December 10, 2015 4:42 pm
Updated: December 10, 2015 10:00 pm

‘I was a refugee and I had no future’: Halifax students, YMCA plan to help Syrian refugees


HALIFAX – For the young Syrian refugees who will be arriving in Halifax, adapting to school in Canada will likely be a challenge.

Aside from the language barrier, there’s also the pressure to fit in or find friends.

READ MORE: Drop-off centre for donations to Syrian refugees to open Saturday

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Saif Omar and Ali Al-Hallaq can relate to the struggles. The two 16-year-old Halifax West High students came to Halifax from Syria two years ago. The friends recall how difficult it was to adjust to life in Canada at first.

“It felt a bit weird. You can’t talk. I was shy and I couldn’t talk to anybody,” said Omar.

“I didn’t talk much, I couldn’t even express my feelings, I didn’t have many friends,” said Al-Hallaq.

The two Grade 11 students found support at the YMCA and its homework club geared towards immigrant and refugee students.

Each Wednesday afternoon, they take the bus to the YMCA’s Centre for Immigrant Programs to join other new Canadian students as they get help on their school work and brush up on their English.

READ MORE: More than money needed to help Nova Scotia-bound Syrian refugees

Fadi Hamdan is one of their tutors and came to Canada eight years ago from Jordan. As an Arabic speaker, he finds it easier to bond and relate to some of the refugee students and calls them an “inspiration.”

“Some of these youth have been here for two months and they didn’t speak a word of English. Now they can handle a small conversation,” he said.

“This is like a little bit of home now for them and hopefully in the future they will feel more comfortable and have more friends and have more established environment for them.”

Expansion in the works

The YMCA has been preparing for the influx of new Syrian refugee families, both private and government sponsored, and plans to expand their programs including the homework club. It’s still unclear, however, how many students will be arriving and which schools they will attend.

The chief operating officer of public sector programs, Barbara Miller Nicks, says navigating the school system can be daunting and children often have very different experiences than their adult parents.

“When the kids come, they all have different needs depending on how long their education has been interrupted or how long they have been out of the school system. And so putting all of that together in a safe place is important for them to fit in again,” she said.

Omar and Al-Hallaq say the homework club has made an immeasurable difference in their lives and they want to make sure the new Syrian students gain the same experience. That’s why they plan to volunteer with the YMCA over the summer.

“No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from or what race you are when you come here, you are a human,” Al-Hallaq said.

“You meet other humans from other countries, from other races, from other religions. It’s a great opportunity for the refugees when they come here.”

Al-Hallaq speaks passionately when describing his journey to Canada.

“I was a refugee and I had no future,” he said.

“I used to live in a refugee camp, I’ve been to three refugee camps. I know how they feel now. I know how they will feel when they come to Canada. They will feel safe.”

He ends his thought with a smile.

“It’s a great feeling to be in Canada and feel like home.”

© 2015 Shaw Media

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