Calgary

Syrian newcomers to Calgary now settled, celebrating successes and looking ahead

Ghada Alatrash stands in a spotlight on a small stage at Calgary’s new cSPACE arts venue, reciting her poetry and writing to a packed room, silent and captivated.

Syrians began arriving in Calgary three years ago and are looking ahead to next three years with optimism

Ghada Alatrash is one of the organizers of the the recent Journey To Resilence event in Calgary highlighting Syrian stories and music. Alatrash came to North America from Syria more than 30 years ago and is now an author and instructor at Mount Royal University. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Ghada Alatrash stands in a spotlight on a small stage at Calgary's new cSPACE arts venue, reciting her poetry and writing to a packed room, silent and captivated.

As she speaks, another woman, fellow-organizer and musician Aya Mhana, sits and quietly plays traditional Syrian music on an Oud – a small, pear shaped Syrian guitar – filling the room with words and sounds from far away places, recounting unimaginable scenes and painful journeys.

It's been three years now since Syrian refugees began arriving in Calgary. Many are settled and thriving, now looking to the next three years and the next chapter of their lives here.

"They describe their arrival as a feeling of bewilderment, they felt disoriented. One said they felt like an astronaut, just flying in space and ungrounded," said Alatrash, a Syrian author, educator and one of the organizers of the event, held to celebrate stories of success and resilience from Syrian newcomers while raising money for her hometown of Sweida, the scene of an ISIS massacre last July. 

"But now that same person told me with every day she is feeling more grounded in this country and is so grateful to the country that has given her refuge, freedom and security," said Alatrash.

One of the speakers at the event, which was sponsored by the University of Calgary's Faculty of Social Work, is fourth generation soap maker, Abdul Fatah Sabouni, who hit the ground running in Calgary, setting up a successful business, inspiring others in the process.

"He's known all over Calgary now. That is a beautiful success story," said Alatrash. "These people are resilient and they are growing roots here."

Yahya El-Lahib says Syrians want to be part of Canadian society. He says a lot of the focus on refugees is how much they take, rather than what they can give back. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"We have to continue to offer spaces for newcomers to learn and contribute because, believe me, there's not a man or woman who have come here who want to live on welfare," she said.

"They want to give, they want to produce," Alatrash added.

She believes resilience is a common trait among all immigrants and refugees, regardless of skin colour or origin. 

"It's a spirit that was once beaten that has learned to stand again," said Alatrash.

As Syrians continue to settle and stand again, with many finding success as they do so, they say they'd rather be celebrated for those successes, rather than pitied for their losses.

"The idea of resilience is inherently about celebration, the idea of overcoming adversity but also celebrating new choices and a new beginning," said Yahya El-Lahib, a researcher at the University of Calgary.

He's currently working on a refugee study identifying some of the challenges newcomers from war-torn countries face in arriving and settling here.  

El-Lahib says Syrians don't want to be seen as victims.

"Refugees are here to be part of Canadian society. They are actual and potential contributors to the Canadian mosaic, also to the Canadian economy and to the well being of Canada," said El-Lahib.

Rita Khanchat wants to open a catering company in Calgary employing other Syrian women. She came as a refugee to Calgary and says it’s not easy to leave everything behind and start a new life all over again. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Some Syrians are setting up successful businesses here and finding success in education, moving beyond settling to real success. 

Others aren't quite there yet but have big dreams.

"I still need more time to adapt more, to settle more," said Rita Khanchat, who worked as a broadcast engineer in Syria.

She arrived in Canada ten days before Christmas in 2016 after years of escaping conflict by moving from place to place to survive.

She graduated from college last September and started a job helping others at the Centre for Newcomers.

She wants to join other Syrians in Calgary and open her own business one day. 

"My dream now, my big dream now, is to create a business," said Khanchat, who wants to hire other Syrian women to help her start a catering company.

"In my second three years here I will work to achieve this goal, to find a business for these women," she said. 

The show wraps up with a gentle middle-eastern rendition of a familiar tune to everyone in the room: Oh Canada, played on the oud.

Khanchat says for some it can take time, but she's certain she will join those making their lives here a success, achieving her dreams and helping others do the same.

About the Author

Dan McGarvey

Journalist

Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist covering all kinds of stories from northeast Calgary for web, radio, TV and social media, using only an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: dan.mcgarvey@cbc.ca or tweet him @DanMcGarvey