One year on, Syrian refugees in Prince George, B.C., still between worlds

The first Syrian refugees to resettle in Northern B.C. love their new community, but challenges remain.

First Syrian refugees to resettle in Northern B.C. love their new community, but challenges remain

Rose Tohme holds up Tilo Junior, or TJ. The kitten is named after the cat the Tohmes had to leave behind in Lebanon. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Rose Tohme still remembers the moment she walked into the Prince George, B.C., airport for the first time.

"Our plane was delayed, so it was late. It was 1 a.m.," she recalled.

A welcoming committee was there to greet her family.

"We were overwhelmed. I remember, you know, I cried."

This greeting, in the early hours of Jan. 8, 2016, was unlike anything the Tohmes had experienced since fleeing their home in Syria four years earlier.

They had already been denied by Switzerland and Germany, and so were biding their time in Lebanon.

"It was hard," Tohme remembered. "We felt a kind of rejection."

The first family of Syrian refugees to arrive in Northern British Columbia was greeted at the Prince George Airport by a welcoming committee that included their sponsors from the Westwood Church and Mayor Lyn Hall. (Prince George Airport)

Finding miracles in hardship

One of the hardest periods was when it looked like Germany might accept Rose and her children— but not her husband, Nael.

He would drive them to the immigration office and then wait outside, knowing that if all went well they would leave him behind.

Tohme recalled praying while making preparations to separate.

"I said, 'You are a God of love. Do a miracle please.'"

"The miracle was that we had this call from Germany that you are refused."

In the meantime, the Westwood Church in Prince George had mobilized to sponsor a family of refugees and had selected them as good candidates.

Rose didn't want to end the German process so had declined, but once Germany rejected them, she reached out to find out if the Canadian offer still stood.

"I told them, 'Is it the whole family or just me or the kids?'" she said.

"They said, 'No, you all as a family'... this is amazing. This is the amazing love of our God."

Work, school and understanding

Once in Canada, Tohme didn't want to put her life on hold any longer.

"They gave us two days, they said, 'Oh you can rest, take your time.' We couldn't. The next morning we said, 'Well, you know, we are ready. We want to work, we want to go back to our normal life as people.'" 

When the Tohmes came to Canada they were only allowed to bring 50 kilograms of belongings each. Rose Tohme chose to bring these shells to mark her four years living in Lebanon. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

She and her daughter began volunteering at the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society and soon earned jobs there helping other families as they arrived.

Nael got a job fixing hydraulic pumps. One son is finishing grade twelve while the other is doing post-secondary in Abbotsford.

Fear of loss and an uncertain future

Rose thinks a community like Prince George is the perfect opportunity for a new beginning.

"The way that people here reacted towards the Syrian refugees, it's amazing," she said. "Even people in the street, they just come to you and they greet you."

Tilo Jr. is the newest addition to the Tohme family, adopted a few weeks ago. Rose says she's worried about getting too attached after having to leave her previous cat behind in Lebanon. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Still, challenges remain. Rose says she has a hard time enjoying herself, knowing people she loves are still in refugee camps or in Syria.

She also discovered a fear of loss while volunteering at a senior's centre. 

"I couldn't stop crying, I was crying the whole time ... I was looking at them and seeing my dad in them," she recalled.

Even her daughter getting a kitten on Kijiji stirred up mixed emotions.

A lifelong animal lover, Tohme had to leave her cat of eight years behind in Lebanon, something she still feels guilty about.

"My emotions were very confused, I didn't want to be attached to anyone and like and then lose."

This piece has been adapted from a two-part story that aired on CBC Daybreak North. To hear it, click on the audio for part one and part two.

For now, she's involving herself in the community and trying to spread a message of love.

"Love your country," she tells people.

"And love each other. Because when you love each other, as Canadians, this will prevent war."

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata


Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.