'You feel all the time you are not alone' 

Whistler welcomes family of Syrian refugees

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - whistler welcome L to R: Bassam Alshami, Ebtessam Alkhour, Lena Alshami, Randa Hiswani and Dani Alshami.
  • photo submitted
  • whistler welcome L to R: Bassam Alshami, Ebtessam Alkhour, Lena Alshami, Randa Hiswani and Dani Alshami.

When you're thousands of kilometres and four years removed from your native country, it can be natural to feel a little homesick.

But for one family of recent arrivals to Whistler, there hasn't been much chance for the loneliness to set in.

"You feel all the time you are not alone," said a smiling Bassam Alshami, 32, the eldest son of a family of Syrian refugees who, for at least the next year, will call Whistler home.

Interviewed at a welcome event Monday, Jan. 16 for the family hosted by the Whistler Refugee Response Group, Bassam recounted a story that should be familiar to anyone who has braved a frigid Canadian winter. Only a few days before, the pipes froze at the house that was donated for the family to stay in. That's when neighbours sprang into action, and a crew of volunteer firefighters and a plumber arrived in quick succession to get the hot water flowing again.

"When you look at these people, all of them tried to get us some water," Bassam said. "They are your people, they are not strangers here. It's a good feeling, no?"

Bassam landed in the resort on Dec. 29 with his mother, Randa Hiswani, joining younger brother Dani, 31, sister Lena, 24, and cousin Ebtessam Alkhour, 31, who all arrived in October.

Needless to say, there have been some adjustments to life in a ski resort on the other side of the world. The cold, of course, has been a struggle, and the entire family is working hard to improve their English skills. They watch soccer, enjoy Randa's home-cooked meals, and spend lots of time at Meadow Park Sports Centre.

Both young men now have jobs — Bassam was just hired at the Four Seasons, and Dani has been working at Nesters Market for six weeks, although he hopes to continue his career as a hairdresser in Whistler. Ebtessam, meanwhile, is a trained beautician, while Lena has ambitions to one day work with children.

The family fled Syria soon after civil war broke out in 2012 — and only 15 days after Dani opened his own hair salon — facing threats from both government forces and rebel militias. They spent the intervening years in limbo in Lebanon, where Bassam's fiancée remains. He hopes to someday bring her and her family to Canada.

"It's hard to me. But in another way, it's like, you make your dream true," he said. "So I have two feelings, good and bad. Not all of it is good and not all of it is bad. It's a change, and it's a challenge for us, but I know we can survive this."

The family will have help along the way thanks to the response group, spearheaded by the Our Lady of the Mountains Church, which has raised $50,000 to cover living costs and donated countless volunteer hours and resources. Most private sponsorships under the program last a year, after which the family can elect to remain in Canada as permanent residents.

And, according to Dani, that's exactly what they plan to do.

"If you'll ask me if I will come back to Syria when the war will stop, I'll say no," he said. "Now I follow the Canadian people, I follow the Canadian life, I follow the culture of Canada. It's very difficult to go back."

At one point, Dani takes a moment to look around the room at the two-dozen or so gathered in the church, all of whom have played a part in granting the family a new life.

"We are proud of them. Really. We are proud of them. They make me proud to be here in Canada and proud to be Canadian in the future."

So, I know what you're all wondering: has the family taken up that very Canadian pastime of skiing in their short time spent in the world's winter mecca?

"That's dangerous, man," Dani said. I remind him he comes from Syria, probably the world's most perilous war zone.

"I got out of Syria because it's dangerous, I don't have to be in danger here," he said with a laugh.

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