Edmonton teacher helps refugee tell his story

Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah has seen car bombs, witnessed death, sheltered from bullets and moved an ocean away from home. Now, the 15-year-old refugee wants to tell his story.

'My life has not just been about the car bombs and shootings,' says 15-year-old refugee from Syria

"When I read it I enjoy it a lot and actually it reminds me of a lot of things I forgot," says Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah about the novel his teacher wrote, based on Al-Rabeeah's childhood in Syria. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah has seen car bombs, witnessed death, sheltered from bullets and moved an ocean away from home. Now, the 15-year-old refugee wants to tell his story.

Al-Rabeeah fled from Syria to Canada with his family last year.

When they arrived in Edmonton, Al-Rabeeah knew two words: 'Hello' and 'thank you.' Undaunted, he said he wanted to share his experiences.

"A lot of people treat us like ... we don't have anything, just war," he said. "That's why it was really important to me to tell the people, 'No, we have a lot of things.' "

He's not defined by the bad things that have happened to him.- Winnie Canuel, Highlands School teacher

Al-Rabeeah's English teacher was the first to sit down and listen.

Winnie Canuel, who works at Highlands School, said she thought it would be a good way for Al-Rabeeah to practice his English. When she heard the stories he had to tell, she started writing them down.

"I was in awe of how this child can live through something like this and still come through so genuinely happy and so grateful," she said. "It's not a self-pitying type of gratitude. It's simply just, 'I'm happy to be here and I'm moving forward.'

"He's not defined by the bad things that have happened to him."
Winnie Canuel, a teacher at Highlands School in Edmonton, says she wanted to help her student Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah tell his story of childhood in a warzone. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Throughout Al-Rabeeah's first year in Canada, they wrote a book together. He talked while Canuel wrote everything down, weaving the narrative into a novel called Homes.

Their book launched Wednesday night at Highlands School in Edmonton. 

Al-Rabeeah said its pages include the most defining moments of his childhood, such as the first time he saw a car bomb explode.

"I was laughing with my friends and I was joking and it was so surprising for me," he recalled. "That was my first time to help people that were going to die. A lot of people were so close to dying. It was my first time I really felt like I was in the real war."

'Please don't just imagine tragedy'

Despite memories of violence, Al-Rabeeah said he had a happy childhood. 

Al-Rabeeah grew up in Iraq with five sisters and two brothers, but moved to Syria in 2010. He said their father wanted to shelter his family from the religious persecution they faced in Iraq for being minority Sunni Muslims.

At the time, they treated Syria as a refuge. The family of 10 had no way of knowing their new home would soon turn into a warzone.
Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah (left), a 15-year-old refugee, started telling stories of life in Syria to practice English with his teacher, Winnie Canuel (right). (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Through months of instability, Al-Rabeeah said he still found time to spend with friends, to take selfies, go to Mosque, and to play soccer.

"That was the only game I can play because that was a really simple game. Anywhere just take the ball and play anywhere, so I love soccer," he said.

One of the first things Al-Rabeeah did in Canada was join a soccer team.

"My life has not just been about the car bombs and shootings. When you look at me, when you look at us, please don't just imagine tragedy," he told the people who gathered to hear him talk at Wednesday's book launch.

Now that the story of his childhood is published, Al-Rabeeah said he's ready for the next chapter of his life. He wants to finish school and become a professional soccer player.

"I feel my future is here," he said about his life in Canada. "I'm so happy."

Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah fled from Syria to Edmonton in 2015 with his parents, five sisters, and two brothers. (Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah)

@ZoeHTodd