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Safe now, life in Hamilton begins for Syrian refugee family

Bdour Naoum and Nancy Filo are accomplished and educated, but in war-torn Syria, violence cut their chances short. Four months after arriving in Hamilton, they talk about starting over.

Bdour Naoum and Nancy Filo talk about what it's like to start over in a new country

When their plane landed in Toronto, "everyone was clapping," said Nancy Filo, a Syrian refugee, at her new Concession Street apartment with her mom, Bdour Naoum. "We were waiting to be in a safe place. We felt freedom." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Naoum apartment on Concession Street is impeccably neat. The floors are freshly swept. The counters are free of clutter. 

Furnishings are sparse, but functional. There's a single couch along the wall and a couple of chairs for visitors. There's a dining room table with a chocolate cake – made from scratch – for visitors. As Catholics, they have a nativity scene sitting on the window sill. Beyond that, there's a glimpse of the sprawling Hamilton lower city below.

The most important thing for us is to learn the language.- Bdour Naoum

It's not much right now, but already, they're proud of it. Bdour Naoum and her two daughters, Nancy and Chantal Filo, arrived in Hamilton as Syrian refugees in August — four months ahead of an anticipated 25,000 who will resettle in Canada between now and February. Their lives to date offer a glimpse of what lies ahead for the hundreds who will come after them. 

In Syria, Naoum and her daughters were accomplished and educated, business owners and students with freshly earned degrees. The family owned a food distribution business and several properties, all of which were looted or stolen during the bloody civil war. As new Canadians, they have hopes and goals — of careers, of further education, of finding community.

Nancy Filo has a business degree. Bdour Naoum owned her own food distribution business. Now they're starting a new life in Canada. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

For Naoum's family, resettling is still a new challenge, still raw with learning curves. "The most important thing for us," Naoum said through an Arabic interpreter, "is to learn the language."

Here, her words in the language are frustratingly limited – hello, thank you, welcome. But she's taking English classes at the St. Charles Adult and Continuing Education Centre, and she's learning.

Filo, 25, knows some English too – "a little bit," she says — but yearns to start a career. She's taking English classes, and is on the waiting list at Mohawk College. Her goal: Canadian certification and building the business career here that she planned to have in Syria, but that the war cut short.

Another immediate goal: Filo wants to get a driver's license. The family is learning the bus system, she said, but when it comes to getting around Hamilton, it seems like they need a car.

Hoping to bring her son home

Another goal: to reunite the family. Naoum's son, Adel, is in Sweden as a refugee. But the family aches to bring him to Canada, and hopes a private sponsor will help.

They also want to make friends. They haven't yet, Naoum said, but Canadians are "very, very friendly."

Naoum was born in Syria 64 years ago, and until four years ago, lived a good life there. She married – her husband died 18 years ago – and had three children, Adel, Chantal and Nancy. In 2011, conflict emerged around her.

Rebel protests rose up against President Bashar al-Assad's government, which responded with violent crackdowns. The conflict deepened into a bloody civil war. As many as 310,000 people have died.

For a while, Naoum did her best to run her business as usual. But every day brought demonstrations and gunfire in the streets.

Crawling home amid a spray of bullets

Usually, she said, it took her 15 minutes to walk from home to work. But once the war broke out, "it took me three hours to reach my home." She crawled on her hands and knees to avoid the spray of bullets.

She packed what she could and travelled to Aleppo to stay with family, but there, too, was violent. They boarded a bus to Damascus, where the downtown was still safe. En route, they encountered more violence, and were stranded in a bus for two days.

Once they reached Damascus, apartments were in short supply and the rents astronomical. Back home, their business had been stolen and their home looted. So they fled to Lebanon and registered with the United Nations as refugees.

Officials told them more than a year ago that they'd be coming to Canada. They wanted to live in Ontario, Naoum said, because it was predominantly English speaking. They arrived in Toronto with just a few suitcases. As the plane landed, everyone on it applauded.

"We were waiting to be in a safe place," Filo said. "We felt freedom."

Naoum and her daughters first stayed at the Wesley Urban Ministries resettlement centre, where she became known for cooking delicious meals that she shared with fellow refugees. Wesley helped the family find a health cards, a doctor, a place to live, basic furniture and other amenities.

'We're really anxious to hear numbers'

Wesley Urban Ministries still isn't sure exactly how many refugees will resettle in Hamilton by the end of February. The early estimate is about 300 families.

"We're really anxious to hear numbers," said Daljit Garry, executive director.

The organization is getting some of the $3.7 million the province will distribute to help refugees resettle.

Wesley Urban Ministries will hold an information session for private sponsors on Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at 52 Catharine St. N.

The session will talk about education and school registration, housing, health, language classes, government applications and community support.

For more information, email info@wesley.ca or 905-528-5629 x245.


Wesley Urban Ministries — Private sponsor information session

When: Wednesday, Dec. 16, 5:30 p.m.

Where: 52 Catharine St. N.

What: A session to talk about school registration, housing, health, language classes and other services refugees will require.

More info: info@wesley.ca or 905-528-5629 x245

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC

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