Sixteen-year-old Reem Al Ibrahim sounded practically giddy when asked about the snow that fell in Sidney on Monday. “I love the snow,” she said. “I hope we still have more snow to build a snowman.”
The extra snow would also nicely complement the Christmas tree that stands in the living room of the house that Reem shares with her parents, four siblings, grandmother and aunt following their arrival in Sidney in September 2018 from Syria after a four-year limbo in Turkey.
The neatly decorated tree, like Reem’s excitement about the snow, has become a symbol of the family’s embrace of their new home.
“It means that we are Canadian and we are having a real Christmas same as the other people,” said Reem, when asked what the tree means to her.
The history of the tree’s arrival in the Al Ibrahim residency also reflects the hidden but no less powerful hands in Canadian society that continue to help Syrian refugees specifically and new arrivals generally once the television cameras have turned off and formal sponsorship agreements have ended.
Sidney-by-the-Sea Rotary Club donated the tree earlier this month after hearing of a wish from Reem through a family friend and her reaction to its arrival — fully decorated — in front of their home was a sight to behold.
“Reem, who made the wish, was just beaming from ear to ear,” said Barbara Erickson, a family friend, who helped to sponsor the Rapid 2, Syrian Refugee Committee, a Saanich Peninsula-based organization. “And the little six-year-old, Mira, she cried, and the family was absolutely mind-boggled. They were just extremely overwhelmed and excited.”
Getting the decorated tree into the house was not without its practical obstacles. “That was a challenge,” said Erickson with a laugh. “It went in with the help of the Rotarians (Sylvia Bonet, as well Ian and Hillary Brown). There were three people stuffing it through the doorway into the hallway.”
The tree has since become a favourite object for the family, especially for Reem’s grandmother, Fatem. “She just sits by the tree all day long and she has been sending pictures back to Syria,” said Erickson. “They just love it.”
More than 50,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since 2015 and the Al Ibrahims (who had lived in Raqqa) have taken their new home with gusto. “They have been amazing in adapting to this new world,” said Erickson. “When they arrived, no one spoke English, I mean very rudimentary English.”
The children are now fluent and the parents had been taking English lessons before COVID-19 hit. The three boys in the family — Muhammed,15, Hassan, 12, and Abduramah, 10, — play soccer through Peninsula Soccer and the two oldest are carriers for the Peninsula News Review. Dad Khalid and mom Shemse have also found steady jobs with a North-Saanich based producer of specialty foods.
Reem, her mother and her aunt, have also made a name for themselves through their cooking skills prior to COVID-19 shutting down large scale gatherings. “Their Syrian cuisine is amazing,” said Erickson. “They have done some catering in the community for (private events) and for church groups and for the Rotary club.”
The family has also come to appreciate Sidney’s physical amenities such as its beaches and parks, frequently using the Panorama Recreation Centre, and have readily enjoyed its many community events. “They have been really immersed in the community here,” said Erickson. “It’s a joy to have them in the community. They are just a lovely family.”
Reem has especially taken a shining to the town, describing her time in Sidney as the “most beautiful two years” she has ever had.
“Here, we can learn and go to school. Before that, we couldn’t do that. And now we have friends and we have met a lot of nice people.”
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