Syrian refugee family offers 'refuge' to Yellowknife couple fighting cancer

A Yellowknife man in Edmonton for cancer treatment and his wife have found an unexpected source of comfort — a large family of Syrian refugees.

Lack of common language or culture no barrier to friendship formed at hotel

Andre Dorais of Yellowknife and four members of the Syrian refugee family he and his wife met while staying at an Edmonton hotel. The family had the Canadian couple over for lunch, serving up a Syrian take on traditional western fare — spaghetti, french fries and spinach. (Submitted)

A Yellowknife man in Edmonton for cancer treatment and his wife have found an unexpected source of comfort — a large family of Syrian refugees.

Andre Dorais was diagnosed last year with cancer, though he declined to say the form of the disease he's battling. He and his wife, Carole Mills, have been staying at a hotel near the hospital where he's getting stem cell therapy.

The hotel is also the first stop for hundreds of Syrian refugees in Edmonton as part of the federal government resettlement plans.

Mills said she and her husband would often see a family of nine in the hotel dining area where they would eat with the newly arrived Syrians. She said it was the youngest child in the family — a two-year-old girl — who broke through the language and cultural barriers to initiate a friendship, starting with Dorais.

It was a two-year-old girl — the youngest of seven children in the Syrian family — who broke the ice to begin a friendship between her family of nine and Yellowknifers Andre Dorais and Carole Mills. (Submitted)

"They would always be smiling at each other at breakfast and lunch, and one day this little girl just ran back and just gave him a big hug and kiss, and that was the beginning of the relationship," said Mills.

"It was just so beautiful. It brought tears to Andre's eyes. She's just so beautiful and full of love. She looks at pictures of Andre on my phone all the time and kisses it."

Members of the refugee family are concerned about reprisals against relatives in Syria, so CBC has agreed not to identify them by name.

The relationship could have ended at the hotel as the Syrian family was being moved into a townhouse.

Instead — using charades, an Arabic-English dictionary to point to words and a translation phone app — Mills and Dorais explained to them why they had come to Edmonton from Yellowknife.

Refugee family offers refuge

"When they realized Andre would be in the hospital all of March, they immediately wanted me to come live with them in their house," Mills said.

"They were going to kick their oldest son out of his room. They were going to look after me. It was amazing, this refugee family offering me refuge."

Carole Mills and Andre Dorais introduced their adopted Syrian family to a staple of Canadian culture — tobogganing. (Submitted)

Mills declined the generous offer, but the friendship kept growing. 

The couple got a car seat for their vehicle for the two-year-old so they could give the family lifts to classes to orient them to life in Canada. They've also been to playgrounds, tobogganing and swimming (Mills took the girls and mom to a women-only swim hour). Because of the size of the family, many of their trips have to be done in two shuttles.

The family invited Mills and Dorais over for lunch. They all got a few laughs out of how the translation app interpreted the invitation — "You're very welcome to my home. Please have a mojito."

Aware that Mills is a vegetarian, the family prepared a kind of Syrian interpretation of western vegetarian food — spaghetti, french fries and spinach.

Not that kind of island

The language barrier has also caused other confusion. The family has seen photos on Mills's phone of the couple's wedding on a Jamaican beach. Somehow, that got mixed up with Mills's explanation that they live in the Latham Island area of Yellowknife. It took some time to explain that the island in Yellowknife is quite a different place from the tropical Jamaican beach.

One day, the couple explained about using road salt to melt ice and snow on the driveway.

"When we left, the kids were throwing it all over the backyard."

All the children are now in school and picking up English quickly. The 15-year-old boy has found a part-time job working in a restaurant. 

The relationship has been as much a benefit for Mills and Dorais as it has been for the refugee family.

"It's brought a really positive aspect to this whole adventure we're on," said Carole. "We're in Edmonton, so we don't have a lot of family with us. They've kind of filled a spot for us. Who'd have thought we'd have to buy a car seat at our age?

"It helps us get through our days. It helps us think of something other than ourselves and our situation."

The couple will be in Edmonton for at least another month. After that, they will return regularly for Dorais's followup treatment. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?