Syrian refugees have more to celebrate than just the holidays

By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun |

Celine Ghaily, 12, started Grade 4 last year at Montecito elementary school in Burnaby shortly after arriving from Lebanon. The young Armenian-Syrian refugee knew very little English — just enough to understand that her new classmates were making fun of her.

They spoke in gibberish, or “fake Chinese” and told her it was English. They teased her because she didn’t understand.

But Ghaily understood things they didn’t. She knew she had a huge adjustment to make, and she knew where she’d come from. Perhaps because of that, she knew she could handle whatever came her way.

Ghaily was in Kindergarten in Aleppo when the city came under siege during the Battle of Aleppo. “I was used to watching scary movies with my brother,” said Ghaily on Sunday, after a church celebration of Armenian Orthodox Christmas at the St Gregory Armenia Church in Richmond. “I was in school and I heard boom. I called for my mother. Then there was another boom. And a third.”

The area around her school was being bombed. This was no scary movie.

That night, at home in her bed, she heard gunfire.

A bomb dropped on the family car, destroying it.

The family, including Celine, her older brother Asper and mother Caroline Qahwaji fled to Lebanon, and was able to come to Canada through a family sponsorship program aided by St Gregory Armenia Church.

The whole family has had to adapt. “For us it is a whole new life. We are very happy,” said Andre Ghaily. Ghaily ran a metalworks factory outside of Aleppo, in a territory that was take over by rebels, either Isis or al-Qaida, he isn’t sure which.

In Canada he is already busy working as a garage door fitter and, he says, “Everything is gone, destroyed.” He holds up a salt shaker and asks to imagine that glass container shattered. “You could try to glue some of the little pieces back but you could never make it the same again.”

Mother Caroline is working for the first time in her life, in retail. “In Syria, the women stay home,” she says with a broad smile. “Here, we work.”

But it is Celine who seems to already be Canadian. With no trace of an accent she explains that after the teasing, one girl in her class befriended her, and became an ally and friend. Then she found a way to share her experience with her classmates.

“I started writing a story about my life,” she said, “and I shared it with my teacher and classmates. Since that, things got better.”

Celine dreams of playing piano again — the family doesn’t have a piano or means to provide lessons, but in Syria, she was an avid piano student. She also loves to sing.

“If I had a piano,” she says, breaking into a huge grin, “I would play my favourite song. The Ode to Joy.”

Church elder Eddie Papazian said the organization has facilitated the sponsorship of over 130 Armenian Syrian refugees. The Orthodox Christmas celebration is a way for all of them to come together. Although the number of refugees coming in has slowed, the church is active in providing support through community activities and fundraising on their website

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