A 'second home' in Yellowknife: Syrian refugee family shares story for the first time

Mustafa Alhajy, his wife and four children were the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Yellowknife just over a month ago. For the first time, they sat down with CBC News and shared their story this week.

'It was a disaster,' says Mustafa Alhajy, recalling the details of his life inside Syria's war

The Alhajy family arrived in Yellowknife in October. (From left to right) Mustafa Alhajy, Zeina Alhajjy, Fida Alhajy, Khaled Alhajy, Muhammad Alhajy, Diya Alhajy (Marc Winkler/CBC)

Mustafa Alhajy said it was a "bad day" when he decided to drop by his sister's home back in 2011.

Syria was at war, being torn apart; and so were her people.

"There were rockets that came and actually hit [my] brother-in-law and killed him," said Mustafa in Arabic.

Mustafa, his wife, and four children were the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Yellowknife just over a month ago. For the first time this week, they sat down with CBC News and shared their story.

"And [my] nephew was in pieces on the walls," he said through a translator.

Mustafa said he had to "pick up his flesh from the walls."

"It was a disaster," he said.

[My] nephew was in pieces on the walls.- Mustafa Alhajy, Syrian refugee in Yellowknife

Mustafa took his family and fled his village near Al Zawiya mountain, located between Aleppo and Damascus. They arrived in Lebanon, where they would spend the next five years in a refugee camp, with no possessions or even photos from their war-stricken home.

Then one day, Mustafa said he got a call from the United Nations office in Lebanon.

"At first [I] thought it was a prank," said Mustafa, who recalled the UN officer telling him to come by on a Sunday, when he thought the office was closed.

He went and found out his family was to be sponsored by a group of five in a place called Yellowknife in Canada. He said yes right away.

"[I] just wanted to leave."

Tears from the airplane

Zeina, Mustafa's wife, said she cried tears of joy as she got off the plane in October, greeted by a group of Canadians in a city that would soon become like a "second home" for them.

[I] have this warm feeling.- Zeina Alhajjy, Syrian refugee in Yellowknife

"When [I] came home here, to the apartment… [I] was happy," she said through a translator.

"There was a good feeling... For the first time to come to a country, [I] have this warm feeling. Everything's ready for [us]."

"I thank you a lot, a lot," said Zeina in Arabic.

'They're living in between their own people'

Since the family arrived, members of the community have contributed to helping the family integrate.

Some take the Alhajy children to play soccer, while others take Zeina on group grocery trips.

"They're natural soccer players," said Nazim Awan, one of the family's sponsors, who takes the children to play in the local minor soccer league every week. Fees were waived for the children.

Diya Alhajy at his soccer game in the Aurora Minor Soccer League. (submitted by Nazim Awan)

Local businesses have given the family some gift certificates, and a local dentist even fixed their daughter's broken teeth.

"She was shy before. She used to put her hand on her mouth," said Rami Kassem, one of many volunteer translators for the family. "You can see her smile better."

"Everywhere they go in Yellowknife, people welcome them. They did not feel like they are living in the middle of nowhere. They feel like they're living in between their own people," said Kassem.

Fadil Memedi, Mustafa Alhajy and Rami Kassem at work at a local Yellowknife cafe, Javaroma. (submitted by Rami Kassem)

Kassem, a co-owner of Javaroma, offered Mustafa a job — he now works part-time in the kitchen.

"Hamdulillah," said Mustafa, meaning "thank God," in Arabic.

A future in Canada

"Before the war, life was good, and peace[ful], and no problems," said Mustafa, who said he used to work in construction. But "the storm came," he said.

Today, Mustafa said that he sees no future for his family in Syria.

"I'm looking for a future in Canada," said Mustafa.

When asked what makes them happy, each of the Alhajy children had the same answer: "My school."

Zeina and Mustafa are attending English class every Monday and Tuesday. With a laugh, Mustafa said he wished it was every day.
The Alhajy family shopping for winter clothes at Yellowknife's Weaver and Devore.

"They are unable to communicate now," said Awan. "But they understand the language of love."

The sponsor group said they are working diligently to integrate the family, and are hosting a meet-and-greet Saturday evening at Northern United Place in Yellowknife.

"We want long term success," said Awan.

​Although the Alhajys found what they call a "second home" in Yellowknife, they still yearn for their family members, who are still in Lebanon and Syria. Mustafa said he keeps in touch with his sisters through WhatsApp, a messenger app, and said they are waiting in Lebanon.

He said he hopes that they, too, can find sponsors in Canada.