By Claudine Nduwimana
A little more than two years ago, Canada welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees over the course of three months.
Thousands of those refugees were children and teens who brought a new culture to our local schools.
For many, it was the first opportunity to go to school in several years. In some schools you were just as likely to hear two students speaking Arabic as you were to hear them speaking English or French.
Fatma Ibrahim is one of the many students in Ottawa’s schools whose first language is Arabic.
But language hasn’t stopped this Grade 11 sudent from excelling. She recently scored a 90 per cent in math and is doing well in all of her other courses, including English.
Fatma was one of these first of the almost 2,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Ottawa in early 2016, fulfilling a Liberal campaign promise during the 2015 Canadian election.
In a candid interview, Fatma recalls the moment when her family got the news about moving to Canada.
“When we heard we were coming to Canada, I was so happy and sad the same time. My family and I had been living in Turkey for more than four years without legal papers. We had run away from the Syrian war in 2011.”
They arrived on Jan. 20, 2016. It’s a day Fatma will cherish forever. But it was also a day of mixed emotions. Coming to Canada meant leaving behind some of her brothers and sisters in Turkey. She was worried about her siblings because Turkey was not their home and they were not documented.
She remembers getting off the plane and entering Pearson Airport in Toronto.
“I could not believe my eyes. I was so afraid and happy at the same time. We were in the first airplane that flew with Syrian refugees from Turkey to Canada. As refugees we were used to people treating us like we were less than human but the staff at the airport were friendly and treated us as old friends. So many Canadians came to welcome us at the airport. I swear, I thought they were my father’s friends,” she remembers excitedly.
After the airport welcome, Fatma, her two siblings and parents, were escorted by a government official to a luxurious hotel. For Fatma, it was one surprise after another. The way they were treated was overwhelmingly unexpected. The food was new but delicious. The bed was clean and comfortable.
“After 10 days in Toronto, all the Syrian refugees with us had their names put in Canada’s big cities. Our name was in the Ottawa bag. So on January 30th, we took our plane to Ottawa.”
Catholic Centre for Immigrants Ottawa (CCI) was there to welcome Fatma’s family in the nation’s capital. When they arrived, CCI provided blankets, jackets and other winter necessities. Once again Fatma and her family had to stay in a hotel for several days before a settlement worker at CCI helped the family find a home for them in the city.
“When we got to Ottawa we were so afraid because we could not speak the language,” Fatma says of her first impressions in Ottawa.
“The Catholic Centre for Immigrants really helped us with a lot of things. They helped us with necessary papers and Ontario Health Insurance cards. They also helped me find a good school in the St Laurent area. I am so happy and grateful for the great job they did to help us.”
Carl Nicholson, Executive Director of CCI, explains the agency’s main objectives.
“Our Settlement Services provide immigrants and refugees with services that they need when they arrive in Canada. Our services are free, confidential, non-discriminatory and culturally sensitive.”
Another main objective is to promote and facilitate the reception of newcomers to Canada, sensitize the community to address newcomers’ needs and invite them to realize their full potential in their new Canadian society.
With the help of CCI, Fatma and her family found a wonderful apartment. “We have lived in the St Laurent area since we came to Canada. The place is so convenient. We have the St Laurent mall near us and we are surrounded by shops. My father was so happy for all of us that we found a good place like this one.”
After several months attending English school, Fatma passed level 4 in English as a second language course and this allowed her to take subjects that were considered more challenging.
She wants to be a doctor and some of her favourite subjects are chemistry, math and biology. She wants to help people who are living in poverty and need medical care not covered by the public system.
Currently, Fatma is in Grade 11 and will graduate next June. She also found a part-time job last year, working as a cashier at the Loblaws on McArthur Ave. in Vanier. She loves working there and meeting different people.
Asked if she is happy in Ottawa Fatma said she is very happy but misses her siblings back in Syria and Turkey.
”I am grateful to Prime Minister Trudeau for bringing us here. Now we can be normal people like everyone with legal papers. On a personal level, I can go to school, have new friends and a chance to start a new and exciting life.
“Thank you Canada! You have helped me and more other people to make Canada our new home.”