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This article was published 20/12/2015 (1973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ALTONA — A beaming Ahlam Dib didn’t let a language barrier stand in her way as she served guests Turkish coffee and cookies Sunday.
Wearing a hijab and a beautifully embroidered dress, the mother of the first Syrian refugee family to arrive in the small southern Manitoba town of Altona extended her hand in welcome and smiled broadly.
A couple of dozen times Sunday.
Dib and her family met the 20 or more volunteers who will help her family of nine settle into their new lives for the first time.
Her husband, Ahmad Daas, stood at the door, saying "Welcome, welcome" again and again. "No English," he added, using hand gestures to usher in guests.
The Daas family, all nine of them, were among 17 Syrians who touched down Saturday in Winnipeg, the first wave of what’s expected to be as many as 2,000 refugees slated to arrive in Manitoba by February.
Originally from Damascus, the Daas family spent the past few years in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Their fellow travellers, the eight-member Albakar family, headed to Welcome Place, one of Winnipeg’s best-known resettlement agencies as government-sponsored families.
Sunday morning, the Daas family told their sponsors they felt "safe." The night was "very quiet" and they slept well.
"That’s all part of seeing your community through the eyes of newcomers," smiled Build a Village chairman Ray Loewen, the man behind Altona’s private sponsorship operation for the Daas family and four other families yet to arrive.
The five Syrian families destined for Altona range in size from five to 13 members. The total number of people scheduled to arrive is 45, increasing the town’s population by one per cent.
"We take all of this for granted, but it really is quiet and safe here," Loewen said.
The team of volunteers will help the Daas family with any medical needs, shopping or paperwork. And the children will need to be enrolled in school, where they’ll start after the Christmas break.
As the two-storey house filled up, it didn’t matter that every word had to be translated from Arabic, a task falling to Doaa Abukhousa, who also cooked the chicken and rice and made the salad for the first meal.
Seated with a translator during what was the family’s first media interview, Dib said the last 24 hours had been overwhelming in ways she never dreamed of.
The family stepped off a plane from Toronto Saturday after an exhausting flight from Jordan, only to be greeted by a throng of well-wishers.
A traditional indigenous drum group sang a gentle honour song and then the refugees were taken by Altona volunteers to see their new home, a 90-minute drive south across flat farmland, with stubble sticking up from a fresh blanket of snow.
"It’s cold in Lebanon, too, but not that much snow," Abukhousa translated.
Then there was a pause. Dib dabbed away tears and kept a firm gaze on a Free Press reporter and photographer as Abukhousa translated her next words.
"She says she’s surprised all this happened to them," said Abukhousa, who immigrated with her family six years ago to Altona after spending time in several Middle East refugee camps.
"She says, on her way to town, she was crying. To come to a new country? Where she doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t know the language? She didn’t know what to expect. She was scared. And then all these people welcomed her and her family," Abukhousa said.
"She says she left family behind but now she feels like she had a whole new family. Here."
Her words clearly moved her Altona sponsors.
"Oh, you do," Loewen said. "Tell her that, that’s what she does have here. Family."
Nearby, the local Chicken Chef restaurant was packed with the after-church lunch crowd.
The new family was the talk of the town. The town, it turns out, is waiting for Loewen to give them a signal so they can meet the Daas family, too. One way or another, most everyone has pitched in to prepare homes for the newcomers.
"We’re waiting for Ray Loewen. He’s taken the lead on this," Mayor Melvin Klassen said. "I’m very proud of that. There are 100 volunteers in this and they’ve been busy. They wanted to make sure the place was ready."
Sunday morning, one person told a friend he’d made a point to drive by the Daas family’s new home on his way to church.
"He was telling us today that he drove by and there was a man standing outside," retired school principal Gord Sawatzky said.
"He honked his horn. And the man waved back. It’s one of the little things we can do to welcome them."
Sawatzky was among about a dozen people the mayor was lunching with at the Chicken Chef. They are all Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Altona members, one of the five Altona churches sponsoring the Daas family and four other refugee families yet to arrive.
"The community is very accepting of immigrants," the mayor said.
"Our forefathers were all immigrants and all of us realize that to get new start, you need a group to help you."
Altona was settled by waves of immigrants in the 1870s and the 1920s, mostly from the Russian Empire and later Soviet Russia. "The indigenous people helped our forefathers. We won’t have survived without them," Klassen said.
Added Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Altona secretary Susan Dueck: "It’s a complicated process. Each of the churches raised $15,000, and each of them organized things for one household."
"From toothpaste to diapers," added Margaret Klassen, the mayor’s wife.
The town struck it lucky with housing: a new seniors’ complex meant several vacant houses are available for rent, just when they’re needed the most.
There won’t be much lead time, judging from the experience with the Daas family. Immigration and Citizenship Canada let Loewen know Wednesday the family would fly into Toronto on Friday and arrive in Winnipeg on Saturday.
Dueck said she’s expecting the next arrival to come with similar short notice.
"Our church has the family of five," Dueck said. "You put a call out and people are so willing to help. You make that call one weekend and by they next you have it all (ready)."