Syrian refugees combat fear of water in Edmonton-area lake
'We wanted to tackle this perception of water. Water could be safe, water is fun, water is enjoyable'
The number of refugees that have been lost to the sea in recent years is staggering.
According to figures released by the UN Refugee Agency, the current count for the dead and missing in the Mediterranean sits at 2,951 for 2016.
In one week alone in late May at least 880 people drowned.
For many refugees here in Canada that, unsurprisingly, has translated into a fear of water. The fear is particularly prevalent among younger refugees, says Ghada Ageel, a refugee support manager with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association.
Water has become a symbol for loss of life, a symbol for death.- Ghada Ageel
"Those kids have been glued to TV screens watching the horror of the war. Watching people trying to flee for their safety, for their life, and getting into boats and unfortunately, many of those people, thousands, did not make it and drowned," said Ageel.
"Water has become a symbol for loss of life, a symbol for death."
'Important to take that step'
To combat that fear the association partnered with the St. Albert Canoe and Kayak Club to put on a rather unorthodox event.
"We wanted to tackle this perception of water. Water could be safe, water is fun, water is enjoyable, water is beautiful and life is beautiful," Ageel said.
On Saturday about 30 families, including 50 children who fled the Syrian war, were bussed into Kirk Lake in St. Albert to take to the water with the support of some experts.
Fifteen refugee adults also took part. One of them, Basmeah Anbitaar, said she wanted to show her children that it is possible to overcome their fears.
"It was important to take that step, so the kids see us facing that fear so that they will return the confidence."
It was important to take that step, so the kids see us facing that fear so that they will return the confidence.- Basmeah Anbitaar
Zakaria Mahmoudi, the head coach at the St. Albert Canoe and Kayak Club, spearheaded the event. Members of his club helped suit people up in life jackets and learn how to safely use a variety of boats, paddling and enjoying the water.
How did the refugees take to the sport? Well, according to Mahmoudi they were naturals.
"We were preparing for people to get so scared they would probably cry, they're probably going to tip but it was totally the opposite," said Mahmoudi. "They were so excited to be on the boats, they paddled so fast."
"It was wonderful, I was so happy to see it."
Canadians should be proud
Almost all the children and adults who attended the event where able to take to the water in one way or another, but for some, it was just too much and they had to stay away from the lake.
"Despite all the assurances and despite the fact that this isn't an ocean, it is a small lake, they still could not bridge the fear barrier, it is still there," said Ageel. "I did not want to push them too hard."
Ageel said one mother came to her and said she had just saved her kids from a war, she's not going to lose her child by bringing her to a lake.
Despite that, looking around her at the kids in the kayaks and hearing the laughter, Ageel smiles and says that the event, overall, was a success.
"Look at the kids smiling faces," she said. "I'm really happy, it's really great."
She said the event represents what the country is doing on a larger scale to help refugees.
"We as a Canadian community at large should be very proud for what we're doing. This speaks a lot about us for Canadians and a lot about humanity."
With files from Emily Fitzpatrick