Thunder Bay·Photos

Syrian refugees get cold weather, but a warm welcome, in northern Ontario

Most of the more than 36,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada over the last year have settled in cities and towns like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but others are embracing life in northern communities.

The first Syrian refugee family to arrive in Thunder Bay is thriving 10 months later

Soundess, 9, Hussam, 13, Hadi, 3, mom Zouhour and Batoul, 14, say despite the cold winters, they are happy they were settled in Thunder Bay, Ont., when they came to Canada. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

It's been a year since the first planes bringing refugees fleeing war-torn Syria to Canada landed in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Since that day, more than 36,000 Syrians have settled into new lives across the country. Most have gone to cities and towns in southern Canada, but others have found a warm welcome amid colder weather in smaller, northern communities.    

In February, Nassim and Zouhour Al Kweyder, along with their four children, became the first Syrian family to arrive in Thunder Bay, Ont., after spending years as refugees in Lebanon.

The day they arrived, it was about -20 C.

The first shock was how cold it was.

"Oh ya. I scared," Zouhour remembered with a laugh. "I no like snow. Very cold in Thunder Bay."

But they got all the gear they needed to survive a northern Ontario winter, and the family has gotten used to it. 

"Now very good," she said, noting that her children love to play in the snow. 

Nassim and Zouhour spoke no English when they came to Canada, but have been taking English classes every weekday for the last 10 months.   

(Nicole Ireland/CBC) (Nicole Ireland/CBC)
 

Thunder Bay now is home to more than 100 Syrian refugees.

Leema Farha, coordinator of the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, said there are about 30 Syrian refugees taking the classes at the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association right now. They learn alongside about 30 other newcomers from various countries, including China and Russia. 

According to the Multicultural Association, Thunder Bay has now received more than 100 Syrian refugees. 

They're very eager to learn, Farha said. "It's amazing."

One of the tools Zouhour finds useful is a computerized language program that allows students to listen to an English sentence through headphones while seeing the words on the screen and putting them in the right order.

(Nicole Ireland/CBC)
 

Learning English has been a priority for the family.

Nassim modestly describes his English skills now as "OK," but he has made so much progress that he has just gotten a job as an upholsterer, which was his profession back in Syria. He leaves class just after noon to drive across town to work at Norwester Upholstery.

(Nicole Ireland/CBC)
 

Nassim Al Kweyder has a job as an upholsterer.

Nassim said it feels "great" to be working again and his boss, Bob Maw, has made him feel welcome. 

"He told me, 'if you have anything difficult, you can ask me. Don't worry,'" he said.

(Nicole Ireland/CBC)
  

He's very skilled, says his new employer.

Nassim sews vinyl to make boat covers and seat covers.  The material is different than that fabric he used in Syria, but Maw said his new employee is very skilled. 

"The first day I met Nassim and had him show me what he could do on the machine, I knew he knew what he was doing," he said. 

Maw shows off the completed boat seat covers Nassim has made in just three weeks on the job. "Very very nice stitchwork," he said. "Everything's sewn precise." 

(Nicole Ireland/CBC)

A church group, Right to Refuge, found them a home.

While Nassim is at work, Zouhour picks up their three-year-old son, Hadi, from daycare and goes home to the cheerful yellow house their sponsorship group, a church committee called Right to Refuge, found for them to live in.

(Nicole Ireland/CBC)
 

Three of the older children are in school.

Their other children, Soundess, 9, Hussam, 13, and Batoul, 14, all go to school. They all say they like their new home and are grateful they could come to Canada, although Batoul misses her friends back in the Middle East.

There is a mosque in Thunder Bay the family attends, and the kids also take part in recreational activities, like basketball, held at a local school for Syrian families every Saturday.  

Sandy Taddeo, a member of the Right to Refuge committee at a Thunder Bay church, visits Soundess, 9, Batoul, 14, Hussam, 13, Hadi, 3, and Zouhour Al Kweyder at their home. (Nicole Ireland/CBC )

Sponsors say it's been rewarding to help the family.

One of their sponsors, Sandy Taddeo, said helping the Al Kweyders has been a rewarding experience — and it's "wonderful" to watch how well the family has adjusted to their new life.  

"It's allowed us to take a step back and just have them integrate into Thunder Bay culture," he said.  

About the Author

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.