‘So happy being here’

Refugees still have a challenging road ahead

Josh Pennell Josh.pennell@thetelegram.com
Published on January 13, 2016

When Syrian refugee Osama Sulaiman arrived in St. John’s two weeks ago on New Year’s Eve with his wife and their 2 1/2-year-old son, he had to be reassured about the fireworks he heard thundering overhead.

“We had to explain to them that the fireworks were not explosions and that they were peaceful celebrations,” says Susanne Hiller.

Hiller is the daughter-in-law of well-known businessman Derm Dobbin. Dobbin and his family sponsored Sulaiman’s family. Sulaiman was at St. Pius X Parish Hall in St. John’s Wednesday with about 100 other refugees for a gathering welcoming the Syrians to the province.

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The gathering in many ways resembled a fine time at any parish hall around the bays of Newfoundland. Kids played and laughed. Adults embraced and smiled over cups of tea and coffee. The people, of course, were not born in any cove near here. Most barely speak English. It’s clear, though, that whatever the war in Syria has robbed them of, it hasn’t taken their optimism for the future. Or perhaps that has been restored by the goodwill of people in this province and country.

“They are so happy being here. To be secure. To find someone to help them,” Hala Mostafa told The Telegram as she translated for Sulaiman.

Mostafa came here from Egypt four years ago with her husband, who is a PhD student at Memorial University. She helped Syrians communicate with the media and others at the event.

In Syria, Sulaiman’s house was bombed. He fled to Lebanon with his family. His son, Zaid Sulaiman, is a hemophiliac and had a bleed. The clinic they found wouldn’t care for him unless Sulaiman paid $10 — which he didn’t have, but managed to collect from people outside the clinic.

Dobbin and his family were expecting the Sulaimans in March. About two days before Dec. 31, they got word the refugees would arrive early. They quickly got them an apartment and furniture, with others helping where they could. A man they didn’t know dropped off a laptop. Someone else brought a crib. The Sulaimans walked off the plane with one bag and just a couple of articles of clothing each, not really knowing which part of Canada they were in and hoping for just one thing.

“Anywhere safe” Hiller says.

They quickly got medical care for little Zaid upon arriving.

“They feel like finally he’s going to be OK,” says Hiller.

The feelings of gratitude and relief in the parish were concrete, yet none of the people expressed them through words. At least not English ones. When Premier Dwight Ball walked into the parish with some accompanying politicians, the young Syrians all wanted their picture taken with him. As they loosened up, many of the same young men took photos of each other in front of the podium lined with media microphones and video cameras and laughed amongst themselves.

The refugees still have a challenging road ahead.

“I think for them the first period will be hard,” Mostafa said.

“They need to work hard on their English.”

She remembers her first year and the hurdles that have to be overcome. There will be family left behind they will always think of. There’s the weather, a political system, a language and culture they know nothing about and will have to integrate into. Sulaiman and others start English lessons this week. What was perhaps most remarkable about the event was that the refugees didn’t seem like they were the most thankful ones in the room.

“It’s been incredible. We’ve probably gotten more out of it,” says Hiller.

josh.pennell@thetelegram.com