Saadallah Al-Jabiri, the most festive square in the city of Aleppo, in ruins after yet another explosion. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
War-torn streets to snow and sleet
On Feb. 24, 2016, I became Canadian. I was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates and immigrated to pursue my dream of becoming a journalist. Fortunately, I didn’t have to leave out of fear for my safety, unlike the 4.8 million Syrian refugees forced to start their lives from scratch due to the ongoing civil war.
Over the past year, the Canadian government, with the help of various other organisations, has welcomed more than 35,000 refugees seeking asylum from the conflicts in Syria. A year has flown by since the first planeful of Syrian refugees landed in Toronto. I had the pleasure of interviewing two young Canadians who escaped the war and listen to them describe their homes, their journeys and the process of adapting to the Canadian lifestyle.
Christ Merjanian, born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport May 2015, along with his parents.
For the lucky, the horrors of living in a war zone are unimaginable; for Merjanian and his family, they’re unforgettable: “My neighbour's house got sturck by a missile and erupted into flames and the whole building was going to collapse,” he said.
Seeing a car get bombed right next to their house catalysed their decision to leave the country. Merjanian still has visions of the fireball, the debris, the shattered glass. He said: “My family and I were all home and we were all in a state of shock.”
His family travelled to Lebanon in June, 2014 for safety during the long immigration application process. Merjanian worked in the sales department of a jewellery store for the 7 months they spent in limbo.
After an untold amount of paperwork, the Merjanians were finally given permission to replant their roots in Canadian soil. They boarded a plane and began their new life in Toronto. Merjanian admits that he was initially anxious when he arrived in Canada. It’s no easy task to leave all your friends behind and start anew, alone. Things did pick up though, thanks to world-renowned Canadian hospitality and kindness. He’s since gotten to know people and now he claims to be “very happy”.
Merjanian is now majoring in interior design at Seneca College. He always feared that the ceaseless conflict at home would come in the way of his education, and is grateful that he can now pursue his dreams. He’s never been mistreated for who he is, and he respects and admires the genial Canadian people. Merjanian wishes leaders around the world would put more effort into helping refugees, he said.
“This is humanity, and if other people in Europe or America are at war, we are there to help.”
Khajag Papazian, 21, is an Armenian-Syrian who came to Canada a year ago through the efforts of the Armenian Community Centre. Back home he was a third-year mechanical engineering student studying at the University of Aleppo.
Papazian left Syria for reasons similar to Merjanian, but faced additional hardships. “Since I have a brother, I would have been forced to join the army and I would have sabotaged my entire future for something that I refuse to believe was beneficial to me,” he said.
His father died from a heart attack in May, 2014. Grieving, and living in a neighbourhood that was growing more dangerous by the day, the young man made his mind up to leave Syria and start a new life.
Papazian first thought of immigrating to Europe or Armenia, but decided that Canada was the most suitable choice for his education and future.
Like Merjanian, his first stop was Lebanon. He arrived May 2015, and started planning his journey to Canada. Papazian stayed in Lebanon for seven months, coincidentally also working at a jewellery store, albeit a different one. He had to put his schooling on hold until safely in Canada.
Papazian started the application for refugee status while in Lebanon and said receiving approval on it “was just like a green light telling us to leave”.
On Dec. 28, 2015, Papazian arrived in Toronto by himself. He was relieved, to say the least.
“I finally knew I was not going to die in any moment, if you are walking on the street you won’t see people fighting, bullets won’t be flying around everywhere,” his siblings and mother arrived five days later.
Papazian was under a lot of pressure after his fathers’ passing, but kept calm and worked hard to get himself and his family to Toronto for a fresh start. He now works to provide for his family, and hopes to make his father proud.
Papazian works at Adonis grocery store. Being well versed in both English and Arabic, he is incredibly useful to his colleagues and employer by being able perform as a translator. He has also resumed his education, studying mechanical engineering again, at Ryerson University.
Papazian has also been treated exceptionally well by the Canadian people. Everyone so far has welcomed him and told him that he’s home now.
“I was always respected, unlike some situations I had to experience in the seven months I was in Lebanon,” he said.
What Papazian loved about Canada is how multicultural it is. He was shocked to encounter all the different languages and peoples. He is also pleased to have met other Arabic-speaking Canadians.
Papazian admires the Canadian government for the work they have done for Syrian refugees. He encourages other countries to follow suit. “There are still so many people living in war-torn Syria, I know how that feels, so bringing in refugees should always be encouraged.”
Merjanian and Papazian consider their first year in Canada a success. Though they arrived with insufficient English skills, they brought with them a counterweight for it made of pure, unparalleled drive. Missiles couldn’t stop them, so how could a language barrier? They’ve put their past behind them, improved their English, enrolled in schools, and found good jobs. They exceeded all expectations, worked hard and now thrive in this physically frigid, but emotionally summery new environment.