Syrian family settles into Yukon life with big welcome from locals

Family members say they're eager to learn English and get on with schooling and careers.

Aarafat family members say they're eager to learn English and get on with their new lives

Hussein Aarafat, far left, with Raquel De Queiroz, translator Yasser Mattrwed, rear, and Hassan Aarafat, far right, at Swan Haven on Marsh Lake. (Dave Croft/CBC)

Members of a Syrian family and the group that sponsored their relocation to Whitehorse say they're settling in well, thanks to a big welcome from the community.

"It's with the support of the community that we made this happen and it's with the support of this incredible community that everything is going smoothly," said Raquel De Queiroz, founder of the sponsor group, Yukon Cares.

"They're the ones that welcomed the family and made them feel at home, made them feel safe here and that's the most important thing."

De Queiroz's comments were echoed by the father of the family, Hussein Aarafat, who arrived in Yukon in late January with his wife Fatima and their nine children. Speaking through translator Mohammed Jwaied, Hussein said he feels very comfortable about bringing his family to Yukon.

'He's very happy to be here'

"His main concern was actually to bring his family to a safer place and get them to resume their education," said Jwaied.

"This is the most important thing, and at the end of the day they're living a much better life, out of war, out of shelters, out of bombing and all these things, so he's very happy to be here."

Volunteers have been helping the family by showing them different aspects of life in the territory.

On Sunday, they were taken to the Swan Haven Interpretive Centre at Marsh Lake. It's one of the stops for thousands of swans during their annual migration.

One part of Yukon life they've noticed is the cold. It's taking a while for family members to become accustomed to it, but they will become used to it, Aarafat said.

For now, they're also sticking to foods and dishes they're familiar with.

Aarafat said his children will be encountering cultural differences they're also not familiar with. Aarafat notes Canada is a multicultural country. 

"Definitely nobody is going to enforce ideas on his children. He's confident that the way he's raising them, it's eventually their choice, but he's confident that they're going to choose the right thing," Jwaied said.

Mastering English is the focus for now

The sponsors did extensive research on helping the family ease into Canadian life, De Queiroz said.

Raquel De Queiroz, far left, with three of the Aarafat sisters, says the younger kids should find it relatively easy to pick up English. (Dave Croft/CBC)
"Everybody keeps saying, 'focus on the English right now'. This is their chance to really master the language and to learn, so that is what we are trying to do. Not so much worried about them starting their careers right away, but really focusing on the English," she said.

22-year-old Hassan Aarafat is making it a priority, he said through translator Yasser Mattrwed. He's eager to resume his education and eventually become a pharmacist.

'Life is very organized in Canada'

Hassan believes he is suited to Canadian life.

"Life is very organized in Canada and he likes the rules and how people follow the rules, just the system in general," Mattrwed said.

Young people like Hassan often have many friends and acquaintances. That's not possible for him right now, but he's not bored, the translator said.

"People who organized the sponsorship for him, they do all the effort to help them go see Whitehorse, do many activities, like today they bring them here [to Swan Haven], and so far every weekend they have something going on. So it's good so far, they help them a lot."

Yukon Cares is working on bringing a second Syrian family to Whitehorse. It's also hoping to sponsor Fatima Aarafat's brother.