Nova Scotia·Reporter's Notebook

She came to Canada as a refugee from Syria at 17. Now she's a high school graduate

CBC Nova Scotia reporter Carolyn Ray reflects on the changes a young Syrian refugee and her family have undergone in the years since they landed in Canada.

'I'm full of happiness, it's really, really amazing and so wonderful for me.'

Batoul Hadhad graduated from high school in Antigonish this week. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

I first met Batoul Hadhad minutes after she landed in Nova Scotia. It was just after Christmas 2015. 

She came down the airport escalator with her family, greeted by a dozen cheering people from her new home of Antigonish, N.S.

Her parents and older brother celebrated. Her younger siblings were too exhausted from the journey to really process what was happening. 

The Hadhad family were among the first wave of Syrian refugees to move to Nova Scotia. My assignment was to follow them for a year, and see how they adjusted. Batoul's older brother, Tareq, told me she was going to start high school. Batoul, who was 17, had just spent two years in a refugee camp. 

She was too scared to say hello with her limited English. I was nervous on her behalf of what was to come. It turns out, I had no reason to worry. 

Three and a half years later, I saw Batoul before another major event in her life — her high school graduation. 

"I'm full of happiness, it's really, really amazing and so wonderful for me," she said.

The Hadhad family has had a successful first few years in Canada, opening Peace by Chocolate and selling their product across the country. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Batoul toured me around Dr. John Gillis High School in Antigonish while sporting her bright blue graduation robe. 

We didn't need anyone to translate for us. She told me stories of her friends, her teachers, favourite classes. 

She loved music class, in part because it doesn't matter what language you speak when you're reading music. 

"I never dreamed to be in high school in Canada, especially in Antigonish. That was incredible for me."

While her family rose to fame with their company, Peace by Chocolate, Batoul focused on her homework. She told me she spent hours every night making sure she understood what was happening in class. 

She used Google Translate to communicate with her friends and teachers. 

Batoul Hadhad's name is now scrawled on the wall, white ink on a bright peach background to celebrate the class of 2019.  (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Her biggest challenge was Grade 11 biology. A nightmare, she said, because there was no translation for most of the words in that class. 

"Oh my god, that was so, so, so difficult for me," she says with a laugh. "I passed biology finally. I was so happy!"

While touring the school, we met Yvonne Quik, Batoul's English teacher for the last two years. 

"When I first met her she was nervous and that's totally understandable," she tells me. "She had a profound desire to learn, to expand herself, to integrate into the culture."

For Quik, after three decades in the classroom, working with Batoul has been a highlight. 

"It was a pleasure, an absolute pleasure, to see someone come in every day and thrive on having an education presented to her that she would not have had had she remained in Syria."

Batoul Hadhad's father owned a successful chocolate business in Damascus, Syria. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Quik is clearly emotional about her connection with Batoul. She needs a minute to think about what she wants to say. 

"You're glad for all students that they graduate because it's a milestone in their life that propels them to another part of their life. And I'm sure as I watch Batoul walk across that stage there'll also be a great pride," she said.

"I hate to see her go."

Batoul says she will always look back on her high school years with fondness. It made her feel like she belonged in Antigonish. 

Her name is now scrawled on the wall, white ink on a bright peach background to celebrate the class of 2019. 

She hopes other Syrian students — including her younger siblings — will see it as inspiration when they walk the same halls in the future. 

Batoul will spend the next year taking a few technical classes and working on her English. 

Then, she has her heart set on community college. Batoul dreams of getting a diploma in computer science. 

It occurs to me that while her family's business will continue to make international headlines, Batoul is focused on her own journey. 

She's independent and happy. 

And I'm looking forward to seeing her next chapter. 

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca