You wouldn't think Salmon Arm, B.C. has anything in common with Syria, but according to its newest resident, it does.
"It reminds me of my town in Syria," said Mustafa Zakreet, the lone Syrian now living in Salmon Arm.
"There was a river close to my house — same here — and they told me you can swim in the lake [in Salmon Arm]."
The 24-year-old refugee arrived in the city of 18,000 people on January 12 to begin a new life in Canada.
He spent the last three years in Lebanon, in a refugee camp, after fleeing the civil war in Syria in 2012.
"For me everything is new here," said Zakreet.
In his first few weeks in B.C., his sponsors have taken Zakreet to his first hockey game, snowshoeing, even skiing, which he vows to never try again.
"I fall 20 times and I say I will not go back again," he laughs.
Things like learning the transit system and going to the bank, are also new to Zakreet.
"It's the first time I have an account now at the bank," he said.
At a meeting with a financial planner, Zakreet is struck by the difference between a nickel and dime.
Zakreet's days are busy with meetings and appointments in between English classes at the immigrant services office in Salmon Arm.
"My dream when I was in Syria was I want to be an [environmental] engineer — I hope that I can do [that] here."
Long journey to Salmon Arm
Zakreet fled Syria in 2012, seven days after one of his brothers was killed by a bomb, in his hometown of Homs.
"We lived in a town close to Lebanon — it was on the border. There was more than four groups fighting there. They bombed my house and the other houses there and I lost my mom and my brother too," he said.
"The war affected me ... I have very bad dreams every day and I have a feeling a bomb will fall down next to me because the bomb that killed my mom — it was very near. It was about 100 metres."
Zakreet lived in a UN refugee camp before coming to Canada.
His younger brother and his father are still there, waiting to hear whether their application to come to Canada will be approved.
Community coming together
Bringing Mustafa Zakreet to Canada is just the beginning for Salmon Arm residents who are organizing to sponsor dozens of Syrian refugees in the coming months.
"I'm just astounded at the town," said Brian Ayotte.
"I've worked in the hospital foundation raising money for the hospital. The generosity here is overwhelming and it's been proven again"
They've been meeting once a month since October to coordinate and plan for dozens of Syrian refugees to settle in Salmon Arm.
Eight Syrian refugee families have already been approved to come to the town.
In a city of 18,000 people that admittedly, lacks diversity, Brian realizes, it's a huge undertaking.
"I think that they'll broaden our view of the community," he said.
"I think this is a pretty white community in terms of interior towns that began as mill towns, and I think that's going to change pretty rapidly."
As the solo Syrian in Salmon Arm, Zakreet will be a big part of that change.
"He's enthusiastic about meeting people at the airport because I think many of the people due to come, don't speak English. He's going to be the translator — he's our man and we're very thankful for that," said sponsor Kari Dukeshire.
"I am awed by Mustafa's resiliency, resourcefulness, groundedness," she said. "He could not be a more perfect ambassador for the Syrians coming to Canada."
To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Lone Syrian finds refuge in Salmon Arm.