From Syria with love, the refugee story of Faiez Khouri and his family.
This is the story of a family of five making its way from Saydnaya, Syria, a war-torn community of 20,000, through Lebanon, to London, Canada.
It is an increasingly familiar tale.
Yes, they are refugees. Yes, they are happier now. Yes, they miss Syria. And yes, they had plenty of help when they hit the ground.
But it was far from a simple exercise.
In the beginning, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London played the major role with the Anglican church sponsoring the Khouri family of five. CultureWorks and Western University then took care of educational sponsorships for the two oldest children.
Faiez said the entire Khouri family is more than happy to be in London. Their religion is Christian Orthodox.
The journey from Syria to Canada
“The war in Syria was going too long and it wasn’t safe any more to keep living in Syria, so we had to leave,” Faiez Khouri, the family spokesman, said in a recent interview.
“I love Syria and it’s my home country. I still have family there and I hope to see Syria very soon back to a safe country with no war and I hope to see that people there can live normally again.”
The Khouri family made its first stop in Lebanon at the end of 2015. Faiez and his sister Helen then were the first in their family to arrive as privately-sponsored refugees in Canada. The date was Feb. 26, 2016.
“Canada was accepting Syrian refugees. They announced they wanted to get 25,000 Syrian refugees. At that time, my aunt in London helped. She helped us to apply to come to Canada as refugees. And we were lucky, we got here very fast.”
Enrolling in ESL school and adapting to life in Canada
First order of business for Faiez and Helen – with the help of their uncle and cousin, who already lived in London – was a visit to Western University. Helen’s English was better than Faiez and that was a big help. After papers were shared, Western officials suggested they contact our ESL school, CultureWorks.
Faiez will never forget that first day in class. He and his sister were awarded scholarships for study at CultureWorks. Vice-principal Stan Rath had already run them through the placement test the day before.
“I was so happy that day. After living in Syria, the war changed a lot, the war changed the way people acted. In order to survive, you have to become a tougher person. It makes you a stronger person. It’s become all about surviving. It’s not about anything else.
Helen was studying English literature in Syria and is two years younger than Faiez.
Faiez said the CultureWorks teachers were more helpful than he could believe. And it wasn’t just classroom education.
“The teachers would answer any questions you had, even about life. I learned more about living in Canada from the teachers at CultureWorks than from anyone else. We used to talk to them about banks, about buses, about how to do this, how to do that. I used to ask them about everything.”
Looking towards a bright future after the war
“You don’t really care about emotions. It’s all about staying alive. And you would be always be stressed out, so being here you are much less stressed out. At least you don’t have to worry about your life, about dying at any moment.”
Faiez and Helen were in Canada seven months before their parents and brother joined them. They took on part-time jobs and Faiez even worked for CultureWorks for 10 months.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing (Faiez) in two ways, both as a student and as a co-worker,” CultureWork teacher Joel Melton said. “He has a keen sense of knowing the environment he is in and adapting to it.”
“As a student, he was able to lead and listen to others with ease and care. He took responsibility for himself and his learning. His ideas, in the classroom and office, were creative and challenging; these often improved the environment that he was a part of.”
Helen and Faiez are both now on Western sponsorships. She is taking English literature and theatre and Faiez is pursuing a specialization in computer science and a minor in software engineering.
Their father and mother, Adib and Hayat, and their brother Fady, arrived later in 2016. Adib works at a meat factory in Ingersoll, Ont.; Hayat is a full-time English as a second language student; and Fady is attending Regina Mundi high school.
“My parents are in their late ‘50s,” Faiez said. “They are still young, but it is harder for them to adjust in new country in a totally new culture. Having family here has helped a lot. And they were open about being in a new country.”
Faiez said the entire Khouri family is more than happy to be in London.
“I am very thankful for being in Canada. Being in Syria the last few years was – Syria is an amazing place and I love it – but after the war, it was kind of depressing. You don’t know anything about the future. You don’t know even if you are going to stay alive or die at any moment.”
“So you can’t plan the future. That’s something totally different when I came to Canada. I can build a future here. I can probably follow my dreams here. That’s something I love about Canada and that’s something I am very grateful for.”
Now, Faiez, in his own words, tells the story of his special relationship with his brother, Fady, a Down syndrome youngster.
“My brother, Fady, started school in November, 2016. Special program in specific Catholic school, Regina Mundi. He graduated last year, but he will stay there until he is 21. He is 19 now.
“He loves school. He is sad now that summer has started. He likes going there, he liked the gym there, he loved drama, he loved acting and imitating people. He is very smart and he would literally sit with people for two or three times and he would start acting like them immediately after that. He would copy all their impressions.
“I love him.
“Back in Syria, we didn’t have a special school for him that was close to us. He couldn’t be in school at all. He never went to school.
“At first here, he wasn’t very happy with it, but when he got used to it – and no one speaks Arabic there. My brother only speaks Arabic – it was challenging for him at first, but then he got used to it and he started learning a few English words.
“I remember the other day we were at home and I was telling my sister something about him, but I didn’t want him to know so I spoke in English and my brother replied to me. He understood what I said in English. I was so surprised.
“His classmates love him. His teachers love him, too. We went to the graduation and everyone was just coming up to us last year, saying ‘hi’ and taking pictures with Fady. Even when we go grocery shopping. A lot of time we just meet people who say ‘hi Fady, how are you?
“I think here in Canada they take more care about people with special needs. They try their best to make them part of the community, as much as possible and make them feel no different than anyone else. That’s something I really love about Canada. And that’s something that I can see my brother is enjoying and loving.”
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