Taking root

Four months after arriving, Syrian families finding their way in Dauphin


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DAUPHIN — Three families from three different parts of Syria arrived in Dauphin as refugees last winter. They were complete strangers to one another, and none spoke English. This small Manitoba city first settled by Ukrainians is almost a four-hour drive from Winnipeg and far from most Arabic-speaking people or Muslims or the many resettlement services available in larger centres. As Canada celebrates its 149th birthday, the Winnipeg Free Press dropped in on the families for 24 hours to see what life is like in their new homeland.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/06/2016 (2286 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DAUPHIN — Three families from three different parts of Syria arrived in Dauphin as refugees last winter. They were complete strangers to one another, and none spoke English. This small Manitoba city first settled by Ukrainians is almost a four-hour drive from Winnipeg and far from most Arabic-speaking people or Muslims or the many resettlement services available in larger centres. As Canada celebrates its 149th birthday, the Winnipeg Free Press dropped in on the families for 24 hours to see what life is like in their new homeland.

10 p.m., Tuesday, June 14

As soon as the sun sets, Louai and Asya Alassaf break their Ramadan fast. After not eating or drinking during 16 hours of daylight, they’re hungry as they sit down to a kitchen table laden with rice dishes, meat, figs, vegetables, homemade yogurt and a pitcher of water.

Louai, a burly bricklayer who works as a construction labourer, is famished. Asya, who is expecting the couple’s third child at the end of September is fasting, too, even though, as a pregnant woman, she’s not required to. The couple has two pre-school children — Hussein, 5, who starts kindergarten in the fall, and Roqayah, 2. Louai’s mom, Shaha Alnaser, lives with them and rules the roost, they say.

Shaha is adapting to her new life in the community of 8,200 on the Canadian Prairies. “I could never have imagined it,” she says through an interpreter.

For her, the biggest shock was the large amount of snow. For her daughter-in-law, it was the absence of satellite dishes that sprout from roofs all over the Middle East and the lack of Arab people.

Asya is now good friends with the two other Syrian moms who also moved to Dauphin. “We’re like sisters. We spend a lot of time together,” she says.

Their church sponsors and friends have become their family, Asya says. “It feels like home.”

Her only worry: language being a barrier when she goes into labour.

“It’s good,” Louai says through the interpreter. “Mainly, people are very nice.”

(Even though that morning he discovered his bike — his only form of transportation — was stolen the one time he didn’t lock it up overnight. Hussein, hearing the discussion, brings his bike with training wheels into the kitchen before he goes to bed.)

8 a.m., Wednesday, June 15

Everyone has been up for some time at the Suleyman house. Dad and Mom — Riyad and Rojin — and eldest daughter, Roha, 14, are fasting during daylight hours of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They were up before dawn to eat. Rena, 12, and Rodi, 8, aren’t fasting and take their lunch to school.

It’s a 10-minute walk for the two older girls who attend Grade 8 at Mackenzie Middle School. It takes the same amount of time for Rodi — who is in a combined grades 1 and 2 class at Henderson Elementary School along with his best friend, Yousef Almasalmeh, 7, also a Syrian newcomer — to get to school.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rodi Suleyman, 8, outside of his home in Dauphin.

“We like how safe it is for the kids crossing the streets,” Rojin says through an interpreter.

The Suleymans live on a quiet, tree-lined avenue in an older neighbourhood in a two-storey home surrounded by peonies and other perennials in full bloom. Rojin says she’s happy to clean the house and do some baking after the children go to school and Riyad goes to work as a butcher at a meat shop downtown.

“We were in Turkey for three years, and it was very hard,” Riyad says. “The kids didn’t go to school, and there was no job. We’re happy here. The kids can go to school.”

And the children can go bowling, says Rodi, who recently tried it for the first time and liked it. He enjoys playing soccer and says there is only one thing in Dauphin he doesn’t like: dogs. Every day on his way to school, he passes a yard where a big dog is tied up. On this day, he’s relieved to see it’s asleep in its doghouse. 

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rojin and Riyad Suleyman during English class.

9 a.m.

It’s field day at Henderson Elementary School. After singing O Canada and hearing the announcements on the intercom, Rodi and Yousef head outside for traditional end-of-the-school-year activities.

Rodi watches and waits his turn for the tug of war. He puts up a fight when pitted against a bigger boy but loses. Yousef and some other children take a break indoors to eat Popsicles and watch a cartoon.

When Rodi and Yousef started more than halfway into the school year, they were assigned “buddies” for recess — and students were fighting over who got to be the buddy that week. They’ve worked with an educational assistant who stays with them in the class, and an interpreter hired by sponsoring churches spent a lot of time helping them settle in.

It was the first time many at the school of 250 students had seen someone translating.

“It’s been a learning experience for everyone,” says principal Ronda Casavant. “Staff and students are learning so much about these families.”

The children and their parents are grateful they can go to school, and it shows, says Casavant. “I’ve never been told, ‘Thank you’ so many times.”

In the fall, Rodi and Yousef will be ready to be in separate classrooms and grades, she says. “The kids are so smart. They pick up things so quickly.”

10 a.m.

For sisters Roha and Rena Suleyman at Mackenzie Middle School, navigating adolescence in a new country and learning a new culture and language add to the challenge of being in junior high. Roha, 14, has decided not to wear a hijab or head scarf, and her parents respect her decision. “School is very different,” she says through an interpreter.

Making friends hasn’t been easy for the shy girls who remember being welcomed at school on their first day. “Two girls came and said ‘Hi’ and showed us around,” Rena, 12, says through an interpreter. Since then, there’s been a lot of awkward silence.

“We don’t really talk a lot with each other,” Roha says.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rena Souleyman,12, and her sister Roha, 14, at school.

The sisters, who both want to be doctors, are bright and keen to learn, and their progress with English is impressive, says educational assistant Jill Forbes, who is with them throughout most of the school day.

“The girls learn so quickly,” she says as the sisters settle into an art class where they share a table and barely a word. But still waters run deep. Forbes says the sisters have quietly embraced a lot of change, including a co-ed gym class. “They’ve caught on to a lot of stuff.”

“Older children pick up survival English quickly, but it’s a very limited vocabulary,” assistant superintendent Dan Ward says while visiting the school.

Educators decided (along with Roha and Rena and their parents) the girls would benefit from spending one more year in middle school. They’ll have another year to get their bearings and increase their English proficiency before being thrust into high school.

11 a.m.

Louai Alassaf is working outside Manitoba Housing units moving gravel with a Bobcat, hammering stakes in the ground and preparing a front yard for a new sidewalk. He’s hot, thirsty and sweating as the noon hour approaches. When the crew finishes up and goes for lunch, the observant Muslim won’t be eating anything for hours until sundown.

“Louai’s doing very good,” says his boss, Al Purdey, who owns TriSquare Construction. Alassaf is getting to know English terminology for tools and learning new techniques and equipment.

“Construction here is way different,” Louai says through an interpreter. It was frustrating at first, he says, but his boss and co-workers have been patient, and it helps to have a sense of humour.

“Louai is very outgoing,” says Purdey.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mahmoud Almasalmeh works as a painter in Dauphin.

11:15 a.m.

Mahmoud Almasalmeh is finishing up a painting job at a home being renovated by Purdey’s son. The experienced painter and his family were the first Syrians to resettle in Dauphin. Purdey says he hired Mahmoud shortly after the family arrived, and he’s glad he did.

“We had a rush on a house to get it all done, and he’s the only guy who worked 12 hours. He wanted to keep working,” says Purdey, who attends the First Baptist Church, one of the churches that sponsored the families.

When the Almasalmehs arrived, their rental home wasn’t ready, so they stayed at Purdey’s house while he was away on vacation. Purdey says the family was surprised and grateful someone would trust strangers in such a manner.

The Syrian dads he employs are grateful to have jobs, and it shows, he says. “Their work ethic is 100 per cent. They work longer and harder than anyone else.”

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Riyad Suleyman, who was also a butcher in Syria, at work on June 15, 2016.

11:30 a.m.

Riyad Suleyman is in his element. The bespectacled newcomer wearing a white apron seems at home under the fluorescent lights in the cool back room of Showdra Enterprise, cutting meat off bones for hamburger, tying roasts and slicing steaks. In Syria, Riyad was just 12 when he started cutting meat to help his dad, a butcher, he says through an interpreter.

“It’s almost the same,” he says, comparing what he does now to working in Syria.

“The animals are the same. The meat is the same,” he says, pausing to deftly sharpen his butcher knife before returning to slicing. “It’s a bit different here, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“He’s good,” says David Showdra, the shop’s owner and head butcher.

“We hope to get him on (full time) in the fall,” says Showdra’s wife and business co-owner Karen. “He’s like three men. He can keep up to David.”

Riyad says he looks forward to grilling his personal favourite — beef kebabs — over a charcoal barbecue. When his family owns a home, he may ask his friend Louai, a bricklayer, to help him build a traditional barbecue “in the Syrian way.”

1 p.m.

Mahmoud Almasalmeh is finished painting for the day and is at home with his wife, Hala, and their preschoolers, Tamara, 4, who is shy and hiding in her bedroom, and Khozama, 2, who sits on interpreter Sara Tohme’s lap and takes over her smartphone. Yousef, 7, who is outgoing and learning English so quickly he can translate for his parents, is still at school.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Tamara Almasalmeh, 4, plays at home.
The Almasalmehs live in a bungalow in a newer section of town. They fled their home in Daraa, Syria, when the civil war engulfing the country came too close. “There were a lot of checkpoints and shooting,” says Mahmoud.

They fled to Jordan, where they were registered as refugees. During the 30 months they spent there, Khozama was born — and they got the news Canada was willing to take them if they wanted to go.

“It was a bit scary,” says Hala, who worried about uprooting her family to such a faraway place. Mahmoud, however, jumped at the chance. “I always wanted to come to Canada.”

He recalls his dad telling him he could travel to Canada after he finished his studies. “I knew it was beautiful, big, modern — medical things are better, and there’s freedom.”

The Almasalmehs were the first of the three Syrian families to arrive in Dauphin. On their living-room wall is a metal sculpture that says, in English, “Nothing worth having comes easily.” Mahmoud is preparing for his written driver’s licence test to get his learner’s permit — with help from a hard-to-find driver’s handbook translated into Arabic and published by the Prince Edward Island provincial government one of the church sponsors located.

Mahmoud says he likes to keep busy. Shortly after resettling in Dauphin, he went to work as a commercial painter. “I like working,” he says through an interpreter. “It helped me.”

For Hala, their first experience with cold Canadian weather came as a shock — even though locals told them they were lucky it was so mild, she says through the interpreter. “We said, ‘Look at the storm!’ And people here said, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet!’”

The snow isn’t all bad, she says, as if bad-mouthing winter might offend someone. “It looks beautiful,” she says, serving visitors tea and cookies neither she nor Mahmoud will share in during daylight hours because of Ramadan.

Hala says she has got to know the other Syrian moms and their kids. “We go to the park sometimes,” she says. “During Ramadan, we’re inviting each other to have the big meal together.”

After sundown the night before, they broke their fast at a feast with members of the Baptist church that is sponsoring them.

2 p.m.

At the Alassaf home, two volunteer English tutors are paying a visit. Twice a week, retired teachers and a speech pathologist drop by armed with whiteboards, markers, visual aids, smartphones with English-Arabic translation apps and updates on what the families have been learning in their thrice-weekly formal English-language classes. For Asya Alassaf and her mother-in-law, Shaha Alnaser, who don’t work outside the home, it’s a welcome opportunity to try out their new language skills.

“It’s going very well,” Shaha says through an interpreter.

Her main concern on this day is the size and worm-chewed condition of her okra plants in the garden, says Kathy Bellemare, a retired teacher and an avid gardener. “Grandma’s okra is too small,” Bellemare says. “I’ve been telling her, with our long days, it’s going to grow.”

The Syrian newcomers are learning English words for plants and other gardening terms, and the tutors are getting an education, too. “We’re learning to garden with some of their techniques and what will work here in Canada,” says Bellemare. “They have a different way of planting.”

She and retired speech language pathologist Helen Sommer go with the flow and jump on the teachable moments. During this visit, it is payday for Louai Alassaf. They explain his pay stub and deductions (“money in” and “money out”) and go with him to the bank to help him learn more English vocabulary.

“They’re very keen to learn,” says Sommer. “(Asya is) writing the alphabet and words like nobody’s business.” The volunteer tutors work with the preschool children, too. Hussein is learning about loonies, toonies and $5 bills after receiving so many for his fifth birthday from new friends in Dauphin.

“You can’t look at pictures on the news and not want to make life better for them,” says Bellemare.

Sommer says she feels for the three families and all that they are having to learn. “It’s mentally exhausting,” she says, but they’re up to the challenge.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Louai Alassaf and his son Hussein, 5, water their vegetable garden.

2:30 p.m.

Louai Alassaf is finished work for the day and is tending his garden. The backyard is cultivated with precisely planted rows of zucchini, eggplant, peppers, garlic, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, radishes and okra. Weed-free furrows separate the rows. Along the edge is a border of strawberries and marigolds. New friends with green thumbs helped the family get the plants and seeds at garden centres, says Louai, who feels at home in his backyard.

“It’s the same as Syria with the gardens and the same small-town feel,” he says.

5 p.m.

The three Syrian couples attend English-language class in a space provided by the Dauphin Friendship Centre. A staff member and a volunteer watch the children during the parents’ lessons. They attend the two-hour classes three times a week without an interpreter. Learning English is the biggest challenge, but it’s crucial to success in Canada — and they know it.

“At the beginning, it was really hard. Now, it’s a routine,” Riyad Suleyman says before the class. They’ve had to adapt to a new alphabet and reading backwards — from left to right instead of right to left in the Arabic fashion.

“They’re here to learn,” says instructor Loreen Husband, who has taught English as an additional language for more than a decade. “It’s a piece of cake.”

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The sponsors and families have grown close over the past four months and often spend time together. Here they break fast during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Lately, though, with the parents fasting during the day for Ramadan, she’s noticed concentration slipping. “When you’re hungry and tired, you don’t think or learn very well.” Until the end of the Muslim holy month, the classes will be a bit shorter and avoid one touchy subject. “We’re not going to talk about food anymore,” Husband says at the start of the class.

Tonight’s lesson focuses on the outdoors. The Syrians are adding words to their vocabulary and practising enunciation. She asks them a multiple-choice question: “Where do we walk? On the sidewalk? At the playground? In the park? On the street?”

They are places they’ve all walked before, but Hala Almasalmeh, who is often the first to respond, gives the best answer: “Sidewalk.”

The trickiest word for all of them to learn is the mouth-contorting consonant blend that is “squirrel.” They take turns saying the word and laugh as Husband goes around the room several times until each person masters it.

Hala Almasalmeh smiles as she makes an observation (in perfect English) about the word: “It’s hard to say!”


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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