Nfld. & Labrador

On an Avalon farm, New Canadians lay new roots from old life

It took travelling halfway across the world for two Syrian men to sow the seeds of a future life.

The pair have 50 years of farming experience between them

Emaad Alktifan, left, and Nezar Khalif are happy to get their hands dirty on Murray Meadows Farm. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

It took travelling halfway across the world for two Syrian men to sow the seeds of their future life. 

Nazar Khalif and Emaad Alktifan, recent hires at Murray Meadows Farm in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, have 50 years of farming experience between them.

"The farm has meaning for me and for my family," Khalif, who has eight children, told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.    

"If my family has a house and land to keep them busy all year, that can put their root deeply in the ground. This is my dream, to build a good future for my children."

Khalif has been in Canada for three years, Alkitan for two and a half. The men met as refugees after escaping war-torn Syria, bouncing through Lebanon and finally settling in Newfoundland and Labrador with the help of the United Nations. 

Khalif worked on his family farm in Syria, and eventually took over as owner later in life. His experience lies in dairy and vegetable farming, much like many other families who he says all owned farms as a necessity to get by.

From left, Sarah Thompson, Brian Kowalski, Khalif and Alktifan have been brought together through a program managed by Thompson to help new Canadians find jobs. Kowalski is the co-owner of the farm. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

"They don't have support from the government [like] Canada. They have to make a job for their family, for their children," he said. 

"That's the difference between here and Syria."

There are other differences, too, of course; both men laugh about not believing in a summer, or peak farming season, in Newfoundland.  

Finding a place     

Getting to Newfoundland was one thing, but finding work in a field similar to their background was difficult.

"Farming isn't a job to them. They're actually being able to do what their life was in Syria. It's different [for them], but they're taking so much pride in being able to do this," said Sarah Thompson, project manager for the Association for New Canadians, who helped the two men get back to work. 

"It's heartwarming for me."    

Khalif hopes to own his own farm again, but for now he's happy with his new job and providing a future for his family. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

Thompson manages the Bridging the Divide program, teaching new Canadians the skills to find employment in Canada.

She had noticed many of her students had long-standing farming backgrounds, and in 2018 began travelling through the province to see if farm owners could use some extra help.

"There was an opportunity, I thought, to start something and explore whether or not these people with these skills could potentially be part of a solution here in the province," she said.

The project is working with 13 new Canadians to find each of them work on a farm in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some, such as Khalif and Alktitan, have found work already.

Each person differs from the next, and all bring varying levels of farming backgrounds and experiences with them, hailing from countries such as, in addition to Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Eritrea and Bhutan.

Meeting the boss

Brian Kowalski owns and operates Murray Meadows with his partner, after moving to Newfoundland seven years ago and laying his roots in farming. 

Kowalski is self-taught, opting to work for himself and operate a farm rather than chase a 9-to-5 job. 

Alktifan was unsure about farming in Newfoundland after living in the province through the winter. Now, he's happy to be digging in as the weather begins to warm. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

He had been in contact with Thompson while having a full staff at the time, but when some room opened up on his farm he knew whom he wanted to fill the void. 

"So, Emaad and Nezar came and we had a discussion, and yeah they're taking over the farm now and they're doing an amazing job," he said. 

"They're just so happy to get their hands dirty. We had Nezar on the tractor, we had a little section that we needed to plow. I think that was the first time he had been on a tractor in eight years — big smile on his face." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show