Rural town smooths rough start for Syrians

syrian refugees
Ahmad Zeina, centre, 5, swings with his siblings Mohammad, left, 11, and Noor, 7, at the Syrian refugees' new family home in Queensland, N.S., on Saturday, April 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

QUEENSLAND, N.S. – Just a few months ago Syrian refugee Ziad Zeina was contemplating returning to the Middle East rather than continuing to live in a Halifax apartment he described as dirty, small and cold.

Then a small Nova Scotia community 50 kilometres outside the city swung into action to provide a cedar-shingled home with a yard and a view of a beach for the six-member family.

“Without this help … I probably would have made the decision to go back to Jordan,” said Zeina, as Basim Sobeih translates for him during a potluck supper held to honour the family’s arrival in Hubbards, N.S.

The arrival of Zeina, his wife Wafaa Al Safadi and their four children is proving both a solution for a family that had a rough start in Canada and a community feeling frustrated by delays in receiving privately sponsored refugees they’ve raised more than $100,000 to assist.

It began with a visit by Sobeih, a volunteer translator and real estate broker, to the family’s crowded two-bedroom apartment — which was assigned through the government-assisted refugee program.

Sobeih telephoned the Bay Refugee Project in Hubbards to seek a meeting.

Within days the 10-person executive assigned a furnished house originally rented for a privately sponsored family which has been delayed overseas.

On Saturday, 11-year-old Mohammad and 7-year-old Noor leaped off the swings in the yard, jumped into a van with their parents and drove off to St. Anthony’s church hall for a community welcome.

As they entered they were greeted with applause and the aroma of a potluck that included roast turkey, cranberry sauce and the usual array of sweets. As the volunteers milled about, they introduced themselves to one another by their various roles, from language instructor to soccer practice chauffeur.

Zeina and Al Safadi say the small community’s embrace has healed a difficult start in Canada.

“I’m happy here,” says Al Safadi.

The 37-year-old Zeina is planning a garden and looking forward to swimming at the nearby Queensland beach that warms briefly in late summer. He’s also hoping to start working for local residents laying tile — a trade he plied in Daraa, Syria before fleeing the civil war.

Al Safadi is meanwhile making friends like Jan Miller, who lives in nearby Glenhaven, and Emily King, the chairperson of the Bay Refugee Project’s executive.

On Saturday, the women were offering emotional support as the Syrian woman struggled with worrying news that her mother had suffered a bullet wound in Syria.

“I feel really close to Wafaa and the children, and any kind of connection like that makes my life richer,” said Miller.

She said shifting the Queensland house to the new family doesn’t jeopardize the housing for the refugees the group is sponsoring privately, as the support group has found alternative locations for the two families yet to arrive.

As well, the welcoming of the Zeina family is helping to demonstrate the viability of settling Syrians in depopulating rural areas of the province.

“We just got a little bit entrepreneurial about it,” said King. “We thought a family needs help, we have a space, it makes sense to come together.”

King said urban areas in Canada often have more support services and networks, while city schools may have greater access to English teachers.

However, she says small towns can sometimes compensate with other advantages, such as the lower cost of housing and a volunteer network eager to devote individual attention to a family.

“Rural areas do lack certain services. So you can’t go into it with this Pollyanna approach that because there is a community spirit the families will find everything they need,” she said.

“There has to be a willing and able group of people to help make up for that lack of services.”

Sobeih says for the Zeina family the home near the beach has been a good solution, and he intends to help other refugees consider rural areas.

“What matters is how you are treated and how you are helped,” says Sobeih. “The fact there’s people in their house every day makes them feel like they’re not in the middle of nowhere.”