A Syrian refugee says he had no idea where he would be living in Canada when he boarded a plane in Jordan last week, but when he finally landed in Nova Scotia, he says it was the best moment of his life.
Tareq Hadhad, 23, arrived in Toronto with a plane full of refugees on a Friday night, the week before Christmas.
"At the hotel, the government volunteers told me 'Tareq, your flight will be tomorrow to Halifax.' Actually I wondered, I said, 'What's Halifax?' I asked them, 'Is it in Canada?'" he said with a laugh.
'The moment of my life'
The next day, he boarded a plane with another family destined for Yarmouth. He had no idea what to expect when he got off the plane.
Waiting in the arrivals section was a group of more than 20 people from Antigonish holding signs that said 'welcome' in Arabic. He was sponsored by Syrian-Antigonish Families Embrace.
"Oh my god. When I saw that view, it was the moment of my life," Hadhad said. "I can't express how this moment and how this touched my heart at the Halifax airport."
'I'm the celebrity of the town'
Hadhad then learned that his new home was a town of 15,000 people — a far cry from the two million who lived in his hometown of Damascus, Syria.
But that doesn't faze Hadhad, who says he is smitten with the community.
"I walk out now — and because I'm the celebrity of the town — everyone comes to me and asks me if I need any help," he said. "I am so grateful for the kind people here in Antigonish."
Hadhad will soon be joined by his immediate family.
"When we were young we dreamed of the type of life like this: the type of design of the town, with the snow now, and with the design of houses, with the market and the library and the university," he said.
'Don't take anything'
Hadhad's extraordinary story began four years ago, when bombs started to fall in his quiet neighbourhood, a southern suburb of Damascus. At the time, he was living in a building with his entire extended family.
"My father said, 'You must be down at the basement just to avoid damages'," he said.
"Four nights without electricity and without water... You can't imagine what it is meaning that you are now in danger — that at any time the building will collapse on your head."
The family survived the attack, but fled to another section of the city.
"My father said, 'Don't take anything'," except what they needed to survive.
'Where should we go now?'
A few months later, Hadhad and his brother were knocked to the ground by a nearby explosion. They weren't injured, but the "next day, my family said, 'It's time to leave Syria'."
The family managed to drive across the border to neighbouring Lebanon.
"When we passed the Lebanese borders, we just stopped. 'Where should we go now?' We don't know anything in Lebanon. We don't have relatives in Lebanon."
Education 'worth dying for'
Finally they found a friend in a city, who helped them get an apartment. This was three years ago, and at the time, Hadhad was a medical student, passionate about becoming a doctor.
He ignored his parents wishes and continued to study, then crossed the border back into Syria to write his third year exams.
"I think my studies are worth dying for," Hadhad said.
Finally, he realized it was too dangerous make the journey again. In his last visit to the school, he took his transcripts: his most valuable possession.
In Lebanon, he decided to put his medical knowledge to practice. He helped set up a program that offered refugees medical care.
Early this year a colleague told him Canada had a scholarship to help refugees finish their degrees. He got his hopes up, thinking that if he could come to Canada to work, he could support his family who were struggling in Lebanon.
Sister's family left behind
He didn't get the scholarship, but his application caught the eye of the Canadian government.
He was invited to the embassy and was told he was accepted as a refugee, he said — and his parents and siblings could come, as well.
"Wow," Hadhad said of that moment. "They said to us, 'You are accepted. It will take no more than four months. Be ready'."
Two weeks ago Hadhad received a call that there was room for him on a flight. He's expecting his parents and his three younger siblings to arrive in a matter of days.
But there is a downside: his older sister and her two children still are waiting to see if they'll be accepted as refugees. The family must leave her behind in hopes that her papers will eventually be approved, he said.
'Always light in the dark'
In the meantime, Hadhad says he will do everything he can to make the most of his new life.
He just learned Dalhousie University has a medical school, so he says he will spend the next few months upgrading his English and doing everything he can to get accepted and finish his degree.
No matter what, Hadhad says his family will work hard to become a part of the community in Antigonish.
"For refugees who are coming, I just wanted to say, 'There is always light in the dark. There is always hope in the frustration. Have faith. You will be safe here in Canada'."