New Brunswick

Syrian woman builds better life through unlikely friendship with Saint John retiree and his wife

Asrar Aldekas arrived in Saint John from Syria in 2019 with no job, no family or friends and no ability to speak English. Through her friendship with Kevin and Tina Jane Standing, she's learned carpentry and English, and they've been introduced to vegetable gardening and Syrian food.

From learning carpentry to gardening, both sides say lives have been enriched

Asrar Aldekas, who is originally from Syria, arrived in Saint John in 2019. She has since discovered a talent for carpentry and learned English with the help of new friends. (Julia Wright/CBC)

If all of your friends look like you, talk like you and are the same age as you, you can have a 
good life.

But you're missing out on experiences and perspective that could make your world much richer.

Just ask Asrar Aldekas and Kevin Standing.

On the surface, the two Saint John residents may not seem like two people destined to be best friends.

Standing, 57, is a born-and-raised New Brunswicker who recently retired due to medical reasons.

Aldekas, 29, fled Syria several years ago during the country's civil war, arriving first in Lebanon, then in London, Ont. She eventually landed in Saint John in 2019.

Arriving on the East Coast with no English, no family and no friends was 'very difficult,' says Aldekas. But she's found a sense of safety with Kevin Standing, left, along with his wife, Tina Jane. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Life in a war zone took its toll. "After war, very dangerous. Shelling, not safe. Always worry, many people die. Not safe. Very difficult," she said.

It wasn't much easier when she arrived on Canada's East Coast with no job, no friends — and no English or French.

She had left her younger brother, Bakir, behind in Lebanon.

"I don't have family here. This is very difficult for me," she said. 

'Hire me. I need a job.'

Above anything else, Aldekas wanted to work. About a year ago, she walked into Jaco's, a pizza restaurant in north-end Saint John, where Standing and his friends hold an informal coffee club.

"She did not know any English, and she walked in and said, 'Hire me. I need a job,'" Standing recalled.

Aldekas and Standing met by chance when Aldekas walked into Jaco's restaurant in Saint John looking for a job. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Fortunately, restaurant owner Jaco Khoury spoke Arabic. After Aldekas explained her situation, Khoury asked the group if she could sit down with them, to help her learn English.

Inviting a total stranger into their men's coffee club was "not a normal thing at all" for Standing and his friends. But he said he admired the "drive" he saw in Aldekas.

"I saw somebody who has a plan to do something. The plan is to make a life for herself, and bring her brother here," Standing said. "She endeared herself to us."

Giving her the tools

From conversations at the pizza shop, their friendship moved to Standing's home a few blocks away.

Standing, who is on dialysis for kidney disease, needed help with certain tasks. He and his wife, Tina Jane, saw that Aldekas took an immediate interest in their odd jobs and building projects around the house.

Aldekas had done some carpentry and was interested in learning more, but power tools were a barrier for her. She had never used them before.

Standing, a hobby carpenter with an extensive collection of tools, decided to teach her.

"I said, 'Watch what I do. I'm going to give you safety glasses, I'm going to give you gloves — and all of the tools necessary to build things.'"

In Syria, carpentry is a man's job, Aldekas said. "Woman — job for her teacher, job for doctor, her cook for children. Also engineer. Anything. But no carpenter."

Standing says he connected with Aldekas because she's 'someone who is willing to challenge expected norms' and wants do something better for herself. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The learning turned out to be a two-way street.

As Aldekas learned carpentry, she introduced Kevin and Tina Jane to Syrian food and shared with them her passion for vegetable gardening. When she got a community garden plot, she "dragged me into that, too," Standing joked.

As the pair worked together over several months, Aldekas gained more confidence with the tools. She enjoys the precision the work requires.

"You must get everything correct, for no mistake," she said. "I work by myself. I learn."

Finding freedom

So far, Aldekas has helped to build a dog kennel, small woodworking projects and planters for the community garden.

Their latest project is building and selling window boxes out of reclaimed cedar, with all of the proceeds going toward a fund to bring Aldekas's brother safely to Canada.

A fundraiser is also planned next month at Saint John's Harbour Church, where the Standings are part of the congregation.

Some of the garden boxes built by Aldekas and Standing. They are selling them to raise money to help bring Aldekas's brother, Bakir, to Canada. (Tina Jane Standing)

"I was a Muslim but am now Christian," Aldekas said. "This is my decision. Because I am here free in Canada, I can do what I need. I can choose what I need."

In Syria, she said, she wouldn't have been able to change her religion.

"Canadian help me so much — make me feeling safe," she said.

Next goal: Home Depot

Apart from bringing her brother to New Brunswick, Aldekas said she has two other big dreams.

The first, she said, is to stay in Saint John. "Because I like Saint John. People here very nice, kind."

Her second goal is to find a job that will help her advance her carpentry skills. "Hopefully I have job at Home Depot," she said.

WATCH | Syrian refugees reflect on war, new lives in Canada:

Syrian refugees reflect on a decade of war and their new lives in the GTA

Toronto

4 months ago
3:41
This week marks 10 years since the conflict in Syria began. Approximately 75,000 Syrian refugees have since settled in Canada, and many of those people found a home in Toronto. Natalie Kalata has some of their stories. 3:41

Whatever the future holds for Aldekas, Standing said she'll always have "a special place" in his heart.

"I see someone who is willing to challenge expected norms, from where she came from, and do something better for herself. I like somebody like that," he said.

He calls learning from one another an "experience."

"Sometimes you have to get out of your safety zone and try something new — and you will be rewarded."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is a born-and-raised Saint Johner, reporter, photographer, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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