Refugees’ new life comes with challenges

I recently had coffee with one of Terrace’s Syrian refugees. He and his family waited in a refugee camp for four years before coming here

I woke to today’s CBC news report of renewed bombing in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs, efforts by the Assad regime to wipe out resistance to his rule. Curious, I went to my computer and googled images of the target areas.

The photos were variations on a theme of grotesque and utter destruction. Most record smashed and collapsed concrete buildings, contorted rebar, bizarre configurations of electric wiring, and rubble half filling what’s left of the streets.

Occasionally people are featured. In one photo a solitary man paces away down some dusty flagstones. In another an agonized, bearded man who seems to be crying for help carries a wounded woman or girl. When they can be seen, faces reflect horror, tension, fear, anger, the whole panoply of human bewilderment and suffering.

I recently had coffee with one of Terrace’s Syrian refugees. He and his family waited in a refugee camp in Lebanon for four years before coming here. When I asked him where he had lived in Syria, he looked at me seriously and said, “Homs.”

Without overindulging in feel-good self-congratulation, it’s not too much to take credit for how our community responded to assist those who have come for refuge. The very word “refuge” speaks with a kind of emotional echo of hope. Safety!

We walk or drive down clean, well-maintained avenues featuring warm, spacious homes and welcoming businesses. Compared to the urban obliteration left behind after the Russian and Syrian bombing, our town is an Eden of tranquillity and comfort.

Despite this, prospering in a new Canadian community such as ours poses immense challenges for our newcomers. For example, though language immersion may be the fastest environment in which to acquire a new tongue, Arabic and contemporary English are very distantly related languages (compared to English and French or German, for example).

Arabic has 28 consonants compared to English’s 24, and 8 vowels/diphthongs compared to English’s 22. Arabic text, whose letters are utterly different from our Roman alphabet, is written and read from right to left, the opposite to English; learning to read here must be like learning to drive on the left. There are many other significant differences.

Simply learning a new culture’s schedules, habits and expectations can pose obstacles. Imagine having to relearn how to go about making a medical appointment? Where to catch a bus? How much things normally cost? Which coins and bills are which, and how much they are worth? Where to locate schooling for children? The Halloween fireworks must have been an uneasy reminder of the violence they fled, as well. Of course, sponsoring families and individuals are stepping up to help with all these difficulties.

The refugees I have met exhibit a brave happiness that leads one to wonder just how terrible their previous experiences might have been. Aside from the terrors of wartime violence, time spent in their camps in Jordan or Lebanon must have been full of hardships and challenges, everything from boredom to hunger. One such camp in Jordan called Zaatari grew so rapidly in one year between 2012 and 2013 that it became for a time the fourth largest city in Jordan (from about 15,000 people, a makeshift community about the size of Terrace, to a tent city of 156,000 refugees).

Schools? Medical care? Public safety and policing? Adequate food, even?! It may have been a miserable subsistence, yet even with the help from the international community to try to provide basic survival for these people, Jordan’s aid was from a population whose per capita income was only four or five thousand dollars.

Realigning refugees’ pre-war skills, occupations and credentials to their new home may also prove frustrating or difficult. How might an immigrant financial professional find his or her way back into banking or insurance, for example?

From refuge-seekers I have met here, I have heard expressions of great appreciation and thanks, and of a very positive view toward their new home. Nonetheless, they have a long road ahead. Fortunately we have sponsor groups, non-profit service organizations and individuals who are eager to assist.

If you would like to help, contact the Skeena Diversity Centre at 250-635-6530.

Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.