Wrestling with immigration Syrian can't wait to wear Maple Leaf, but must wait for citizenship

The national wrestling team is cheering for Khaled Aldrar as he writes his citizenship exam: he can try out for a place on the mat when he finally becomes a Canadian.

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This article was published 03/03/2020 (1010 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The national wrestling team is cheering for Khaled Aldrar as he writes his citizenship exam: he can try out for a place on the mat when he finally becomes a Canadian.

The 20-year-old athlete applied for citizenship two months ago after living for three years in Winnipeg since coming from Syria through Turkey as a refugee.

He had a big smile on his face recently when he showed his wrestling coach a letter from the federal government. The immigration department notified him his application has been processed and he will receive the date of his citizenship exam within the next week or so.

Khaled Aldrar runs a drill during during team practice. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

He has won several national wrestling titles in the three years he has lived in Winnipeg, but he can’t be a member of the national team and represent Canada in international tournaments until he is a citizen.

His two younger brothers, Ebraheim, 15, and Bibars, 8, are also wrestlers, and it’s not by chance the Aldrar boys are zealous about practising their holds, pins and escapes. Their in-house instructor is their father, Mohammad Aldrer, who coached Syria’s national junior wrestling team. His team won multiple medals in championships in Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon between 2005 and 2011.

When conflict in Syria started in 2011, Mohammad moved his family to a safer neighbourhood in Damascus, where Khaled was able to keep wrestling. He won Syria’s championship before the family fled the country for Turkey in 2015.

In Turkey, Mohammad worked as a tailor. “One of my Syrian colleagues came to work late… He said he was registering his family with the UN to be resettled in a third country,” he says in Arabic. “(My colleague) said to me, ‘Go and register your family,’ and I did so in the next day.”

When asked by immigration officials where he'd like to live, Mohammad Aldrar said anywhere 'would be fine as long as there's wrestling.' (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

In the summer of 2016, the family members were interviewed by the Canadian immigration officers at the Canadian Embassy in Ankara. When the father was asked if he preferred to resettle in a specific place in Canada, he gave an unusual answer. “I told them that anywhere in Canada would be fine as long there’s wrestling there.”

The family landed in Winnipeg in November 2016. They found a wrestling program in Lavallee School on St. Anne’s Road, where Mohammad volunteered to train the students so his kids can train with them.

Since then, wrestling has become an essential part of the family’s life in Winnipeg. The father drives his three children to training that takes place in the Freight House building on Isabel Street five times a week.

The intense work paid off. Khaled Aldrar was a member of Manitoba’s freestyle wrestling team that competed in 2017 Canada Summer Games that was hosted by Winnipeg in July. He won all his matches over the tournament’s three days, qualifying for the final, where he competed for the gold medal.

“He’s got a pretty good chance to medal, anywhere between the bronze and the gold. His technical ability is pretty sound, but his physical strength has to get stronger.” – Wrestling coach Kris Stasiak

“I lost my mind,” his father says, explaining the tense excitement of that final match. “His coach was giving (Khaled) directions, and he couldn’t speak English at the time.”

Mohammad wasn’t allowed on the floor because he wasn’t licenced as a coach. But that didn’t stop him. “I was yelling instructions from the audience area,” he says with a laugh.

Khaled lost that final, but he won a silver medal for the Manitoba team in his first official competition in Canada.

He later won a gold medal in the 51-kilogram wrestling class in 2018 junior Canadian championships in Edmonton and gold in the 54-kilogram class at the 2019 Junior Canadian championships in Saskatoon. He’s preparing to compete in the 57-kilogram class in Canadian championships in London, Ont., this month.

The Aldrars, (from left, at back) Khaled, Ebraheim, Mohammad and Babirs (front), are a wrestling family. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

His wrestling coach, Kris Stasiak, says he’s confident Khaled will do well in London, which is his first senior level tournament. “He’s got a pretty good chance to medal, anywhere between the bronze and the gold,” Stasiak says. “His technical ability is pretty sound, but his physical strength has to get stronger.”

Stasiak was a member of Poland’s Olympic wrestling team before immigrating to Canada in the late 1970s. He later became a professional coach in Winnipeg, starting a wrestling club in a church basement. He named the club Schewa, a Polish word that means strength, and he coached multiple Canadian national teams in the 1990s.

“Right now, (Khaled) is the best one (in the Schewa club),” Stasiak says. “Once he passes the test, and he becomes a citizen, he can be a member of the national team.” This team will compete in the Pan American Games 2020 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in September and the Junior World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, also in September.

Being out of school for a couple of years before coming to Canada and not speaking English when he arrived here has delayed Khaled’s graduation from high school. He’s studying in Grade 11 at Dakota Collegiate and has already been offered scholarships by several Canadian universities.

Assistant coach Mohammad (right) explains something to his son Khaled (left) as Khaled drags fellow wrestler Kassem Al Damad during team training. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Khaled’s family has always supported him as he travels around the country to compete.

“My siblings cheer me up over the phone,” he said. “I always have a kind of fear, but when my father talks to me, that feeling disappears.”

Being able to compete in a sport he loves made him and his family feel better in Canada, Khaled says.

“It’s a beautiful sport because I get to wrestle my father sometimes,” he jokes. “He always beats me.”

maan.alhmidi@freepress.mb.ca

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