorbing more people on a per-capita basis. Saint John absorbed three times Toronto’s per-capita intake.

The effort tested the capacity of the city’s small corps of settlement workers and non-profits, who typically deal with fewer than 100 refugees annually. Settlement workers only learned week to week how many newcomers to expect, and their efforts were ad-hoc by necessity—one likened the experience to laying down track barely ahead of an oncoming train. Not since boatloads of Irish escaping the potato famine landed here in the 1800s have so many newcomers from a single country arrived in Saint John in such a short period of time.

For the Syrians, the stakes in Saint John are the same as they are anywhere in the country, though their challenges, collectively, are greater: New Brunswick’s refugee cohort has less fluency in either official language than any other province’s, and nearly all are government-sponsored, rather than privately sponsored by individuals or community groups (the former tend to face more difficulty with integration and employment).

But for Saint John, the stakes could hardly be higher: Canada’s first incorporated city, Saint John’s glory days in timber and shipbuilding are long gone, and its metropolitan population is slowly shrinking, falling from 129,000 in 2011 to 126,000 in 2016. (The average growth rate for Canadian cities over the same period was five percent—if Saint John had kept pace, it would have added nearly 7,000 people.) The median age of the population is 43.8 years, well above the Canadian urban median of 39.3. And immigration, for most Canadian cities the largest source of growth, has long been stagnant. The Syrian influx alone will ensure that the city’s 2016 growth numbers are in the black, and the demographics of the newcomers are exactly what the city needs—approximately half are under 18.

The arrival of these few hundred vulnerable people, who came here fleeing crisis and found Saint John by chance, not choice, has tested the city’s limited ability to absorb newcomers. But it’s also provided an unexpected chance to prove that Saint John can become again, as it has been in the past, a place where new Canadians come to rebuild their lives. For both Saint John and the Syrians, however, past is prologue. Transformation will be hard-won.

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eham and Mohammad cut a dramatic pair in their wedding picture. Side by side, they gaze directly out of the photograph, she glamorous in smoky eye makeup, a beaded headpiece and a sleeveless white wedding gown, he dapper in a dark suit and tie.

The large wood-framed photograph is one of the few items from their old lives they brought with them to Canada, along with an ornate brass coffee pot displayed on a sideboard in their living room, and a Syrian independence flag hanging over the stairs to their second-floor Crescent Valley flat. The flag is not the country’s official red, white, and black tricolour, representing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but the green, white, red, and black flag the country adopted during its struggle for independence from France in the 1930s, and which has been embraced anew by the anti-Assad opposition.

Reham and Mohammad met in their hometown, Dara’a, a city with a pre-war population of about 120,000 people in Syria’s southwest. He was friends with her older brother, though it was far from love at first sight—Reham’s exuberant personality was in sharp contrast with Mohammad’s quiet seriousness. She softened on him when she saw how often he visited her father when he was ill, among other signs of his quiet kindness. In October 2009, they married. She was 23. He was 26.

The newlyweds lived in the city, in his affluent parents’ large family house, a spacious 200-year-old stone compound with a garden courtyard and three kitchens, within easy visiting distance of her parents and other members of their extensive extended families. One of seven siblings, Mohammad brushes off the suggestion that he comes from a big family. Not in Syria, he says. His family of two children is very Canadian-sized. If not for the war, he says, he and Reham would have 10 children (a suggestion that his wife immediately insists would make her “insane”).

Mohammad loves cars, and learned to drive when he was seven years old—common in Syria, he says, where young children often get their first driving lessons on their fathers’ laps. When he and Reham married he co-owned an auto-repair shop, while she fixed and sold eyeglasses in a shop with Rozam. In 2010 they welcomed their first child, Haidar. They had no hint of the chaos to come.

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Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp. Mohammad was jailed three times in Jordan for working without a permit.

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, burned himself to death in a one-man protest against police and government harassment, setting in motion the series of protests and regime changes that became known as the Arab Spring. Following the fall of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of autocratic power, regimes in Algeria, Jordan, and Oman announced reforms or changes of government. Dictators Ali Abdullah Saleh and Hosni Mubarak, in Yemen and Egypt respectively, were overthrown.

The revolutionary spirit surfaced in Syria in February 2011, when nearly two dozen teenagers from Dara’a were arrested after anti-government graffiti was found on a wall. “Your turn, doctor,” the graffiti read, a reference to president Bashar al-Assad’s previous career as an ophthalmologist. The first would-be rebel, 14 years old, was imprisoned and tortured, leading to the arrest of more teenagers, then more, some held for weeks, in connection with the graffiti.

The arrests sparked outrage in Dara’a, with thousands taking to the street demanding the teenagers’ release. Reham wasn’t one of them; she had her hands full with infant Haidar. Her main preoccupation was with keeping her young family safe, and the streets were not. The Assad regime reacted to the protests with deadly vigour, shooting unarmed civilians and turning marches into bloodbaths.

Reham and Mohammad weren’t active in the protests, but there was no escaping what Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.”

Reham was nervous in mid-2012 when she discovered she was pregnant with twins. “Often, I left the house not knowing if I would make it back,” she says.

By early 2013, the systematic killing, disappearance and torture of civilians had become commonplace, including indiscriminate air strikes Human Rights Watch called “death from the skies.” Mohammad had to abandon his business. He was afraid that what happened to a friend and colleague who’d owned an auto-parts store would happen to him. “He’s gone,” Mohammad says. “They know nothing. It’s been four or five years.”


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On January 30, 2013, Reham was eight months pregnant. Government sieges were constant, and that morning, helicopters began filling the sky overhead as another barrage began over the neighbourhood. Reham’s immediate instinct was to look for Mohammad, who was across the street at a family friend’s home where they slept some nights—they hoped the upper floors would provide some buffer in the case of an attack.

With the street full of tanks and soldiers, Reham couldn’t cross to reach Mohammad. Around noon, the street briefly empty, she and her father-in-law tried to go to him, but were forced to retreat fast when they encountered a tank turning the corner onto the block, its barrel pivoting towards them. They hunkered down to wait out the attack as more tanks passed by outside, helicopters roared overhead, and chunks of brick and cement from nearby airstrikes crashed onto the roof.

Around 1:30 pm, a bomb hit the house directly. Reham fled into the rear courtyard where another bomb landed just metres from her—she remembers a bright blast, and then her body crashing into a wooden doorframe. Her father-in-law dragged her, dazed and bleeding, back inside. For eight hours, she, her father-in-law, and some of Mohammad’s cousins waited as she bled. Not until dark, when the streets were clear of soldiers, did they venture outdoors for the hospital. Outside, supported by her relatives, she staggered from street to street, dodging snipers and tank gunners. Mohammad and her brother-in-law carried Reham to the hospital where, via emergency c-section, she delivered a healthy baby girl they named Rous. The other twin, a boy they named Hamza, did not survive. Officials told them they would have to sign a form attesting their son was killed by an opposition attack. They refused. “Then let the dogs get him,” they were told.

After the family left that night, the hospital was bombed. Nearly 50 newborns were killed.

Reham buried her infant son in her yard, under her favourite lemon tree. Alongside her grief is the pain of not providing her son a proper burial. “How can I live in that house?” she says. “My son is buried there.”

The family departed Dara’a just 18 days later, heading to nearby Jordan, less than 10 kilometres away. Shortly after arriving, Reham made the short but dangerous trip back to Dara’a, to gather household belongings she couldn’t afford to replace. On the street outside her home, she encountered a government soldier who ordered her to stop and sit. She kneeled on the street, hands behind her head, as the soldier stood behind her, armed with a Kalashnikov. She heard a click, felt the barrel of the automatic weapon on her back. The soldier looked through her bag, only letting her go once he saw she wasn’t carrying weapons.

“It’s hard, because the government is Syrian like me,” Reham says. “I cannot forget that day.”

In Jordan, she and the children first stayed with an aunt in Amman before finding their own apartment. She remembers the kindness of an Egyptian security guard who gave her a blanket, a pillow, and a sleeping mat for her bare room. She couldn’t afford milk, so she fed Rous sugar water. Haidar would see Jordanian children going to school and ask why he couldn’t go too. For a time, Mohammad was in the Zaatari refugee camp, a vast “instant city” of some 80,000 Syrian refugees. He was jailed three times for working, which the Jordanian government prohibited without a permit.

Reham calls the three-and-a-half years the family spent in Jordan the worst of her life. “In Jordan,” Reham says, “there was no smile.”

The family applied for asylum through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After three months of processing, their claim was approved. Would they like to come to Canada? They accepted, eagerly, but not without sorrow. They boarded a flight for Canada on January 26, 2016.

“I was crying,” Reham says, because she did not have the chance to say goodbye to her family, to even give her mother a hug before setting out into her new life.

When Reham first landed in Toronto, she wept. The family spent five days there in a hotel before flying to Saint John, where they spent another five days in the local Howard Johnson hotel, along with dozens more Syrians.

“Oh, my god, I am in Canada,” Reham thought. “It is not a dream.”

Even now, more than a year-and-a-half later, she still can’t quite believe this is her life now.

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ew Brunswick’s oldest and largest public-housing community, Crescent Valley is tucked into a little cleft on the city’s north side, surrounded by rocky hills and bounded by busy thoroughfares. It’s both central and separate, segregated from the city’s historic core to the south by a highway, and from the rest of the metro area by the wilderness of Rockwood Park.

The Syrians here, and throughout Saint John, come from big cities and small villages, from obscure communities and those that Canadians now know from the news: Aleppo and Homs, Hama and Damascus. In some cases, relatives such as Reham and Rozam have been reunited, but most of the newcomers are without family in Saint John.

The abundance of subsidized housing is one major reason Crescent Valley was the first point of settlement for many newcomers. But there are other benefits: it’s walkable, five minutes by foot to the YMCA, the city’s largest settlement-services agency, where newcomers take English classes and access other services. It’s close to bus routes, grocery stores, and shops. There’s a splash pad, a playground, a community school at Hazen White-St. Francis, a community garden, and a program that gives out refurbished second-hand bicycles for free. Most of the 288 subsidized-housing units, painted blue, red, green and brown, are well-maintained. Many of the front lawns are strewn with bikes and toys, evidence of the community’s many children, and its streets teem with bicyclists in warm weather.‌‌

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Reham and Mohammad's son, Haidar, attends Saint John’s only Francophone school and speaks both official languages. It’s an approach other Syrians have adopted: Arabic at home, French at school, English on the street.

But Crescent Valley is also synonymous with poverty. Many public-housing applicants reportedly prefer to wait for a unit in another part of town than move to the neighbourhood, and the lingering stigma is in part why so many units were available when the Syrians began to arrive. In 2011, Crescent Valley’s municipal catchment area, Ward 2, had a poverty rate of 25.2 percent and a child poverty rate of 40.1 percent. Crescent Valley itself almost certainly fares worse, though there are no statistics specific to the neighbourhood alone. In 2011, 27.2 percent of the ward’s families were headed by lone parents.

There are many vulnerable people in Crescent Valley, not just Syrians, and the Crescent Valley Resource Centre (CVRC) is a hub of support. It was rocked last year with more people than it had ever served at once—most of whom didn’t speak English, were unfamiliar with local customs, and had moved into a neighbourhood where their culture was not at all understood.

In the early days, there were reports of racist remarks and graffiti. Locals were concerned about kids playing in the street and roaming free, and staff at the CVRC explained to newcomer parents about Canadian norms around supervision and safety—many had come from refugee camps where there weren’t cars to worry about, or villages where children ran free. During Ramadan last year, long-time residents were startled to see the Syrians in their midst gathering for food and celebration as the sun went down. And Syrians have been alarmed by the behaviour of some neighbours, including public drunkenness, practically unheard-of in their country.

By now, however, locals and newcomers have settled into a relatively peaceful, sometimes friendly, co-existence. The back wall of Daly Convenience on Taylor Avenue has filled in the past 18 months with Middle Eastern foods: rosewater, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, and halawa. Another shelf is filled with prayer mats, charcoal barbecues, and large metal serving trays many Syrians use. The owner leases the shelves out to a Syrian man who brings in the food and supplies. Right around the corner, the former ABC Surgical Supplies store has been converted into a mosque—Saint John’s only other mosque, on the east side, is difficult for many newcomers to get to without a car. There are bilingual bike safety signs, in English and Arabic, throughout the neighbourhood.

“They call it Syria Town,” says Nadhim Mansoor,  who has worked as a community engagement coordinator at the CVRC since the fall, helping newcomers settle, and translating the Centre’s monthly newsletter, which is now printed in English and Arabic.

Born in Kuwait, Mansoor lived across the Middle East and Europe before coming to Canada in 2011. He recalls that as the plane descended into Saint John, all he saw was forest. His kids asked, “Where are the people?”

While it didn’t take him long to appreciate Saint John’s quiet, its open spaces and fresh air, he understands the struggle of starting over, once the initial elation of safety fades and the reality of a new life in a strange land sinks in. Language is a challenge, but not the only one. The bureaucracy and structure of Canadian life, the paperwork and regulation of the “systematic life” can be overwhelming, he says, especially for those who came from small towns and villages where life was less structured.

Another challenge, simply, is boredom and lack of purpose. Mansoor remembers, soon after he arrived, telling his own case worker, “Don’t give me income assistance. Help me find work. You want me happy? Make me busy.”


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mbitious, sociable, seemingly fearless, Reham is certainly among the busiest Syrians in Saint John. She represents the kind of refugee success story Canadians love to celebrate, balancing a long list of commitments that keep her going from morning to night, including school, work, family, and an exhaustive number of community initiatives.

She was one of the 88 percent of New Brunswick refugees who didn’t speak English or French when they arrived in New Brunswick—the highest proportion of any province—but has been steadily progressing through ESL. Haidar is learning both official languages. After completing kindergarten in June at École Samuel-de-Champlain, Saint John’s only Francophone school, he chats easily in nicely accented French. It’s an approach other Syrians have adopted: Arabic at home, French at school, English on the street. “I don’t know what he is saying,” Reham says, laughing.

Reham has been employed part-time at the Y since April, joining Newcomer and Community Connections’ staff of 50, after volunteering there for over a year. In an office down the hall from her ESL classroom, she works as an interpreter, helping newcomers book doctors’ appointments and manage similar tasks, offering the same sort of support she appreciated in the early days of her arrival.

“The Y, to me, it is like family,” Reham says. Perhaps no one more than her colleague Kelly Carline, a petite woman who radiates a steady, calm kindness. Reham says the settlement supervisor is like a mother to her. Kelly’s 24-year-old daughter, Kara, is Reham’s teacher and friend. The multiplicity of their relationships is typical of Saint John, where there are often few degrees of separation between people.

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Ambitious and social, Reham balances a long list of commitments, including school, work, family, and an exhaustive number of community initiatives.

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“To me it’s about using the smallness of this place to open doors more quickly,” says Angélique Simpson, vice-president of Newcomer and Community Connections at the YMCA of Greater Saint John. “Our clients aren’t faceless, they’re not just a number, they’re not being dropped into a city of a few million people.”

In the first week of June, Reham and Kelly Carline visited Edmonton for the Canadian Council for Refugees’ spring consultation. It was Reham’s first time outside of New Brunswick since arriving, and in the hours it took to travel over thousands of kilometres of Canadian soil, she felt the vastness of her new home. At the conference, she got a front-row seat to the tedium of policy discussions, but she also gained access to high-level officials. Kelly jokes that she was envious of Reham’s half-hour conversation with Canada’s representative with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and her long discussion with the director general of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The pair also ventured out in search of Edmonton’s Arabic community. Edmonton was one of the top destinations for Syrians in Canada, welcoming more than 2,000 people—but newcomers there are spread thin throughout a sprawling metro area. Reham wanted to pick up a hijab for herself, and shisha for Mohammad, but they didn’t find much. “Here, everywhere is Syrians, in Costco, in Walmart, everywhere,” Reham says. “In Edmonton, no.”

There are early indications that the relative size and concentration of Saint John’s Syrian community could be a factor in retaining it. Despite a rash of news reports last year about Syrians planning to leave the city, 87 percent of those who initially settled are still here, and the city has begun to benefit from “secondary migration”—newcomers from other parts of the country who have chosen to move to Saint John.

“When a community group arrives together, like the Syrians, they have support from each other, and from the community,” says Mohamed Bagha, managing director of the Saint John Multicultural and Newcomers Resource Centre. “The more one feels connected to the community, the more likely one is to stay.”

Yet even as Reham made connections and friends, Mohammad’s days dragged on. By early this year, he’d passed the “month-13 chill,” when newcomers switch from federal to provincial support, and restlessness to find work sets in. In the absence of labour force attachment, the lure of “MTV”—Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver—beckons.

In Syria, large families, big meals, and active social lives are the norm. For many refugees, the relative isolation of life in Saint John can be dispiriting. “The city can be really depressing,” says Mohammad. “It can be really boring. I can’t make friends here.” He had one neighbour who was friendly, but has since moved away. He has one friend, from his welcome team, the group of volunteers who helped them settle, who speaks some Arabic. But for the most part, he says, “everything is the same as a year-and-a-half ago.”

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Before landing a job at a car dealership in June, Mohammad was ready to leave. Now he’s giving Saint John another year.

In June, Mohammad landed a full-time job in the service department of Dobson Chrysler Dodge Jeep, a local car dealership. On his first day, he arrived a half-hour early, wearing brand-new steel-toe work boots. He was greeted warmly, introduced to the other staff members, who all now know his name even as he struggles to remember many new English names. At the end of his first day, owner Danny Dobson, who hired him, came and shook his hand. “You are like my son,” he told Mohammad.

Mohammad says he’ll give Saint John another year to see how things go—though convincing his wife to leave would be another matter entirely. But even Reham, exceptional as her success appears, admits she makes resettling look easier than it is. “Outside I am young,” she says. “Inside I am old. I am a thousand.”

Layla Rahmeh understands this feeling of disconnection between how integration may look to outsiders and how it feels as the newcomer.

Layla arrived in Saint John in 2012, on vacation with her parents and daughter to visit her brother, a pathologist at the local hospital. With the violence in Syria escalating, she applied for asylum in Canada. She and Reham met not through local channels but via a mutual friend, a Syrian woman now living in the U.S. The two delight at the unlikeliness of their connection in Saint John by a distant contact from their old lives.

“People see refugees as needing rescue,” Layla says. “Which is true. But maybe we are forgetting that these people had lives. They had family, they had property, they had careers. Just the fact that they are safe here is not solving the whole problem.”

While newcomers such as Layla and Reham are held up as poster women for successful integration (Reham and her family are literally the faces of a recent marketing campaign at Newcomer Connections), their progress isn’t typical. Women, especially those caring for children, are at high risk of isolation. As part of a job with the Saint John non-profit PRUDE Inc. (which stands for Pride of Race, Unity and Dignity through Education) Cindy Kilpatrick led conversational English classes for Syrian newcomers. After they started, Kilpatrick realized transportation to PRUDE’s Uptown location was a challenge for many, so she started holding classes in Crescent Valley. Still, even with free babysitting, she struggled to get students out consistently.

She was struck by how little English the participants understood, and by their limited experience of the city. She recalls one class in which the subject of discussion was buildings. One of the participants remarked that all the buildings in Saint John are made of wood, and none have elevators. Kilpatrick realized the woman had barely left Crescent Valley.

“I’m thinking, do they think this is what Canada is like?” she says. “This is just a little piece of Saint John, a little piece of Canada. It was eye-opening.”

Rozam, 26, quit her English classes at the Y in spring in order to stay home with the kids. Qasem had found full-time work, one of many Syrians hired by a local business to sew clothes for a Montreal designer. “She felt she was really picking it up,” says her translator. “And at that moment she was pulled back.”

Daycare is too expensive, Rozam says. She feels a duty to concentrate on the kids, and her isolation is making her shy, compounding the problem. When she went to an event at the Y recently, she felt awkward, unused to being around people.

Sitting in Rozam’s clean, bright Crescent Valley living room, it’s hard for a visitor to square the relative safety of her new setting with the terror she experienced in her homeland. It’s hard for Rozam, too.

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n April 25, 2011, the day after her 22nd birthday, Rozam was removing laundry from a clothesline on the balcony of her family home when the muezzin cut short the morning’s first call to prayer.

“We are being attacked again,” he said. “Hide your sons and daughters.”

Rozam turned to go inside and was shot three times in the back, a target of Assad forces stationed in a building across the street. Some of the soldiers had their wives with them, and, as the men opened fire, Rozam heard the women make the same sort of celebratory ululation you would hear at an Arabic wedding. “They made that sound every time they shot someone,” she says.

Rozam spent three months in bed, on her back, at home. Her family couldn’t take her to the hospital, where she would have been arrested—assumed, because of her injuries, to be pro-opposition. So, they cared for her at home the best they could. They all believed she’d probably die.

Her prayers sometimes included the name of a shy, sweet young man, Qasem, who worked in the appliance-repair store next door to the eyeglass shop where Rozam and Reham had worked together. Rozam and Qasem would knock on the wall to each other in greeting during their shifts.

“Who is Qasem?” her father asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” said her mother, who knew about the budding romance. “She’s dying. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

Qasem didn’t learn for months of her injury—only women were allowed on the street, and only from 5 to 7 p.m. To be a minute late meant detention at a checkpoint until the following day. Any men on the street were automatically considered part of the opposition. Phones were down, communication next to impossible.

After three months, Rozam’s family snuck her into Jordan for surgery, but she backed out, terrified that Assad’s people had infiltrated the hospital.

“I just wanted to go home, to die in my home,” she says.

She finally saw a doctor in Dara’a, who removed most of the shrapnel from her back and head. By then, the curfews had eased, and men were able to move about more freely. One day, en-route to a doctor’s appointment, Rozam guided her father to a parking spot in front of Qasem’s shop. He had no idea what happened in the preceding months, and when he saw she was hurt, he ran to Reham, devastated, to get the news.

Rozam and Qasem married in August 2013. Three months later they were in Jordan, living as refugees, and she was pregnant with their first child. They arrived in Saint John last January, just 10 days before Reham and her family. Today they live a block away with their children—two-year-old twins Abdul Rahman and Abdullah; and Mohammad, three, who has the same sweet face as his mother under a mop of glossy black hair.

The twins nap and Mohammad plays on a tablet as Rozam describes, through a translator, how she made it out of Dara’a. In Saint John, she’s seen a surgeon about removing the remaining shrapnel from her back. Even now, the sight of a police car, the sound of fireworks, or the passing of a low-flying plane instills a fear so deep she sits in the corner of her living room and cries.

“I don’t know how I will ever get out of it,” she says.

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Rozam and her husband, Qasem, yearn to return to their Syrian hometown. “Being together as a family, we used to be so happy,” she says. “Now, the celebrations come and we don’t feel anything.”

‍‌Like her sister, Rozam is compelled to bear witness to the war, and maybe unburden herself in the telling. “I would love people to ask about it…. I want to write about myself and my life and my story.”

She’s grateful for the support her family has received, but she can’t move on. She doesn’t want to. “Being together as a family, we used to be so happy,” she says. “Now, the celebrations come and we don’t feel anything.”

Asked about her hopes for her new life, Rozam speaks instead about the past. If she could write her own ending, it would be in Syria, back with her family and in-laws in Dara’a, who’ve never even met their grandchildren. Rozam points to the tray of pastries and cookies she has laid out, along with glasses of orange juice. “There is no sweetness anymore.”

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eham sets an armload of parsley bunches down on the newspaper. Over the course of an evening, she reduces the mound of leaves into a bowlful of tiny, vegetal flecks for enough tabbouleh for 20 or more. Her favourite music video, a Yanni concert, is on the TV. Beside her, Rozam methodically stuffs dozens of grape leaves with a spiced rice and meat mixture, rolling them into tight little bundles that look like cigarillos.

Chatting in Arabic, the sisters sit on the floor and work, donating their time and culinary skills to a fundraising supper in support of a local group that’s privately sponsoring a Syrian woman living as a refugee in Jordan.

The dinner is a small undertaking compared to the monthly food sales Reham has organized to raise money for refugees. She’s rallied a group of women around the cause. One Saturday a month, on folding tables in the main room at the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, they lay out metal pans of Syrian delicacies, and Saint Johners come in hordes for it. Embossed on the wall behind them is a Margaret Mead quotation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

They’ve raised some $7,000, but Reham considers the effort so far to be small. She wants to pay forward the support she’s received from the Canadian government. Until now she’s never accepted money from anyone, except her father, and is not entirely comfortable with it.


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Kelly Carline, Reham’s mother figure and colleague, has been astonished by the scope and variety of her ambitions, which include a play about the Syrian crisis she’ll produce with a local children’s theatre company, and an initiative to provide Syrian meals to Saint John’s homeless through Outflow, a local Christian organization. Reham is considering once again following her girlhood dream of becoming an engineer, an ambition originally dashed when she had to leave school at 14 to support her family after her father, an olive farmer, broke his back on the job.

“At first, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, she has impossible dreams, they won’t ever happen,’” Kelly says. “But they did.”

 

N

ow that last year’s just-in-time response to the Syrian influx has abated, settlement agencies have time to reflect on their efforts, on what worked and what could be better, and take stock of what it could mean for the future of immigration in Saint John.

“We have all the systems in place now,” says the YMCA’s Angélique Simpson. “Suddenly, it’s easier to get halal meat in Saint John. Suddenly, there’s a second mosque.” Her organization’s refugee-newcomer targets are higher this year than in years past, and could increase even more than the previous average of 60 or so refugees a year.

Syrians are not the solution to Saint John’s population woes, but the community’s fate will be seen as a bellwether. Certainly mayor Don Darling sees it that way. Elected last spring on an optimistic growth platform, he had only been in office a few months when the 2016 census numbers were released, showing Saint John to be one of Canada’s only metropolitan areas to shrink in the preceding five years.

The view from his spacious office on the eighth floor of city hall has a clear view of Partridge Island, a National Historic Site at the mouth of the harbour. The former quarantine station processed tens of thousands of immigrants who began new lives here. Saint John being Saint John, it’s often obscured by fog, but fog “is only a problem if you get off course,” Darling says, extracting a well-worn, heavily annotated copy of council’s priorities from his suit pocket. “This is our course. This is our radar.”

As part of the population growth plank in its plan, the city is working with the Human Development Council on a Local Immigration Partnership to better plan around the needs of newcomers. Saint John has also earmarked funds for a population-growth position at city hall.

Alex LeBlanc, head of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, says last year’s rallying around the Syrian newcomers has created a settlement sector that’s better coordinated than ever, with improved links between education; social, health and economic development; and more contact between organizations. His organization has co-launched a social innovation lab to increase immigrant retention.

He is, however, concerned that the discourse around refugees in Canada is shifting to, “We’ve done our part…it seems like right now we’re trying to figure out how humanitarian we can afford be.”

T

he generic rooms could be anywhere. Blank walls, bare light fixtures, no furniture besides second-hand desks and chairs.

In a vacant public housing unit, Crescent Valley’s Syrian community has created a school where its children come, Saturday and Sunday mornings, to learn to read and write in Arabic, and study the Qur’an. Every weekend, 30 to 50 children attend.

Past the entryway jumbled with dozens of pairs of kids’ shoes, a teacher leads a lesson on the Arabic alphabet as students follow along in workbooks. He calls out letters as he fills the board right to left with the sinuous script. The children speak Arabic, but for many, too young for school when they left Syria, these are their first lessons in literacy in their native language.

Down the hall, in a repurposed bedroom, a mother of four leads a group of girls between the ages of nine and 13. She recites passages in singsong, the girls calling them back in unison. The only seat in the room is a battered black leather office chair, so the kids sit on desks, sometimes two to one.

Between lessons, the girls break into Arabic songs, clapping and cheering. Some recite passages from the Qur’an, and there’s a sense of friendly competition as they test their memories.

Their energetic recitations drift out the window, on exchange for the cool air coming in. Outside is a late spring day of startling clarity, all the colours at their peak, the dandelions bright yellow, the grass as green as it gets, the sky deeply blue.

Kate Wallace is an award-winning writer and editor. Her work has been published in Canadian Art, Canadian Geographic, East Coast Living, and The Maritime Edit, where she is contributing arts editor. She has written scripts for nationally aired documentaries and international TV series, and is the founder of Pigeon Creative Communications, which crafts “stories with pluck” for business and media outlets. She was previously executive director of ArtsLink NB, a provincial association of New Brunswick artists, and was the provincial arts reporter at the Telegraph-Journal

Kate lives in Rothesay, NB, with her husband and son, and a lot of pottery. When she’s not writing, you’ll likely find her reading or playing outside.

 

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