PEI

'Most exciting Christmas gift': Syrian refugee reflects on journey of becoming Canadian

Suzan Ahmar Dakneh held her new Canadian passport in her hand, saying it's "like a dream came true." She came to P.E.I. with her husband and two children as Syrian refugees five years ago.

'It wasn't easy. But then we took that decision. And we moved,' says Suzan Ahmar Dakneh

Suzan Ahmar Dakneh came to P.E.I. in 2016 with her husband and two children as Syrian refugees. This fall, the family got their Canadian citizenship. (Thinh Nguyen)

Suzan Ahmar Dakneh held her new Canadian passport in her hand. 

"It's like getting the most exciting Christmas gift we've ever dreamt of getting. I can't even express my feeling. It's like a dream came true," she said.

In 2016, she came to P.E.I. with her husband and two children as Syrian refugees. But in the back of her mind, she cannot forget the days leading up to her decision of leaving Syria.

At the time, she wasn't sure if her family should leave home. There were many fond memories there, and leaving meant packing up her family to go to a faraway land, which she knew nothing about — except that it is cold.

The passport is like a window that opens our souls to the new world, to discover new places and to continue learning in our life journey.— Suzan Ahmar Dakneh

Then, there were nights she woke up to the sound of bombs going off, or children in the neighbourhood crying and screaming. At one point, her husband's factory was bombarded.

Above all, she feared for her kids.

So she decided to leave.

"It was one of the hardest decisions we ever had to take," she said. "Moving to a better place, a place where your kids can live a better life, where they can be like any normal kids in the world, being able to go to school and come back safe.

"It wasn't easy. But then we took that decision. And we moved."

'It wasn't easy to understand the Island accent'

Ahmar Dakneh and her family arrived in Toronto Pearson Airport on Oct. 26, 2016. Her uncle lives in Canada and privately sponsored her family.

Ahmar Dakneh's two children at the Toronto Pearson International Airport when they arrived in Canada from Syria on Oct. 26, 2016. (Submitted by Suzan Ahmar Dakneh)

She was happy and relieved that they finally arrived in a country where her kids can be safe, Ahmar Dakneh said.

"A place that keeps them safe and allows them to live their childhood as any normal child in the world, away from violence, scary noises, insecurity."

Little did she know that their path ahead on P.E.I. was not easy.

When Ahmar Dakneh first came to P.E.I., she didn't expect language to be a barrier for her. Back home, she had a bachelor's degree in English literature, a master's in business administration and more than 14 years of experience working for the European Commission in Syria.

I help my clients with passion and love knowing in mind that I was one day a desperate newcomer in need of help.— Suzan Ahmar Dakneh

But the moment she talked to Islanders, she struggled.

"It wasn't easy to understand the Island accent, or to make them understand our accent. It was sometimes embarrassing to ask people to repeat their words again, or even fake a smile when they tell a joke because you know it's a joke, but you don't understand it," she said.

It was even tougher for her husband and children because they didn't know any English back then.

'They are doing great now'

Once they arrived, her husband had to look for work immediately as they were privately-sponsored refugees, as opposed to government-sponsored ones who receive financial assistance from the federal government.

He found a full-time job at a construction company. It paid minimum wage, but it was a good stable job, Ahmar Dakneh said. He went to work every day and learned English on the job. 

Ahmar Dakneh with her daughter, left, when she finished daycare in August 2020. (Submitted by Suzan Ahmar Dakneh)

At school, her kids struggled with simple things like asking for permission to use the washroom or asking their teacher to call her.

"They struggled a lot at the beginning. But they are doing great now," she said.

Now, Ahmar Dakneh is working for the Immigrant and Refugee Services Association P.E.I. (IRSA) as a settlement worker. She previously worked there as a full-time receptionist and, two years ago, was promoted to her current position.

Her job is to help other newcomers, particularly those from her own country, since she speaks the language, with things like helping them make medical appointments, apply for health cards and register their children for school. 

"I help my clients with passion and love knowing in mind that I was one day a desperate newcomer in need of help," she said.

Reuniting with family — one day

In October this year, Ahmar Dakneh and her family attended the citizenship ceremony they'd long waited for. Although it was a little different because of the pandemic.

They sat in front of a laptop, smiling and waving little Canadian flags. There was another huge flag behind them. Besides the judge, about 45 families from other provinces attended the ceremony. Some of them cried when they were taking the oath of citizenship.

Ahmar Dakneh and her family attended the virtual citizenship ceremony in October this year. (Submitted by Suzan Ahmar Dakneh)

"My kids love it. And I'm sure it will be a [great] memory for a long time," she said.

They received their Canadian passports a few weeks ago in December, and to her it means freedom.

"The passport is like a window that opens our souls to the new world, to discover new places and to continue learning in our life journey."

To get to where she is today, Ahmar Dakneh has received help from many people like her uncle, who sponsored her family to come to Canada, as well as her colleagues and friends at IRSA who have helped with her career. 

But there are those she lost along the way. 

"I had lost my mom and my father-in-law this year, without being able to give them a farewell kiss. That was very, very hard for me and my husband. We were still dreaming of getting our citizenship to be able to get the passports and go there. And they were still dreaming of that moment when we go there, we hug them, we smell their faces.

"And so suddenly, we lost them. It wasn't easy."

That's why she plans to go back to Syria as soon as possible to unite with other family members, and, better yet, some day bring them all to Canada for a better future, Ahmar Dakneh said.

"We don't want to miss anyone else. We already lost two family members. We want to see everyone, meet them in a good healthy condition."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thinh Nguyen

Associate Producer

Thinh Nguyen is an associate producer with CBC P.E.I. He can be reached at thinh.duc.nguyen@cbc.ca

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