Mustafa Zakreet has been in Salmon Arm just a little more than a week.
That he is happy to be here is evidenced by the charming 24-year old’s wide grins – smiles that light up the room as he describes his welcome to Salmon Arm and the group of about 35 residents who are supporting him.
“They saved my life,” he says simply of what coming to Salmon Arm from a refugee camp in Lebanon means to him. “I don’t know how to thank them.”
Zakreet says he feels comfortable in Salmon Arm, a city that reminds him of his hometown in Syria.
“There was a river close to my house and there is space between the houses like my town,” he says.
Able to speak some English, Zakreet is attending language lessons at Okanagan College and is intent on learning as quickly as possible in order to act as a translator when more refugees arrive.
Zakreet has completed two years in environmental engineering. While in Lebanon, he passed a first-year university course in English and developed a love of the works of Shakespeare.
While there, he also volunteered with the Canadian arm of Right to Play, an organization that believes every child has the right to play and links sport to learning.
Zakreet also taught kindergarten for a year-and-a-half.
While he was too tired to speak when his plane landed in Montreal after a day-and-a-half of travelling, he was buoyed by his welcome to B.C.
“I thought I had to look for the sponsor,” he says of his arrival in Kamloops last Monday.
But he needn’t have worried.
Eight members of his sponsoring team were on hand to greet him with welcome signs written in Arabic.
Joyce Henderson, a founding member of the Salmon Arm Community Group and part of Zakreet’s sponsoring group, laughs as she explains nobody knew whether they were holding the signs right-side-up, or down.
Help came from an individual known simply as Hassan, who is in a masters program at Thompson Rivers University and fluent in Arabic. He accompanied the group to the airport, sorted out their sign issues and acted as a translator.
The members of Zakreet’s day-to-day group, headed up by Peter Molnar, are showing him the ropes in terms of doing his laundry, preparing his meals and otherwise helping to acquaint him with his new home.
Over the weekend he attended a hockey game and snowshoed along the foreshore.
Zakreet is anxious to share his new life and experiences with his father and 13-year-old brother, who remain in Beruit. They should be joining him soon.
In a Monday morning update, Salmon Arm Community Group co-founder Brian Ayotte listed the churches and groups who have stepped up to sponsor a family.
A letter went out to members of SCIP (Shuswap Construction Industry Professionals), with four companies asking for more information regarding possible employment for qualified refugees and Okanagan Regional Library has asked how they can help and provided a list of resources.
Community care nurse Lynn Popien and Daniella Widmer, who worked with a refugee clinic in Vancouver for several years, are co-ordinating health care for the refugees with Interior Health.
“They (IH) have been extremely co-operative in setting up services with doctors, dentists, physiotherapists and pharmacists to participate in the health needs of the refugees; also mental health because PTSD will be a big problem,” says Ayotte. “This helps to make it a community-wide project, not just a couple of do-good churches,”
Technology Brewing Corporation president and CEO Mike Boudreaux has created a website – www.shuswaprefuge.com, where donations of furniture, clothing, money and time can be made and people may register as a volunteer.
Donations may also be made at SASCU under the name Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition.
Ayotte says St. Joseph’s contact, a Franciscan priest in Beirut who has about 150,000 refugees looking for a way out, has made special mention of a 25-year-old.
“He’s seems to be particularly concerned about this young man who recently graduated in engineering and has no dependents and no family,” says Ayotte, noting an individual or group looking to sponsor a refugee can expect to pay a financial sponsorship of $12,600 per year.
Sponsorship is reduced by in-kind support as well as free clothing, accommodation and furniture.