Iraqi community welcomes new family

By Alicia Ambrosio

Special to The B.C. Catholic
The international arrivals level of the Vancouver Airport was buzzing with activity one day two weeks before Christmas. Among the constant flow of people was a group of about 45 men, women, and children who had staked out seats, removed their jackets, and were passing out coffee.

Special to The B.C. Catholic
Deacon Ron Jenkins sponsors a number of underprivileged children.
Here he poses with Edgar. These children are “yearning for
a connection,” he says, and to know someone cares.

This group, obviously settled in for the long haul, was waiting to welcome two families of Iraqi refugees to Canada. One of them was the Shaheen family: Danial, his wife Warina, daughter Avian, and sons David and Jaems. They were arriving from Damascus, where they had been taking refuge for close to two years.

Many Iraqi Christians flee to Syria to escape persecution and death in Iraq. However in Syria they have no legal status and cannot get work.

The Shaheens would be able to make a new life in Canada because Danial’s brother Eslewa, who lives in the Lower Mainland, had been able, with the help of the Iraqi community at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, to start the sponsorship process for his brother’s family.

This was not the first time the Iraqi community had helped to bring a family to Canada. Most of the people sitting in the waiting area had come to Canada as refugees. Eslewa, who was walking around the terminal with an irrepressible grin, had been in Canada two years.

The men he was talking to had been in Canada anywhere between 13 years and two weeks.

Some, like Abdi A., had immigrated long before there was an Iraqi community to welcome them.

With his coffee in one had, Blackberry in the other, Abdi recounted his arrival. “When I came in 1996 there was no one else here to show us how to do things. Sure, Immigration Canada gave us a bag each with a winter coat, hats, gloves, all that stuff, but there was no one to show us how to do things here.

“We (Abdi and his wife and four daughters) stayed in a welcome house downtown at first, then we moved to Surrey. The only grocery store that I knew sold the rice I wanted was downtown, so I went all the way downtown, bought my rice, and carried it home on my shoulders, on the SkyTrain, all the way to Surrey. Then I discovered the supermarket in our neighbourhood and was shocked to find exactly the same type of rice I had bought downtown.”

Despite the initial culture shock he was able to get his bearings and build a good life for his family. Abdi, a barber, was able to open his own shop in Surrey. As fellow Iraqi Christian started arriving in the Lower Mainland Abdi would take them on as apprentices in his shop.

“I train them, I pay them while I train them, they work in my shop for a few years, and usually after about four years they leave and open their own place. Now we’re all barbers and hairdressers!” he laughed.

Turning to Chris Radziminski, the head of the Office of Justice and Service of the Vancouver Archdiocese, which acts as liaison between the sponsoring Iraqis and the Canadian government, Abdi said, “You want a haircut now? We’ve got lots of time!”

Abdi was only half joking. He knew well that it could take anywhere from one to three hours for a refugee family to get through Canada Customs and Immigration. In 2008 alone 131 Iraqi refugees arrived in Vancouver with the help of the local Iraqi community, and Abdi was at the airport for most of those arrivals.

Eventually news arrived: Eslewa’s family should be coming through in five to seven minutes. They’d been delayed because some of their bags had been lost.

The excitement mounted, and the minutes seemed like an eternity, but soon enough an airport employee in a red sweater appeared around the corner of the arrivals gate, followed by five tired-looking people. “There they are!” Abdi announced.

Despite the exhaustion of 14 hours of flying plus stop-overs, Danial, Warina, David, Jaems, and Avian happily greeted more than 40 people with kisses, and Warina accepted the flowers her relatives had brought. Pictures were taken, and Eslewa invited everyone to his home for a welcome feast.

A convoy of cars followed Eslewa and his newly arrived family to his home in a Surrey subdivision. There, as per Iraqi custom, were separate rooms for the women and men. The young people milled around in the entrance hallway, a sign of straddling two cultures.

Looking around the women’s room one could pick out which daughter belonged to which mother. Abdi’s wife Lucia explained that many of the women in the room hadn’t known each other until they had come to Canada, but now were like family; in many cases they had actually become family thanks to their children’s marriages.

In the women’s room a buffet had been set up, and the men were called in from their room to have first pick of the food; there was no danger of going hungry. Once the men had had their pick, the women took take their time.

One soon noticed a trend: Iraqi dishes all contain beef. One dish was fig leaves rolled and stuffed with beef. Next to that sat a potato ball stuffed with beef. The eggplant looked light enough, until one bit into it and realized it too was stuffed with beef.

The falafel bread was stuffed with ground beef. The meatballs were beef. The chicken was the only thing not stuffed with beef. It was all so delicious and satisfying one had to taste a little of everything. Mercifully, the desserts were not beef-based; they were delicious, served with tea and more chatter.

The women all said the same thing: “We are family because we’ve all been through the same thing. We all came here from Iraq, scared and wanting to build a new life. So many people helped us along the way, the least we can do is help each other.”

Even though it was close to midnight, and the Shaheens had been travelling for nearly a day, the celebration showed no sign of letting up.

Perhaps it was because for the first time in a long time the Shaheens were home.