Will the Feeling Reach You?
By: Eva Bertrand-Brunelle, Nataliia Kosmina and Andrew Stalker
Editorial Team: Kathryn Collicott and Wanda Dewolfe
Samir Altaleb thought carefully about the emotion that he wished to express and began, “I don’t know if the feeling will reach you…?” He was trying to describe his first night of sleep after arriving in Antigonish – his first ‘very relaxed sleep’ in over ten years.
As we reflected on the story that Samir told us, we couldn’t help but wonder if we really could grasp what he, his family, and 13.5 million other displaced Syrians have experienced over the course of the Syrian Civil War. As Canadians, many of us are on one side or another in the recent debate about our civil liberties and restrictions imposed related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hearing Samir’s story seemed to put things into perspective. It is easy to take our freedoms for granted and to forget about the bigger picture. It is easy for our everyday struggles to add up so that we fail to see the hardships elsewhere. During the most challenging times, this is when we need to work harder to see more clearly.
Samir Altaleb with his family at home in Antigonish
Photo credit: Andrew Stalker
Samir’s story begins in 2011, with the Syrian Uprising. Syrian people were taking a stand against the al-Assad regime and its authoritarian approach to silencing those who spoke in opposition. Samir reflected, “We dreamed of the dignity that we did not enjoy before the Syrian revolution…the regime met us with bullets.” Samir was 24 years old at the time and had to put his life on hold in order to find a new path. “I participated in the protests in Hama,” explained Samir, “until the outbreak of the war. At that time, I became in great danger. I had to leave my house after the arrests by the regime, leaving behind my father, my mother, and my brothers [and their] daughters.” Samir had to leave Syria for Lebanon.
Life in Lebanon for a refugee and for Lebanese communities was extremely challenging. Population growth increased the existing poverty and caused rent inflation in housing markets. Samir, who studied to be a lawyer in Syria, was able to find work both as a driver for a government official and by opening a falafel restaurant. Life was still full of uncertainty for him and his growing family. “Eleven years – problems in Syria,” Samir recounted, “[I] go [to] Lebanon and work…many things [not] safe, no school good.” For all of these reasons, Samir and his family decided to resettle in Canada.
In our interview, we asked Samir about his biggest challenge since leaving Syria. “This is a deep question because there are very many challenges,” he answered. “To come here with my family, that was my biggest challenge…to agree that my family would go [ahead] to Canada without me.” During the years that Samir attempted to make a life for himself living and working in Lebanon, he was blessed to meet and marry his wife, Rafa. “Rafa got pregnant with our first son, and she gave birth,” Samir remembered. “The [Canadian] embassy called my wife’s family and [they] agreed to travel…but there are procedures.” In order to resettle in Canada, you must first be referred by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or another designated referral group. Having this application accepted can take months, and the sponsorship application process, which comes next, can take approximately one year. Samir summarized the process by saying that for “five months, I went every day…every day. You speak to [the] managers about coming here…questions, questions, talking, telling…” Altogether, it took Samir approximately three years before he was finally able to rejoin his family.
Samir Altaleb recounted his process for making baklava
Photo credit: Eva Bertrand-Brunelle
From the time Samir was forced to leave Syria, it took him 10 years to get to Canada. In December 2020, upon safe arrival with his family to Antigonish, Samir described his first night: “I slept as if I had not slept in 10 years…the comfort, serenity and warmth that reached me.” In the one year since Samir and his family’s arrival, his achievements have been awe-inspiring. Samir is incredibly resourceful. In less than three months, he was able to get his driver’s license while just beginning to learn English. This past summer, during the late part of Rafa’s pregnancy with their second child, Samir and his family started a new business, The Baklava House. They create a wonderful variety of tasty treats which are becoming very popular around Antigonish. Samir is currently studying in an entrepreneurship program at ACALA to learn how to start a food truck business where he will be serving falafel to give Antigonishers a little taste of Syria.
Click here to play a word search based on this article. Submitted by Elaine Patterson.
When Samir read the previous paragraph about all of his accomplishments, he said that it was more important to mention the people who helped him. He told us how “so many people visit, forty cars, say welcome [to] Canada…say hello and want [to] help.” Syrian-Antigonish Families Embrace (SAFE) is a non-profit organization that helps displaced Syrians with their resettlement to the Antigonish area. Samir tried to express his thanks towards the people of SAFE: “Wow, every day they help in many ways. They help when we go [to the] hospital…help get my job at The Wheel.” ACALA has also been a very important source of support for Samir and his family. Since their arrival they have studied daily at ACALA, everything from learning English and preparing for the beginner driver’s test to developing entrepreneurship skills for business start-up. Samir remembered the commitment of his teacher: “My friend, Kristian…came to my house every day [on a] bicycle in winter. We watch Youtube together…learn English.” The family’s sense of gratitude extends towards the entire community. “The Antigonish community makes you feel that you are one of its children,” Samir reflected. “Their hearts always beat with love and giving.”
Extra note of interest: The call for freedom and democracy during the Syrian Uprising resonates with the current situation in Ukraine which has its roots in the Revolution of Dignity, 2013-14.