Editor’s note: A portion of this story regarding Aya Mhana’s personal information has been removed to address personal safety concerns.
For Aya Mhana, the photos she flips through on the Canada Day long weekend are reminders of the family she left behind in Syria when she moved to Calgary with her husband as refugees three years ago at 25 years old.
“My family [is] still living there and they are struggling to adjust to living with danger all the time and not knowing what’s coming up. It’s really hard being a stranger. It is something not easy to handle,” Mhana said of her move to Canada.
Mhana made the difficult decision to leave her teaching job, her family and her volunteer work with the Red Crescent in Syria because of the ongoing conflict there.
“My cousin has been killed. Many people that I knew have been killed because of that,” she recalled.
For Mhana, the music she plays and composes on her oud — the lute-like instrument popular in her home country — has been a source of comfort and so have the kind and generous Calgarians she has met along the way. Mhana has a two-year-old daughter.
“Having a baby in this place is a blessing and I feel gifted to raise my baby in this place. Being here is a great chance for us living in this safe and developed country. A respectful country,” Mhana said.
WATCH: Ghada Alatrash and Aya Mhana, Calgary Syrian immigrants, perform an emotional tribute to Canada on the oud, an ancient stringed instrument from the Middle East.
Members of Calgary’s Syrian community, like Ghada Alatrash, have been supportive too. The pair have joined together to perform an Ode to Canada. The words for Alatrash are a manifestation of her gratitude towards the country. The recent Mount Royal University graduate hopes hearing immigrants’ stories will create more empathy towards newcomers at a time when there is growing resistance to immigration in some parts of the world.
“I do believe that one of the ways to remedy all this ugliness in this world is to try to bring others to stand in the place of those who are experiencing very difficult realities,” Alatrash said.
The past three years have been filled with challenges for Mhana, like trying to find work and a place to stay. She has managed to get a job at a Calgary restaurant to get by. She worries constantly for her siblings and parents she left behind in Syria who haven’t yet seen their two-year-old granddaughter.
Mhana ponders the tragic situations in some parts of the world that prompt people to become refugees.
“That is really hard for us when we think about that because why was one born in a miserable spot on the earth and at the same time, there are people just thinking about their perfume that they want to wear for a fancy party?” Mhana said.
She’s trying to preserve her culture and traditions through her Syrian music. This weekend, she strummed O Canada on the oud. She says she’s a different person now, becoming stronger as she lays down roots here. Despite the many challenges, she has no regrets about starting a new life in Canada.
“I feel like we need this experience to learn more from this life,” Mhana said. “And that’s how we can become the people we want to be. I am not a stranger anymore in this country.”