PEI·I Live Here Now

Meet Muhammed Babilli: When his son was wounded in war, he knew his family must run

He doesn't know many English words, but there's one phrase Muhammed Ali Babilli has down pat: "Thank you."

Babilli and his family are thankful to be living on P.E.I., and it shows

Muhammed Babilli chose to come to P.E.I. after fleeing the war in Syria. He is one of eight immigrants from around the world featured in the CBC P.E.I. series I Live Here Now. 3:43

CBC P.E.I. brings you eight stories of immigrants from around the world who have chosen to live on Prince Edward Island. Some have come to learn. Some to work. Others for safety. The series, I Live Here Now, reveals why people left their old lives, what they're doing now on P.E.I., and their dreams for the future.

He doesn't know many English words, but there's one phrase Muhammed Ali Babilli has down pat: "Thank you."

He says it a lot.

Thank you, P.E.I., for welcoming him. Thank you, Holland College, for teaching him. Thank you, newcomers association, for assisting him.

And thank you, Canada, just for being you.

"I love Canada," are three other words Babilli, a refugee from Syria, says frequently and fluently. He wears a maple leaf pin on his lapel, has a Canadian vanity plate on the front of his car and proudly displays two Canada flags on the dash.

The Babilli family, from left, Amal, 12, Altaf Badengki, Yusra, 9, Muhammed Muihdy, 14, Muhammed Ali, and Tim, 15 months. (Shane Ross/CBC)

'A better life'

When asked why he loves Canada, Babilli turns to his 14-year-old son, Muhammad Muihdy, whose English is more advanced, and speaks passionately in Arabic. When he is finished, Muhammad Muihdy nods and gives a short, simple translation.

"It's a better life for our family, for kids."

Muhammed Muihdy, a Grade 9 student at Queen Charlotte Intermediate in Charlottetown, does a lot of the English-speaking for the family while his mother, Altaf Badengki, and father continue to learn the language.

His sisters, 12-year-old Amal and nine-year-old Yusra, have also been quick to pick up English.

It will likely come even more naturally to Tim, their 15-month-old brother, the only sibling born on P.E.I. And the only one who won't know what life was like before Canada.

The family lived in the historic city of Aleppo, when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2012. 

From his bedroom window, young Muhammed Muidhy remembers hearing fighting and screaming on the streets outside. One time he saw a grieving mother with a dead child in her arms.

"She was crying so hard, I couldn't even hold it," he said. "So I cried so hard."

Muhammed Babilli's journey from Syria to P.E.I.


A mad dash for the border

The war tore apart many families, Babilli said. His cousin was killed by a gunshot, and his brother has been missing since 2013.

Babilli said when a bomb exploded beside his home and a piece of shrapnel struck Muhammed Muidhy in the head, it was time to get out of Syria for good.

The family fled to Bursa, Turkey, in 2015 with just the clothes on their backs, Babilli said. They walked and ran for hours through mountains and valleys to reach the Turkish border.

"My children were always crying because of the dangers," he said.

Amal, Muhammed Muihdy and Yusra in Aleppo, Syria. (Altaf Badengki)

'In P.E.I., the people smile at you'

Babilli said the family felt safer in Turkey, but not always welcome. He said they have not experienced any racism since arriving on P.E.I. on Dec. 5, 2017.

"In P.E.I., the people smile at you. They respect you as a person," Babilli said in Arabic, translated by Muhammed Muihdy. "A person in other countries, they won't. They will just tell you ... you should go back to your country, stuff like that."

When they first arrived on P.E.I., Babilli said his children would sometimes be sad when they thought about Syria and being so far away from their grandparents. They were anxious about going to a new school and meeting new friends.

But the tears have dried up and they are adjusting well to life on P.E.I.

Yusra Babilli is in Grade 2 at Spring Park Elementary School in Charlottetown. (Laura Meader/CBC)

An active family

Muhammed Muihdy loves to swim and play soccer. Amal and Yusra enjoy art, gymnastics and Disney movies. One of their favourites is The Lion King. Tim, not one to sit still for long, is an "energetic" baby, Babilli said. 

Badengki has learned to drive a car, though Muhammed Muihdy jokes that he wasn't always comfortable in the passenger seat.

Babilli, who worked as a chef and bodybuilding coach in Syria, said he developed a love of cooking from his mother and would like to someday on P.E.I. open his own restaurant specializing in Arabic cuisine.

He often talks about wanting to be part of the community and help others. He likes to invite people over for a meal, and is quick to help shovel or push a stuck vehicle out of a snowbank.

It's all just another way to express his favourite phrase — thank you.

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      About the Author

      Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.

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