Celebrating life in a new country

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Celebrating Canada Day in a new home means the world to a Syrian family in Okotoks.

Nader and Kinda Khazaal arrived in Okotoks with their three-year-old daughter Senta just before Christmas, as a refugee family sponsored by a trio of churches – the Okotoks United Church, Red Deer Lake United Church, and the United Church in the Valley (Turner Valley).

They have spent their first six months in the country growing accustomed to the language and climate differences, and adjusting to a new life, which Nader says came easier than they thought.

“We haven’t had any problems with the life here,” he said. “After six months, we can see where we will be after five years. It’s here, and happy.”

The Khazaals escaped from Syria to provide a better life for their young child, but they hold close to the culture from home and look forward to sharing it with their new Canadian friends.

For the Canada Day celebrations in Okotoks, Kinda will cook alongside another Syrian woman and one from Lebanon, creating a Syrian menu for the multicultural festivities at the Okotoks Recreation Centre.

National celebrations are a common thing in Syria, Nader said. There are festivals to commemorate the ends of wars, and the day Syria took its freedom from France in 1930. But he said he’s excited to partake in a new tradition, especially with the hype surrounding Canada’s 150th.

“This year especially it will be special for us and for Canada,” said Nader. “This is a big thing for us, to be here in this country.”

Language hasn’t been a huge barrier for Nader, because he studied in Sweden for one year in 2014 and taught himself English by watching movies and listening to music.

Kinda and Senta had more of a road to travel, but in six months both girls have made huge strides. Kinda has been taking English classes at the YMCA in south Calgary after receiving some help from church volunteers to get started.

“She’s getting it step by step,” said Nader. “The volunteers, we thank them very much because they helped Kinda with English. They gave her the foundation, something very big to start her English on, so when she went to school that was easier for her.”

Senta learned her English primarily from attending the Happy Place Preschool, across the street from the family’s home above the Okotoks United Church. After six months of going to class three days per week, Senta speaks fluently – and nonstop.

On June 22, the preschool held an end-of-year graduation celebration, and the children sang 12 songs, which Senta performed with gusto, said Nader.

“She loves school very much,” he said. “The days she doesn’t have school she cried, ‘I need to see Miss Kristi.”

Learning English among her peers has strengthened Senta’s skills with the language, he said. In fact, if someone speak to her in Arabic, she won’t respond, but if the same person addresses her in English she’ll answer immediately, he said.

“But we don’t want her to forget the Arabic language,” said Nader. “That’s important because that’s home, too.”

The biggest hurdle now is finding work, he said. Nader has been actively looking for employment for the past three months.

He took one job, but an allergy to something in the workplace forced him to resign. Since then, he hasn’t been able to find another job, despite sending countless résumés and checking online employment websites daily.

“It’s difficult a little bit,” said Nader. “Half our sponsorship is over now, so the biggest thing is to find a job.”

In the meantime, the family is finding ways to stay occupied. A free family recreation pass during their first year in Okotoks has proven to be a valuable gift. The Khazaals spend a lot of time at the rec centre – Kinda works out in the gym while Nader and Senta go swimming.

They have also camped at Gull Lake and spent some time in Edmonton. Nader said they intend to explore the new country a lot more now that the weather is nicer and they have a new vehicle.

The family’s first car was an older model donated by a woman in Calgary who was also an immigrant. Her family arrived in Canada when she was 10 years old, and someone had gifted her father a car, so she wanted to pay it forward.

The Khazaals were grateful for the vehicle, but soon found it wasn’t the most reliable when the family was putting on close to 120 kilometres most days, travelling to Shawnessy for Kinda’s English classes and then to High River, for Nader’s English course at Bow Valley College.

“So we bought a new car, and we gave this car to another family for a gift, because it came as a gift,” said Nader.

Though there are some new things the family loves – like bacon – some cultural differences have been more difficult to adjust to.

“Senta is still sleeping as she slept in Syria,” said Nader. “All the boys and girls here are in bed around 7:30 or 8:30, but Senta is sleeping at 1 a.m., she never sleeps before that.”

Those changes will come in time, he said. For now, the family is grateful for the opportunity to build a new life in a country they love.

“We like it here – the smiles on the faces of the people,” said Nader. “Everyone is smiling – on the street, in their cars, shopping, they’re smiling. I know they have lots of problems in their houses, every house has a problem, but they keep smiling, and that’s very nice.

“That gives you the power to continue.”

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