Meet the first Syrian family to arrive in Chilliwack

Chilliwack's first Syrian refugee family was welcomed by Mayor Sharon Gaetz, with city councillors Jason Lum and Sue Attrill.

The first Syrian refugee family to arrive in Chilliwack was warmly welcomed by Mayor Sharon Gaetz recently

The first Syrian refugee family to arrive in Chilliwack was warmly welcomed by Mayor Sharon Gaetz recently

The first Syrian refugee family to arrive in Chilliwack has been settling in nicely, in part because of the solid community support, and warm welcome they’ve received.

Yousef Hadla, 32, and his wife, Amnieh Alkoholani, 24, and their boys, Firas, and Mohammed-Yaman were sponsored by a local Group of Five.

Sponsorship was under the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) Program, which made it possible for the pre-screened Syrian family to relocate to Chilliwack relatively quickly.

A BVOR commitment is for a full year, and it gives some time for the family to adjust to North American life.

It also requires sponsors, the Chilliwack Group of Five, comprising members of the van den Bosch and Byers families, to provide the refugee family with financial, social and emotional support for the first 12 months.

The Syrian family is living in a cozy suite above the van den Bosch family. They have met socially and made connections with other local refugee families in Chilliwack, as well as Arabic speaking doctor, Dr. Osama Ebesh.

The family was also warmly greeted and welcomed by Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz recently, and city councillors Jason Lum and Sue Attrill, who handed out bus passes and Leisure Centre passes to the family.

They were thrilled when some neighbours brought them fresh eggs as a welcome.

It’s quite a contrast.

Now Hadla uses words like: “peaceful” and “relaxed” to describe what it feels like to finally be in Canada.

From his research conducted online before getting here, he envisioned life in Canada as perennially white with snow. It was in fact quite snowy when the family touched down in Montreal, but they were pleased to find Chilliwack’s climate more temperate, more akin to what they left in Syria, although rainier.

So far they’ve seen the mighty Fraser River, picturesque Harrison Lake, and experienced the shopping at Costco, and Superstore. They’ve visited the Chilliwack Islamic Centre, and had a taste of local sushi and sampled the Greek food at Rendezvous Restaurant.

Hadla pulls up some pictures on his phone. It’s a series of bleak images of their crumbling, and devastated hometown, Daraya, Syria, which is less than 10 km from Damascus.

By January 2016, Daraya had suffered 1166 days under siege. The family slipped away when the Assad regime came through, hoping to one day return. The Hadla family owned a factory, and lived a suburban existence. The photos depict the horrifying and complete destruction of the town as a result of the armed conflict. The airstrikes, rockets, and barrel bombs almost levelled it, and killed thousands of people in recent years.

“The whole city is gone,” he said.

At one point, almost three years ago, the family entered one of the grossly overpopulated refugee camps in Jordan. They weren’t allowed to leave the camp, to travel or hold a passport.

“I escaped and left the camp because there was no water or electricity,” he remembered. “We couldn’t stay there. I wanted my sons to have a better life.”

He thought if they stayed, his boys would be killed.

But Hadla had no travel papers. He got some computer repair work in Jordan anyway. He was caught once and if officials discovered he’d been working illegally, he could have been deported back to the refugee camp.

Fortunately things fell into place. Hadla was invited by UNHCR (the UN refugee agency in Canada) to relocate to Canada under the BVOR program.

That changed everything.

“It is a new life and a fresh start for us,” Hadla remarked. “Every day we meet new people.”

Everyone has been very supportive.

Their older boy, Firas, is in school, and dad Yousef is studying for his driving test.

Both mom and dad are taking intensive English as a Second Language classes, and also working one on one with a tutor.

Hadla is trying to get his English proficiency up to Level 7 for a tech course that is starting this May. He’s at Level 5 and cramming hard to begin coder training with the Startland Initiative, which has been providing refugees entering the tech workforce with free workspace, laptops and smart phones.

There are career opportunities in the offing because of his skills, so the pressure is on to sharpen the language skills.

Hadla told the Progress he hopes one day make his mark in the tech sector, while his wife, Amnieh, dreams of one day having a food truck.

Integrating slowly into the community slowly but surely has been the goal.

Their son Firas is attending school not too far from home, at last, without that constant anxious feeling gripping them and making them feel afraid all the time.

“We feel very happy and excited about our future,” says Yousef.