Laughter ricochets around the room as five Syrian newcomers share their Christmas traditions.
With high excitement, but limited English, stories of Baba Nawel, parades and chocolate pour out in Lian Clark’s classroom, heavily seasoned by Arabic – a beautiful language to hear, but apparently a difficult one to learn.
Learning is what these newcomers are doing three days a week in this ESL classroom, set up in Shuswap Community Church.
While not part of their Muslim religion, Christmas, particularly in the big cities and towns, is a much-anticipated celebration.
In Aleppo, the hometown of Hussam Alhasan and his wife Lina, secular Christmas celebrations took place over a five-day period during which schools and offices are closed.
Families got new clothes and exchange gifts of chocolate (high on the list of favourites for children and adults), flowers and perfume. Christmas trees were set up in homes and decorated as well.
Another highlight is attending the annual parade hosted by their Christian neighbours and featuring a drum corps and Santa Claus, known in Syria as Baba Nawel.
Dressed in the familiar red and white suit, he tosses candies to excited children along the parade route and families enjoy the annual fireworks display.
Later in the evening, Baba Nawel, often represented by a costumed relative, arrives with a knock at the door and gives children their gifts.
In Aleppo, the Alhasan family’s Christmas included big family dinners hosted at the parents’ home. As the parents passed away, the eldest son assumed the role of host, keeping the tradition alive for successive generations.
In the Syrian town where Ahmad Zakreet and his wife Fatima lived, Christmas was a low-key affair, celebrated particularly with children in mind.
While they watched fireworks and gave gifts, Baba Nawel did not go to their town.
In Lebanon for four years, the Zakreets are relieved and happy to be in Salmon Arm, particularly as Ahmad’s brother and father are here as well.
After living in Lebanon for 16 years, Hasan Alsiloum is grateful he and his family are living in a place of peace.
Everyone is sleeping better too. Well, everyone except Lina, who has a new baby – a baby they named after Lynda Wilson, a member of the sponsoring Shuswap Rotary Club.
Wilson has become very close to the Alhasam family and is forthright in her belief in helping the refugees.
“One has to put oneself in their shoes – leaving everything behind; their loved ones, families, food, traditions, culture, money system,” she says. “We can only imagine what the adjustments are like; but they have come here to experience peace and give their children a chance for a new life.”
Wilson points out that some of Salmon Arm’s newcomers have family members living in Aleppo.
“Lina has a brother in Turkey who has a wife and four children and they are desperate, so we are looking for a sponsor for them,” Wilson says. “The need is great.”
To illustrate what these people have left, Wilson recalls that when they arrived last spring, some of the young boys were out on a field playing soccer.
As a jet flew overhead, Wilson says, she was teaching the boys English and said, “Look at the jet, isn’t that exciting?”
“The four-year-old wasn’t excited, he was terrified,” she adds. “We can’t even begin to imagine what they have ten through. The question in my mind is how can we not help, how can we just turn our backs and do nothing?”
Some of the refugees are coming to the end of their one-year sponsorship and need jobs and affordable housing. Anyone who is interested in helping these newcomers become established should go to any one of the churches for referral information.
“It has been amazing in this community, the outpouring of kindness, caring and support. Everywhere you turn, people are wanting to help,” Wilson says. “It has been an exciting, challenging journey, I think, for the families and the sponsoring groups and it is very gratifying to see them adjusting to life in Canada. I think the strength of the human spirit shines through.”