British Columbia

5 years on, Syrian refugees in Victoria reflect on hardships and successes in a new home

CBC recently caught up with a few of the several hundred Syrian refugees who have settled in Victoria over the past five years, to learn of their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments.

Three stories of how Syrian newcomers have settled in Victoria

Since first settling in Canada in 2016, thousands of Syrian refugees have had to learn new languages, find new jobs, and establish themselves in a different society. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It's been five years since the first refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war were welcomed to Canada.

Since then, thousands of individuals and families have had to learn new languages, find jobs, and establish themselves in a society completely different from their own.

CBC Radio's All Points West recently caught up with a few of the several hundred newcomers to Victoria to learn about their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments from the past few years.

Sari Alesh, violinist:

Sari Alesh stands with a few of his sponsors outside a small restaurant in the James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria, where they're celebrating the oath of Canadian citizenship Alesh took earlier that day.

After five years in Victoria, he can finally call himself a Canadian. 

"I was waiting for this day for a long, long time," Alesh said, adding that he's built close relationships with all of his sponsor families over the years.

"We are so proud of everything [Alesh has] accomplished in the last five years. This much!," said sponsor Heather Ferguson, her arms outstretched wide. 

Sari Alesh, a Syrian refugee and violinist, is reviving his musical career in his new home in Victoria. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Back in Syria,  Alesh was a classically-trained violinist with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. After arriving in Canada, he faced many challenges, such as learning English, and he worried about finding a space to continue his violin music.

But with his sponsors' help, he soon began his own band called Sari Alesh and Friends, where he's also discovered his passion for "fiddle style" music, Alesh said. 

He's now completing courses at Cambria College so he can work with students who have special needs. "If I can include music as therapy, I will do that," he said. 

Sponsor Budd Hall said Alesh has a "remarkable gift with young children," and he's proud Alesh is pursuing this gift as a new Canadian citizen, while also keeping music in his life.

Listen to Alesh's journey to becoming a Canadian:

Five years after arriving in Victoria, Sari Alesh has built a new life and become a Canadian citizen. Along the way he has formed close friendships with his sponsors. In fact, some of them are in his limited COVID bubble. The CBC's Adam van der Zwan shares their story. 6:19

Mohamed Salem Ajaj and Marwa Ataya, grocery store owners:

Mohamed Salem Ajaj and Marwa Ataya say they've been bringing members of Middle Eastern communities together since they opened Victoria's Damascus Food Market in 2019.

"[Syrian] food was hard to get," Ajaj recalls.

He says he would have to travel up to four hours to Vancouver to find food from home.

"I wanted to open this business to help my community and my family," he said. 

Mohamed Salem Ajaj opened the Damascus Food Market in Victoria in 2018 with his Marwa Ataya. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Ajaj and Ataya arrived in Victoria with their four young children in 2016. Ataya says the biggest challenge was learning English.

Their sponsor families made settling in easy because "everything was ready," like a house to stay in, and at-home language lessons, she said. 

Ataya says while the couple misses their families back home, they plan to stay in Victoria, where "it's nice and quiet, [with] friendly people."

She says their eldest son has recently started helping to run the store, and since opening, they've had a lot of community support.

Listen to an interview with Mohamad Salem Ajaj and Marwa Ataya:

Several hundred Syrian refugees settled in Greater Victoria as part of a national humanitarian effort five years ago. Many looked for jobs when they arrived. But some, like Mohamed Salim Ajaj and his wife Marwa Ataya, opened their own businesses instead. They spoke with Kathryn Marlow about their lives in Victoria and the Damascus Food Market. 8:46

Mohammad Rashid, Esquimalt High School student:

Mohammad Rashid, 16, sits in a park next to his home, and recounts performing in a COVID-safe high school talent show a few weeks earlier. 

He pre-recorded a performance of a hip-hop song he'd written called All What I Wanted. In the video, he stands in an empty room, with a white hoodie over his head, lip-syncing to his own creation, which was professionally recorded in a music studio in Victoria.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, that song was fire'...'Keep it up,' 'I've added this to my playlist,'" said Rashid, recalling the students who approached him at the end of the school day. 

Syrian refugee Mohammad Rashid, 16, did not speak English when he arrived in Victoria with his mother, brother, and sister, in 2018. That has changed quickly, in part because of his love of music. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

Rashid said his peers are always surprised to learn he couldn't speak any English just three years ago, when he, his mother, sister and brother arrived from Syria. They're even more surprised to learn he only started writing, singing and recording music in English just over a year ago.

"I definitely couldn't tell, with the way he delivers his vocals, and the storytelling in his songwriting," said Steve Kroeger, the music engineer who mixes Rashid's music.

Rashid, whose stage name is Tiger M, says his songs reflect many aspects of his life in Syria, of love, and of being a teenager.

Listen to the story of Rashid's passion for music, and how it's helped him settle into his new life in Canada:

Since Syrian refugees first started arriving in Victoria five years ago, each has been on their own journey to build a new life. Teenager Mohammad Rashid did not speak English when he arrived with his mother, brother, and sister, in 2018. That has changed quickly, in part because of his love of music. Adam van der Zwan has his story. 8:02

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