Families who came to Cape Breton as refugees adapting to new home

Seven Syrian families who settled in Cape Breton earlier this year are just happy to be in a calm place, say the island's two immigrant settlement counsellors.

Seven families settled on the island earlier this year

The Hamadi family, sponsored by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Parish in Sydney, N.S., celebrate Ahmad Hamadi's birthday with their sponsors in August. (Owen Fitzgerald)

Seven Syrian families who settled in Cape Breton earlier this year are just happy to be a "calm, safe place," say the island's two immigrant settlement counsellors.

The families were part of a wave of community-sponsored war refugees who settled across Canada in the last year. Two of the families live in Sydney area, three in Port Hood and one each in Cheticamp and Isle Madame.

The Cape Breton counsellors, Gina Kokoska and Sohila Abdo, connect the families with community services and agencies they may need. They also work closely with them to help them navigate the cultural and social differences they encounter.

'Settling in very well'

Abdo came to Cape Breton University from Egypt in 2009 and stayed after graduation. She says the former refugee families are "doing great, settling in very well."

Most of the fathers in the families have found work, and the children are all registered in school. All of the adults are enrolled in English classes, she said.

A couple of the women have begun working, too. In Syria, before the civil war effectively destroyed the economy in many places, women's participation in the workforce was about 14 per cent.

Trauma of war

"They've experienced war," said Abdo. "We're talking about people that, their houses were bombed, businesses were lost, parents were killed.

We're talking about people that, their houses were bombed, businesses were lost, parents were killed.- Sohila Abdo

"You flee your home, you flee your country, seeking a safe place to live, trying to find a place where you can go to bed and know that you're going to wake up the next day."

Kokoska said the Syrians' work experience, home and community were all taken away from them by war. And now they're rebuilding in a different language. 

'Loved and helped'

Despite that trauma, the families are adapting quickly to their new homes.

Sohaila Abdo and Gina Kokoska are Cape Breton's new immigrant settlement counsellors, based in Sydney, N.S. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

"Just coming here is a happy experience for them," Abdo said. "They found a new, safe place that they can call home where they're being loved and helped by the community."

Biggest change in the children

Kokoska and Abdo say the most noticeable change has been in the children.

When the families first arrived in Cape Breton—some of them in the dead of winter and in the middle of the night—the children were shy, quiet and apprehensive, said Kokosko.

 You can see how being in a safe environment can really allow them to just look forward to the future- Gina Kokoska

"And now when we see them, they're joyful and bright and they're just excited and happy and you can see how being in a safe environment can really allow them to just look forward to the future," she said.

The first family to arrive in Cape Breton, the Aabos, recently moved from Marion Bridge to Halifax, where they have friends.

Three more families are expected this fall: two in the Sydney area and one more in Margaree.