Refugee kids learn to ski — with a little help from gummy worms

Young Syrian refugees are learning to cross-country ski, and embrace outdoor life in their new home.

'It's all about having fun,' children's coach says

Saad and Zahra clip on their skis before heading out into the forest with their coach at Nakkertok ski club in Val-des-Monts, Que. (Christine Maki/CBC)

On a frigid winter morning in the Gatineau Hills, two children layered in snow pants, parkas and wooly scarves step into matching pairs of red and white skis. 

"It's fun," smiles eight-year-old Zahra, despite the bone-chilling temperature. 

Zahra and her brother Saad, 12, arrived in Canada at the beginning of 2016. Their family came as refugees from Syria.

They hadn't seen snow before arriving here. Now they're learning to glide through it on cross-country skis.

"We managed to find some skis and some gear for them, and here we are," said Parham Momtaham, one of their coaches. 

A friend of his sponsored Zahra and Saad's family to come to Canada, and mentioned that the kids were interested in learning to ski.

Four coaches at Nakkertok Val-des-Monts will take turns teaching the nine-week course to four Syrian children, including Zahra and Saad. The ski club has waived the usual $90 membership fee for the children.

Parham Momtaham, who is originally from Iran, is one of four coaches teaching Syrian refugee children how to cross-country ski. (Christine Maki/CBC)

Momtaham is uniquely qualified to teach the new Canadians, since he was one himself. He immigrated from Iran when he was in his early 20s, he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. 

"One of my friends dragged me out on skis," Momtaham laughed, recalling one of his early outings. "I fell 55 times."

Treats motivate young skiers

But he enjoyed it enough to keep practising, and now competes in the 160-kilometre Canadian Ski Marathon.

Figuring out how to keep the youngsters motivated was a trick at first, Momtaham said. That's where the gummy worms come in.

To coax the kids up a long incline, Momtaham will stand at the top and dangle the chewy treats until his students make it. 

"It's all about having fun — hot chocolate and gummy worms," he said. "All the technique ... will come later."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning