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Syrian newcomer crafts way to say ‘thank-you’ with wood carving

Yousef Al Kurdi works on a carving for Lori Joseph at the London Community Woodshop on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017.
Yousef Al Kurdi works on a carving for Lori Joseph at the London Community Woodshop on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Liny Lamberink/AM980

A Syrian newcomer has carved out a means of saying “thank you” throughout the community.

Equipped with 28 years of woodcarving experience and a roll of tools at the London Community Woodshop, Yousef Al Kurdi has been handcrafting gifts for city hall, London Police Headquarters and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A crest Al Kurdi created and presented to the London Police Service. Taken from the @lpsmediaoffice Twitter.
A crest Al Kurdi created and presented to the London Police Service. Taken from the @lpsmediaoffice Twitter.

“We are as Syrians… thankful for what you did for us, also, I want to show that we have talent, we are talented people,” he said, with Cross Cultural Learner Centre volunteer Ban Abood acting as a translator.

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“I want to show what we do because I want to give a message that we didn’t come here as refugees to sit and just take. We want to give back.”

READ MORE: Syrian family reflects on life in London, one year after arrival

Al Kurdi picked up his first set of carving tools as a kid in Syria. A lot has happened since then, including a serious injury that forced a long-term hospital stay, and immigration to Canada.

Determined to become a productive member of society in his new home, Al Kurdi was one of the London Community Woodshop’s first members when it opened over the summer.

If he isn’t taking ESL classes or spending time with his wife and their four young children, Al Kurdi is working on a sawdust-covered table on the west side of the workshop, deeply focused on his craft.

“[It’s] beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” said Lori Joseph, the woodshop’s co-ordinator.

“He’s very involved, everything pretty much I’ve seen him do beyond the logos have been just out of his head. He draws them himself, he doesn’t have a picture… he uses his knowledge and imagination, and then he draws it and carves it.”

She thumbed through a photo album of work he’s done back home, pointing out ornate pieces of furniture and decorations. The work he’s been doing since coming to Canada is only a small reflection of his capabilities, she explained.

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Leaning against the table, Al Kurdi watched as Joseph spoke about his talent. She grabbed his hand and laughed, “You know I love you.”

With the right exposure and the right audience, Joseph believes Al Kurdi could start his own woodcarving business. But learning the language is something that frustrates him.

“His desire to know English so that he can communicate is extremely strong. He threatened to quit coming to woodshop so he could take more English classes, and we said ‘nuh-uh,’ we’ll teach you English,” Joseph said.

The members of the woodshop have since committed to spending more time on conversations with Al Kurdi, to help him improve.

“Everybody that I’ve introduced him to has embraced him and his story. I think there’s a lot of empathy of ‘what would it be like for me if I had to leave my home, my country, learn a new language, get settled in a new place and leave everything I’ve left behind,” said Joseph.

“Most people that meet him are coming from that empathetic place and they want to help.”

Joseph says people can contact her at the woodshop if they’re interested in commissioning Al Kurdi’s work.