The ability to speak English varied from person to person, but the one phrase the small group of Syrian women all spoke well was, “Thank you very much.”
That was the theme of a dinner the refugees hosted Saturday at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House for 100 guests, a feast of authentic Syrian cuisine open to anyone.
“We appreciate what Canadians and Canada has done for us,” said Leena Al Ahmad through translator and settlement worker Sherifa Azzab while the meal was being prepped. “We want to give back, to say thank you to Canada.”
Al Ahmad was one of the nine women who spent the afternoon in the kitchen with fellow Syrian women, including Asmaa Qawas and Manar Alsaid Ahmed. There was a rapport between the women as they laughed and worked shoulder to shoulder preparing pastry, salads, meat and vegetarian ouzi dishes, as well as a sweet cake called basbousa. It was as if they’d known one another for years instead of months. One woman had been in Canada for two years, another two months. All shared stories of fleeing their homeland with husbands and small children and the horrible worry for family and friends left behind in the war-torn country.
The only time during conversation Qawas’s smile disappeared was when remembering the three years she and her young family spent in a camp in Jordan. But she brightened when the topic changed to arriving in Vancouver and making new friends, some from standing in lineups at local coffee shops or while grocery shopping.
“One woman heard me talking in the coffee shop and she interrupted to say, ‘Oh, from Syria! I want to learn more.’ From that day on, we’ve become close friends,” said Qawas through her translator. “The same story happened at the grocery store, I met a family after one month of being here and I cook for them and they help me improve my English.”
Clearly Qawas is good with people; she owned a bustling hair salon when she lived in Hama. “If you could mention, I’m looking for a job,” she said in English accompanied by big smile and laughter.
Alsaid Ahmed, from Damascus, balanced baby daughter Salma on her lap while she spoke of her previous life of teaching and studying to be a librarian.
“I know Canada is multicultural and I want to be part of this culture,” she said through Azzab. “I want to know more about other cultures, too. In Canada I have learned each culture respects others, and I like that.”
The women chimed in excitedly in Arabic, Azzab translated in English: “They are very proud of their Syrian culture, and how rich it is,” Azzab said. “They want to showcase that, and show how delicious their food is. We are all very excited and delighted to have this event here.”
When asked about the challenge of cooking for 100, the women erupted in laughter. Azzab explained: “Our families, we used to cook for each other and all our neighbours. We have big families. We always cook together and then we share.”
The dinner also served of an example of the importance of the neighbourhood house. There are 12 such houses in Vancouver. All are non-profits and belong to the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of British Columbia. While each offers individual programs to reflect its particular neighbourhood’s needs, all share the same idea of building a healthy and engaged community through programs and services.
“A lot of these families were in temporary housing when they arrived, and providing them a kitchen enabled them to gather and cook together,” said Jocelyne Hamel, executive director for Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House. “To me, the neighbourhood houses really do that — it’s really about helping people find a space they can create into a place.”
Hamel is familiar with building bridges between cultures; she worked as a language and cultural educator in a refugee processing centre in Morong, Bataan in the Philippines during the 1980s.
“Still, I’m learning a lot from the Syrians,” she said. “What’s striking about this group is their community. They’re very assertive and wanting to tell their stories. It’s a great match with Canadians with their friendliness and how welcoming they are themselves. It’s quite an amazing group to work with.”