Syrian refugee gets fresh start in Kingston

Man displaced from Aleppo, Syria shares his experience

Peter recently resettled in Kingston after travelling to Canada from Aleppo, Syria.
Peter recently resettled in Kingston after travelling to Canada from Aleppo, Syria. He has given The Journal permission to publish this photo.
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After three years of traveling from Syria to Lebanon to Jordan, Peter* — a refugee escaping from the Syrian Civil War — finally arrived in Kingston on Boxing Day.

Peter, a 25-year-old barber who speaks four languages, hopes to begin a new life in Canada. But he still has fond memories of his time in Syria, despite the violence he witnessed.

To date, 25, 920 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, with 2,618 more waiting with approved applications. 253 Canadian communities have welcomed these refugees, ranging from Kingston to Calgary. 

Peter spoke about his experiences in Syria prior to the start of the civil war in March 2011 and following the outbreak of violence. As a child in Aleppo, Syria, Peter attended a private school where he learned three languages, including English, and attended classes six days a week. 

Growing up, he dreamt of becoming a veterinarian and a farmer. He played ping pong, soccer and basketball with his friends after school. But most of his friends are now scattered around the world — across Canada, Russia and Armenia.

He worked as a barber and a hairdresser in his youth and studied Hotel Management at Aleppo University for two and a half years. He was forced to end his studies during the conflict, however, as the violence in Aleppo intensified. 

“[I remember] shooting everywhere, bombing everywhere. People dying,” he said.

Soon, armed men began kidnapping and holding people for ransom. Peter truly began to feel unsafe when the hair salon where he worked was bombed in 2013.

All Peter saw was smoke when he approached his salon around 7:30 a.m. one morning.

“It was just gone,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was targeted or just a random bomb, but there was no time to think about who did it. I just had to run.”

Leaving quickly for Beirut, Lebanon, there was no time to say goodbye to his mother. He said that was his hardest day.

The bus ride to Beirut took 14 hours. The city is relatively safe, but it’s still vulnerable due to regional tensions. Last November, it saw its worst terrorist attack since the end of the Lebanese Civil War with suicide bombings that killed 43 people. 

Peter spent three-and-a-half years in the city until the last bombings, at which point he decided to leave. 

While in Lebanon, Peter got in contact with Armenian Family Support Service to help him relocate to another country. He received sponsorship from a group of Queen’s faculty, staff and alumni along with a young couple who arrived in Kingston on Jan. 31. 

Debra Fieguth of the Anglican Diocese of Ontario Refugee Support (DOORS) organized the group’s sponsorship. Sandra den Otter, the associate dean of graduate studies, heads the group.

Peter couldn’t bring his family with him, however. They remain scattered throughout the Middle East.

By December 2015, Peter was on his way to Canada. He flew to Jordan from Lebanon four days before Christmas, then on to Toronto before his flight touched down in Kingston on Boxing Day. 

“I felt like I knew this place. It felt like home already. I wasn’t afraid — I felt safe and warm and I liked it so much,” Peter said. 

Peter said he’s currently renting a room, but he plans to move into a new apartment in the coming weeks.

As a single man, Peter would not been initially prioritized by the Canadian government. Naomi Alboim, a refugee expert and professor at Queen’s School of Social Policy, said the most vulnerable refugees, including large families and people with disabilities, were given first priority.  Single men were still considered and occasionally accepted, but they had to show vulnerability.

Professor Alboim said refugees often face a number of difficulties during the resettlement process. 

“Refugees may know nothing about the community they are being sent to,” Alboim said. She added that while settlement workers may take good care of them, many refugees still lack social networks or support.

“They will be worried about family and friends left behind, and wonder if they will ever be able to go home again,” she said. “Most refugees have a dream of going home no matter what their experiences were, but they have no idea what their future will be like.”

She said, however, that Canadians have shown remarkable acceptance and interest in assisting in any way they can. Canada’s private sponsorship is the one of a kind and has provided opportunities for people looking to get involved, she said. 

Peter, who’s benefitted from the sponsorship process, says he’s had a positive experience so far in Kingston. Queen’s students and Kingstonians alike have come together to assist him and other refugees in his situation.

One such organization, the Queen’s Law Refugee Support Program, has provided assistance to Peter. Founded by law students Rosa Stall, Lauren Wilson, Kaisha Thompson and Jess Spindler, this group of students has been dedicated to helping refugees resettle in Kingston and across Canada. 

Their primary focus has been fundraising to alleviate pressure on the Queen’s faculty who are sponsoring Peter and other refugees. They had initially planned to help with paperwork, but found that the federal government had already taken on that responsibility. 

So far, the students have raised $2,500 through Tilt. They’ve also built a relationship with Peter by going out for dinner with him, and through group activities, including skating and rock climbing. 

“[He’s] a lot of fun and open to new things,” Spindler said. “It’s a very humbling experience to know someone who has faced challenges that we haven’t experienced. We’re so lucky to live in Canada and have the freedoms that we do.”

Another student organization, We for Refugee, was established in December to support Syrian refugee settlement in Kingston. It now has 50 volunteers. The organization, founded by Adam Grotsky, ArtSci ’16, hopes to fundraise to resettle another family in Kingston and provide greater assistance to families already in the community. 

The group’s current fundraising goal, $25,000, is the estimated cost of sponsoring a family of four. While student budgets may sometimes be a barrier to donation, Grotsky has found plenty of interest among students. 

“The best part has been the interest from students. They really want to get involved,” he said.

Peter, however, says he still worries about his family and the thousands of other displaced people in the regions surrounding Syria. Peace and basic resources would go a long way for those affected by the conflict, he said. 

“But I don’t really know what they need. Maybe they need more than peace,” he added. “They need water, because there is no water now. They drink from dirty wells. There’s no electricity, Internet, telephone. There’s nothing.”

As for his journey, Peter is glad to leave some hardships in the past.

“I was running from the war. With a war you see death. You see everything. What is there to be scared of anymore?”

Peter is settling into life in Kingston. He’s been volunteer ing as a translator with his sponsors and already has 12 clients at the barber shop where he works. He also has hopes for a future career — perhaps with a charity organization.

*Peter is a pseudonym. The Journal has elected not to reveal the man’s name at his request. However, he gave permission for his photo to be used.

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