Nova Scotia

Cape Breton's first Syrian refugee family settling into Marion Bridge

It's been about a month since the six members of the Aabo family landed at the Sydney airport to begin a new life in Canada. Now settled in Marion Bridge, Cape Breton, they've had time to reflect on how their lives have changed.

Family of six fled conflict in Syria last year

The Aabo family of Marion Bridge, from left: Iman, 7, Rahaf, 3, Khaled, 5, and Saeed, 1, with their parents Mahmoud and Halima Aabo.

It's been about a month since the six members of the Aabo family landed at the Sydney airport to begin a new life in Canada.

Mahmoud and Halima Aabo, 33 and 25 respectively, fled their home in conflict-torn Syria last year with their four young children.

Now settled in with the Read family of Marion Bridge, Cape Breton, they reflected with Steve Sutherland of CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning about how their lives have changed.

Father said 'Go'

Speaking through interpreter Afra Kavanagh, the couple talked about the dangers of living in Syria, their happiness at being safely in Canada and their heartbreak of having left their struggling parents behind.

As the bombing in Syria intensified in the five-year civil war, now exacerbated by the presence of Islamic State fighters, Mahmoud said his father advised him to take his family and go.

"He said they had two to three cars that were crushed," translated Kavanagh. "There was constant bombing so he (Mahmoud's father) said 'Go to Beirut where you can escape and perhaps go somewhere else after that.'"

Halima said the flight from Syria was frightening and dangerous, walking by night and hiding by day to reach a truck to carry them the rest of the way.

Lasting effects

"The aftermath has been terrible," she said through Kavanagh. "The kids don't sleep well. They all sleep in the same bed, practically, because they want to stay close to their mom."

Once in Lebanon, Mahmoud found work and received help from the United Nations. That's when the family was offered the opportunity to immigrate to Canada.

"They got on a list to wait and they had to go through all kinds of steps," said Kavanagh, "and they met with the consul from Canada or his staff and prepared their papers."

Then they waited some more. The word came earlier this year that they had been matched with sponsors through Lifeline Syria Cape Breton and would be heading to Canada.

Lots of differences

There was snow on the ground when they arrived, and Halima said the difference in climate between Cape Breton and the Middle East has been the starkest contrast for her, whereas Mahmoud is itching to get his Nova Scotia drivers licence.

"They've prepared a car for him in the community," said Kavanagh, "but he can't drive it until he has a license, so he's saying if he had his license, he'd like it a whole lot better."

All six of the Aabos have begun to learn English, with the children picking it up quickly. Seven-year-old Iman has already been placed in school and is doing well. The other children are five, three and one.

The couple said through Kavanagh it hurts that they had to leave their parents and siblings behind, even though they each left with their blessing. They've found it difficult to adjust to the distance between Cape Breton and Syria.

Kavanagh explained that, "they found it a little hard initially and emotionally. (Mahmoud) said it's so expensive to call Syria and to talk to the family, especially on a cell phone, but they're acclimatizing all right and of course, they want to stay in touch."

A place of their own

The family is looking forward to moving into their own home at the end of the month. The community has come together to get it ready for them.

Kavanagh said the Aabos were surprised at how many Canadians own their own homes, rather than live in an apartment, as is much more common in other parts of the world.

"They're looking forward to the house that they're moving to because it's got space around it and a yard and so on," said Kavanagh. "Ultimately, what excites them about here is that they will have their own place."

Steve Sutherland, Information Morning Cape Breton


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