London

From bully to best friend: how an Ontario program helped a Syrian refugee figure out his new home

The Journey Home Program is aimed at helping settle immigrants and newcomers who have had difficulty with acclimatizing to Western societal values.

Program coordinators have called the Journey Home Project a great success for Arabic-speaking refugees

Amjad Alsberani, 13, left, and his father Hilal Alsberani, 39, right, are from Daraa, Syria. They are graduates of the Journey Home Program in London Ont,. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Amjad Alsberani spent a lot of time in the principal's office when he arrived in Canada from war-torn Syria more than a year ago.

The 13-year-old was the new kid, a refugee who was earning a reputation as a school yard fighter at his London, Ont. school.

"We would fight on the bus and hit each other," said Alsberani, recalling his reaction when a group of students laughed and pointed at him, spewing words he didn't understand. 

"Back home, if someone made fun of you, you just hit them and then we both get over it."

Like so many refugee youth, Alsberani was trying to learn English and etiquette in this new country alongside his displaced and disoriented family. 

His father Hilal Alsberani could see trouble brewing for his son and other children. He knew they had to learn how to express themselves in a more socially acceptable manner.

"There were a lot of Western values that we weren't aware of here," said the 39-year-old Alsberani, 

Sahat Atalla is the program coordinator of the Journey Home Program at the Muslim Resource Centre in London, Ont,. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Journey Home Project

The Alsberani family turned to London's Journey Home Project. It may be the only evidence-based program in Ontario that's taught in Arabic to help settle immigrants who have challenges acclimatizing. 

The 14-week program focuses on practical activities that teach both parents and children about: 

  • Communication skills
  • Healthy relationships
  • Goal-setting
  • Problem solving
  • Anger management.

"The program is not asking families to lose their values or identity, but tells them that there is a way in the middle where they can get benefits from both cultures," said Journey Home Project coordinator Sahar Atalla said.

This month, about 50 people from nine families graduated from the program taught at the Boys and Girls Club – and run by the Muslim Resource Centre in collaboration with the London Muslim Mosque and the city's Cross Cultural Learner Centre.

(Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Participant stories

Young Alsberani was one of the recent Journey Home project graduates. He explains he now has a career goal of becoming a doctor, thanks in part to improved relationships with teachers and peers. 

"Now, I would talk to my teachers or talk to the bully in an appropriate way," he said.

He is now best friends with the same bus bully who once laughed at him.

His father, also a program graduate, said he now understands that every member of his family plays an active role in the household. 

"Back home, we look at our kids like they are our babies even when they have babies of their own," he said. "Here, that's different, after a certain age, they're more independent."

Alsberani said he was used to a more nuclear home where he was a breadwinner and his wife a caregiver, but now the focus is on equality. 

Atika Hamied, 48, is from Omdurman, Sudan - now has a stronger relationship with her children because of the Journey Home Program. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Journey from Sudan 

Not everyone involved in the Journey Home Project is from Syria but most everyone has seen conflict.

Atika Hamied fled from Omdurman, Sudan to the safety of London with her three children a year ago – when her husband was taken captive by the Sudanese government.

"I had to go for our safety," said Hamied, who hasn't heard from her husband since. 

"I always saw my problems as the biggest problems in the world but when I heard what other people were going through, and then it eases the pain," said Hamied, 

The 48-year-old former bank teller said the program also opened her eyes to the importance of building a friendship with her children, rather than just acting as a parent. 

"I know how to prioritize my time with my kids, how to spend more time with them, how to listen to them." said adds.

Expansion plans

The Journey Home Project is a five-year federally funded pilot project entering its third year.

The London organizers are currently looking a working with Yazidi refugees in separate workshops.

To ensure a successful aftermath, program coordinators will meet families six months after their graduation to check in and maintain progress. 

About the Author

Hala Ghonaim

Reporter/Editor

Hala Ghonaim is a London, Ont.-based radio and digital reporter. You can reach her at hala.ghonaim@cbc.ca.