When the Alsaghir family arrived in Ottawa a little more than a year ago, they were faced with many challenges.

They came with one bag each of belongings, they didn’t speak English or French, the weather was brutally cold and they were living in a hotel room. But they considered themselves blessed after what they had endured up until then.

Mahmoud and his wife Badiaa and their children, 10-year-old Ali and 12-year-old Hadieh, were one of the many Syrian families who were given the chance to start a new life in Ottawa.

Their lives were thrown into chaos five years ago after violence erupted in Syria. They lived in fear daily as the fighting escalated. “We didn’t want to kill and we didn’t want to be killed,” said Mahmoud. No one was safe. Their home was destroyed.

Mahmoud moved his family to Jordan where they stayed for four years but the family still lived in danger. They children cried when they saw buses on the street, believing the authorities were coming to arrest them. The family had no stability, no safe haven to call home.

They registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency. A few short weeks after Christmas 2015, they got the call. They were being offered a chance to start a new life in Canada. They were allowed to bring one bag each. Everything they owned had to be left behind. They spent the first three weeks of their new lives in a downtown hotel. They couldn’t speak the language, were separated from friends and family and still reeling from the trauma they had faced back home every day.

The Catholic Centre for Immigrants was there for them. We helped the family find a home. We helped them open a bank account, enroll the children into school, and offered programs and workshops. The CCI helps families like the Alsaghirs find jobs, access health care and other services. We provide assistance to learn English or French. Since 1954, the CCI has been welcoming and helping newcomers to Ottawa. The CCI believes families like the Alsaghirs enrich the social fabric of our community. They become active members of society, contribute to the economy and give back.

Mahmoud wants to open his own restaurant. He has been a cook for more than 40 years and already works half days at a restaurant and goes to school to learn English. He wants to hire people and train them. He says it will be his way of giving back to his new country, a country that has given him so much in such a short time.

Badiaa recently finished a day care workshop program and is also going to school five nights a week to learn English. She has become friends with her neighbours and loves to cook. She says Canadians are warm and welcoming and have helped her adjust to daily life, helping her with activities we take for granted like going to the grocery store.

Ten-year-old Ali, who always has a big smile, says he was the only student who spoke Arabic when he started school last February. But in less than a year, he has many friends, speaks wonderful English and has dreams of growing up and becoming a soccer player.

Hadieh, who is 12, says she already has a best friend in her Grade 8 class and she attends computer classes on Saturdays. One day, she wants to be a doctor and care for others. She starts high school next year.

None of this would be possible without the help CCI gives to families like the Alsaghirs. The CCI support is ensuring the Alsaghir family thrives. They’re not just dreaming of a better future; they are living it.

There are still challenging days. Badiaa wipes away tears as she talks passionately about the family’s adult children who were left behind. She can’t always speak with them and fears for their safety daily as the unrest continues. Although Ali and Hadieh are doing well and have made friends, it was difficult for them to forget the nightmare of life in Syria. Badiaa says the children would hide any time they saw a plane in the sky, terrified that bombs were going to be dropped onto them. Today, though, they know they are safe. Badiaa says she can see it in her children’s faces.

Mahmoud and Badiaa know their family is blessed to be in Canada. “Canada is our country now,” says Mahmoud.

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