Ayham Abou Ammar and his wife Dima Naseraldeen pose for photos with their children Nour, 8, left, and Alan, 5, right, in their apartment Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in Montreal. Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ayham Abou Ammar and his wife Dima Naseraldeen pose for photos with their children Nour, 8, left, and Alan, 5, right, in their apartment Wednesday, December 9, 2020 in Montreal. Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Syrian refugees overcoming war memories brought back by COVID-19

A total of 45,919 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada by April 2017

Five years after the first of them arrived in Canada, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have had to adapt to COVID-19 lockdowns that brought back the memories of war horrors and upset the lives they had begun to rebuild.

On Dec. 10, 2015, following a promise by the Liberals during the 2015 election campaign to make it much easier for them to reach Canada, the first plane bearing Syrian refugees landed in Toronto.

A total of 45,919 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada by April 2017 and more continued to arrive under other programs after that.

Dima Naseraldeen arrived in Montreal less than three years ago with her husband and their two sons. Earlier this year, when they had started to enjoy their new life in Canada, the city went into a lockdown, forcing them to stay at home and to put their work plans on hold.

“In the beginning, we were worried and scared,” she said.

“Suddenly, streets were empty, stores were shut down. It was something similar to war.”

Before coming to Canada, Naseraldeen spent years with her family in a suburb south of Damascus hiding from mortar shells.

She said the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic put them in the same profound anxiety they had lived with in Syria.

“We would always hear the sirens of ambulances and wait for the news,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

Bayan Khatib, the co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, said Syrian newcomers she worked with told her they were locked down in their homes in Syria for months or a year at a time because of the constant bombings outside and their inability to leave town.

“Everybody wearing masks must have been difficult to see, too, for people, perhaps, who are coming from areas that were attacked with chemical weapons,” she said.

Khatib’s organization is based in Mississauga, Ont., and provides services for newcomers in several cities in Ontario.

She said a lot of Syrian families came from places where the schools were shut down because of war, so when the schools were closed earlier this year, they must have felt horrible.

“Experiencing the second lockdown now in their new home as they’re trying to live life in a safe place, sure has been very challenging and extra stressful for them.”

Before the pandemic, Naseraldeen, 34, pursued a passion for drawing and participated in a few art shows with other artists in Montreal. Her first show of her own at the Montreal Art Centre was put off from May to December, then scrubbed.

“It was a disappointment” she said. “First, (the show) was delayed and I thought that would give me more time to prepare, then it was a shock that it was cancelled.”

Her husband Ayham Abou Ammar is an actor and a musician. In February, he finished shooting his part as the lead actor in a Canadian movie about a Syrian family that moved to Canada, but the movie release was also put off until next year.

“It was supposed to be screened at several festivals, but it was all cancelled,” he said.

Abou Ammar, 36, said he feels he lost the joy of watching his first movie on the big screen.

“It’s a turning point to see your work in the cinema,” he said. “I still hope it will be released next year.”

READ MORE: Syrians gradually integrating into Canadian society, latest report finds

Abou Ammar has taught music to youngsters in Montreal occasionally, but with limited participation due to physical-distancing rules.

The career shift was more dramatic for Noor Sakhniya, who finished his training to become a pilot last year in Ottawa, almost four years after landing in Canada with his family.

Sakhniya was hired by Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife in December 2019 but was laid off in March because of the pandemic.

Returning to Ottawa, Sakhniya, 23, had to work in survival jobs including making deliveries and as a personal grocer.

“You work hard for four years and you spend a lot of money on the training and on your dream … then, you (have) to let it all go,” he said.

“I believe it’s not just my case. It’s the case of many pilots, whether they’re beginner pilots or pilots who have years of experience, they will have to let it go due to the pandemic.”

He used to be active in organizing events for the Syrian community in the city and he coached a soccer team for immigrant kids last year, but all of that was on hold this year.

“In our countries, we were used to having a circle of support from family and friends … For many Syrians, during the war, they all moved together into their family houses to support each other,” he said. “During the pandemic, it’s really hard to do that, especially here in Canada (where) you don’t have family sometimes. Even though you have family sometimes, it’d be hard because you have to isolate yourself.”

He works now at a manager in a restaurant in downtown Ottawa. Expecting aviation to be slow for many years, he’s planning to study aerospace engineering at Carleton University next year.

Naseraldeen also is creating a new career path for herself in case she is not able to make living of painting in the near future. She finished training as a makeup artist recently.

She said it’s difficult for her to paint artwork now, with the amount of uncertainty that COVID-19 pandemic has put her in. Yet she said she still has hope.

“We were living in a war zone and we lost our jobs and homes and there was always hope,” she said. “I’m always optimistic … and I’m sure good things will follow.”

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusrefugeeSyria

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cheryl Dill visits the PQB News/VI Free Daily studio. (Peter McCully photo)
PQBeat: Talking jobs, tourism and business with Cheryl Dill in Parksville

Podcast: COVID-19 has far-reaching impacts on Vancouver Island

(File photo)
PQB crime report: Vandals strike in Parksville, prowler lurks in Nanoose Bay

Oceanside RCMP receive 276 complaints in one-week period

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

Orca 1
Orcas: Our Shared Future finally surfaces at Royal B.C. Museum

Museum dives into the world of the killer whale as delayed feature exhibition now open

New figures show Canadian housing prices outpacing those in other developed countries. (Black Press Media file photo)
Canadian housing prices fastest rising in the world

Relative to 2000, housing prices have risen by a factor of more than 2.5

Polystyrene has been outlawed as a take-out option for restaurants in Tofino and Ucluelet. (Black Press Media file photo)
Styrofoam done as a takeout option on Island’s Pacific Rim

Tofino and Ucluelet ban polystyrene take-out containers

The IIO is investigating after a police dog bit a man during a traffic stop near Ladysmith on April 17, 2021. (Black Press Media stock photo)
IIO investigating after police dog bites man near Ladysmith

RCMP dog bit man during traffic stop on Friday, April 17

This photo shows crews battling the fire at 7987 Galbraith Cres. that caused extensive damage and displaced six residents early Sunday morning. (Central Saanich Fire/Department Twitter)
Six fortunate to escape terrifying early-morning fire in Greater Victoria

Damage to the duplex extensive with one resident said to be ‘catatonic’ after escaping building

Joudelie King wants to get out and live life to the fullest, but there are places she can’t go because they don’t meet her accessibility needs. (submitted photo)
New online tool provides accessibility map for people with disabilities

The myCommunity BC map provides accessibility info for nearly 1,000 locations in the province

Most Read