As I sit thinking about the official end of our year-long sponsorship, an image comes to me...it's a picture of gently launching a little paper boat out onto the waters of a choppy lake.
The Al Homsi family has been here for nearly 14 months. The children are well settled in school. Everyone speaks English to some degree. Dad's got a part-time job. Bad teeth have been repaired. Mountains of paperwork have been completed, signed and notarised. Many things have been accomplished; but much remains to be done. Right now, finding reasonably-priced housing is an urgent need. Language is a major factor. We can speak of simple things now without resorting to interpreters; the Syrians can "get by" with their English. But our Western world is full of specialised vocabularies, A simple note from school sent home with a child can take most of an evening to puzzle out. And try explaining Groundhog Day to a Syrian!
What becomes clear is how the lives of these five people have been so radically and permanently altered. Only after spending much time with recent refugee arrivals do I see how profound this is. Perhaps most fundamental is the incredible complexity of our society compared to life in much of Syria. For instance, our daily financial machinations are a mystery: bank accounts, credit cards, tax returns, discount coupons, payroll deductions, RESPs. For many Syrians, the cash in their pockets and handshake agreements were enough.
Here, we take personal safety for granted; the Syrians have faced daily fire from the skies, unprovoked arrests, torture and the death of family and friends. There are very disparate customs and beliefs around gender. Surprise and sometimes puzzlement about gender roles occur on both sides. Western food, the rat-a-tat AM radio announcer, 35 different brands of toothpaste...it goes on and on.
One conclusion I've come to is that one year is not really enough for a thorough settlement. I'm thinking two years would be more realistic. Many things need to be experienced at least twice to sink in (like tax season; like the change of seasons) Fully functional English takes at least three years.
But as I watch the brave little paper boat being buffeted this way and that, I feel hopeful for these new Canadians. We are doing what we can and perhaps it will be enough. There are other boats elsewhere in the world that have sadly not stayed afloat.
"I am eating a falafel," he says slowly.
"Yes! That's right. Okay, now what about the past...yesterday."
He thinks for a minute: "I was eat a falafel."
"No...I ate a falafel. Or I was eating a falafel."
He throws up his hands. "Am...was...are...will be...eat...ate...English!"
I am sitting at my new Syrian friend's kitchen table, after a delightful meal of falafel sandwiches, and we are practising English. Like so many other aspects of introducing this new family to Canada and Victoria, I'm seeing my take-it-for-granted world through new eyes. English is a devilishly complex and often illogical language. And when I compare their progress, compared to my pitiful dozen words of Arabic, I'm more than impressed.
The family we are supporting has been here now for just over three months. All are stringing more words together in sentences. We're not whipping out Google Translate as often. They are attending language classes five--and sometimes seven--days a week. As expected, the three children are progressing in leaps and bounds at school, often helping their parents over a language hurdle.
And language is only one of many, many new challenges for these brave people. They have never had a bank account before--now they've learned our currency, how to run a bank machine and pay bills on line. How to separate recycling materials. Which bus to take. What organic food is. What's junk mail and what's not. How it feels to have your mouth frozen at the dentist. And so many more!
It isn't all work, though. Our group has shared some of the local beauty of our city, often helped by donations. Butterfly World and Butchart Gardens have both donated tickets. We've wandered around in Beacon Hill Park and a few beaches, experiencing spring in Victoria.
And throughout this three months, like a warm background melody, the generosity of people has touched both the family and our support group. The Optimist Club donated bicycles for the two boys. A teacher donated soccer equipment. The Root Cellar came forward with a large gift certificate (as did several other stores). The family is eager to start growing food, aided by garden tools, seeds and bedding plants that were donated.
Makes me proud to be a Canadian.
Nearly a month has passed since five tired but excited people arrived at Victoria airport after a long journey from Jordan. Much has transpired in that month. The family is comfortably settled in their new home in Fernwood. The three children are enrolled and attending school. The parents are enthusiastically going to English language classes three or four days a week. Dental issues have been addressed. Phone plans and internet are organized. In short, a thousand-and-one details and visits and forms to sign and foods to buy--all the many things involved in becoming a member of Canadian society.
Our process of identifying, bringing to Victoria, settling and supporting a family has a lot of moving parts! Our group is learning lots as we go. We will keep our friends and contributors up-to-date as we go.