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Guelph's Syrian Experience: Raising young children in a new land

In the first of a five-part series, we look at the challenges and successes of the Syrian refugees who came to Guelph three years ago

“I think we need to give accolades to the children and their families for the work that they do and their willingness to embrace what we’re saying here. — Cheryl Van Ooteghem, superintendent of education at the UGDSB.

For Ismael Tbeish, the turning point came in the winter of 2012.

Tbeish had left his Syrian village with his 14-year-old son Mohamed, heading to the city of Dumeir, 40 km northeast of Damascus.

On the road, they came across a bus full of passengers. All dead. A few steps away, there was a decaying human body. Abandoned.  

Tbeish's heart filled with anxiety and fear and it was at that moment he realized that Syria could not be the future for his wife and five children.

“There was no safety at all,” says Tbeish. 

He and his family first moved to Lebanon where they lived in a refugee camp for four years.

In 2016 they moved to Canada as one of the 50 families sponsored by Guelph businessman Jim Estill, six of the approximately 200 refugees that settled in Guelph and 29,000 in Ontario between 2015 and 2017.

Like Tbeish’s family, many Syrian refugees fled their country to find a better future for their children. But a new country means an unfamiliar culture, language and people.

Like many Syrian families, Tbeish and his family had to grasp that unfamiliar culture.

And a change, while necessary, can also be difficult. 

The massive culture shock that Tbeish felt when he arrived to Canada made him want to leave immediately. 

However, the kids felt very different when they arrived. 

Amina, 19, Mohamed, 18, Uthman, 11, Momin, eight, and Amir, four hadn't been in school for up to five years when they escaped the war in Syria and moved to Lebanon. Not one member of the Tbeish family spoke English when they arrived in Canada. 

Community groups in Guelph offered their help to help Syrian refugees assimilate into society in a number of ways. For the kids, the schools made enormous efforts to help them in any way they could, and continue to do so today.

Upper Grand District School Board spokesperson Heather Loney says the board created resources specifically for newcomers realizing that it is not only English as a second language (ESL) classes they need to provide. 

“It’s also having those sensitivities to people coming from different cultures potentially coming from places of conflict. So those resources are more developed,” says Loney. 

When the Syrian children arrive, the school board completes an overall initial assessment so they can develop strategies that can be used in the classroom to focus on areas a child needs such as education levels, language, cultural barriers and health concerns. 

Tbeish says these sensitivities from the community were crucial to him even before he made the move to Canada. 

When Tbeish initially completed the immigration interview to move to Canada while he was in Lebanon, he was hesitant to make the move. As a farmer in his home country, he didn't have the time he needed to sell his trucks and animals in Lebanon and move to a country he only heard of a few months prior to the interview. 

His kids say they pined and cried to move to Canada, a place where they could go to school and have a safe future together. Amina who was just 13 years old at the time, says she spent five years at home in the tent because that was the safest way she could spend her time.

“We would go outside. There was a big city that has no people that kill so we would go outside and play basketball,” says Mumin about the camp in Lebanon where they played all day and yearned for the opportunity to go to school. 

“In Syria, when you get a math question wrong, they would hit you. One time, they taped our mouth so we coudn't speak. We were in kindergarten.”

They say the chance to go to school in Canada brought many positive changes in their life with teachers and resources around them they find uplifting.

“They're cool, they're kind, they're helpful, they're everything,” says Uthman about teachers here. 

All this has helped Tbeish slowly integrate into society.

“The anxiety and worry have already gone in Canada. I can sleep very well,” says Tbeish who now works two jobs, one as a warehouse worker at Danby and one as a custodian at the Muslim Society of Guelph, while still struggling to speak English. 

While he still struggles with the language, all five of his children speak fluent English.

"When you are immersed in another culture that's very different from your own, it's normal for anyone to have culture shock no matter where you are,” says integration expert, Ingrid Brand who works closely with newcomers in Guelph to help them assimilate into society. 

“Coming from Syria where you've already probably easily lost your home, seen friends, tortured, not had access to even the basic necessities in life— that already has been incredibly traumatic,” says Brand. 

She said when people come to Canada they are trying to fit into a new community after they had a wonderful, rich culture at home that they miss and that comes with a tremendous sense of grief and loss.

“I think we need to give accolades to the children and their families for the work that they do and their willingness to embrace what we’re saying here. ‘Come and work with us, come and let us teach you’ and they embrace that,” says Cheryl Van Ooteghem, superintendent of education at the UGDSB.

“And how do we know? You can see it on their faces however simple that may sound or seem to them on the playground, to see them in their classroom, to see them playing with their peers, to see them writing and reading. And it is a testament to their resilience and what they have overcome to be here in our community.”

Tbeish says while his son saw the gruesome sight of the bus in Syria, he is grateful that his other kids were kept away from such sights.

“I've gone through it,” says Tbeish.  

“The incidents, the scenes, the crisis.”

He says the images will stay in his mind but now he's okay and has big dreams for his children and always prays to be able to buy a large house for his entire family to live happily together just like they once did in Syria. 

“I want them to be educated,” says Tbeish adding that he hopes one day, they will serve Canada because they found their lost happiness in this country.

He says he hopes that one day, they will be able to pay the country back for providing them with security, love, health, and shelter by giving back to society and being good citizens. 

“This is our culture. We love to work. We like to add value. We like to serve the community. These are our values. This is our culture as Syrians,” says Tbeish. 


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Anam Khan

About the Author: Anam Khan

Anam Khan is a journalist who covers numerous beats in Guelph and Wellington County that include politics, crime, features, environment and social justice
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