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Story

“It all started on February 21, 2017, the first day in Canada, the first day of the storm,” recalls George Al Frieh, a Syrian man accustomed to a minimum temperature of -1 degree Celsius… until he arrived in Montreal as a refugee. In impeccable French, he recounts how he left war-torn Syria and settled in Quebec at the age of 17.

Leaving the war and facing the cold

While many refugee and immigrant stories get lost in the maze of bureaucracy and government departments, George’s transition to a new life underlines human resilience in the face of change and adversity. And fortunately, “if I hadn’t left when I did, I might still be in Syria. At 18, I would have had to do my military service, and like many, I would probably have had to do more than the mandatory two years.” According to Hugo Ducharme, manager of the Jesuit Refugee Service Canada’s (JRS) sponsorship program and personal data protection, his reality is that of many Syrian families whose sons were approaching the age of military service. “The fear of not seeing their children return alive from military service has led many families to leave their country,” says Mr. Ducharme.

It’s important to remember the context. The war in Syria began in 2011. Four years later, in October 2015, a federal election was scheduled to take place in Canada. In the midst of the election campaign, the image of the body of a Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, lying on a beach, touched many people in Canada and around the world. The Liberals then promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to the country. After they were elected, they kept their promise. In the end, and taking into account government-assisted refugees and those sponsored by citizen groups, Canada far exceeded the target number of 25,000. George was among them.

During his journey, George experienced not only the generosity and welcome of Canadian society, but also an invitation to take part in an enriching intercultural dialogue, underlining the importance of building bridges between different communities.

In the case of the Al Frieh family, their story highlights the spirit of generosity and the importance of community support in times of need. In addition to JRS dealing with the paperwork, George and his twin brother recall a moment of profound humanity: “Fr. Mario Brisson, SJ, and others from Jesuit Refugee Service Canada met us at the airport. Their involvement continued long after we got off the plane. They also brought us essential items for the apartment, a computer to use for our studies, phones…. There were meetings, evenings to help us integrate into society, and also to meet other refugees and share our experiences.” This warm welcome marked the beginning of their integration into Canadian society, underlining the importance of welcoming and supporting them as they face the challenges of their new lives.

The summer following George’s arrival, he joined other young adults and their families in an experience of sharing and mutual discovery. Mr. Ducharme was impressed by the ability of these young people to make the most of the moment, and by their impressive resilience. “When I think of George, the first thing that comes to mind is that I always saw him smiling.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to leave the environment where you grew up and arrive in a place where you don’t know anyone. “I cried a lot during the first year,” recalls the young Syrian.

Montreal—immersed in another language and another school system

“We didn’t speak a word of French when we got here! And when I spoke English, I was answered in French. I used sign language for a few weeks.” The language barrier wasn’t the only difficulty to overcome.

Arriving at the age of 17, George went to a secondary school to learn French and was put in a class with 12–15-year-olds. “We would watch animated films or listen to Quebec songs all day long. That didn’t interest me very much: I left everything behind to come and watch a film?” George left school only a few weeks before the end of the school year and went to work at Adonis… in Arabic.

In September, things weren’t going well: “I couldn’t take the stress any more. I didn’t even know where I was going or what to expect. When I spoke with a counselor, I couldn’t express what I wanted, so I didn’t get the help I needed.”

According to Mr. Ducharme, “people have no idea how challenging integration can be, especially for people who have lived through war. In addition to having to be integrated into their new environment, they have to mourn the loss of their homeland. At the very least, in the first year after their arrival, they have to learn a new language, be integrated into the education system (for young people), understand the banking and public transport system, know where to get food, adapt to the climate… They also have to create their own points of reference.” The sponsorship manager also notes that culture shock, people who misdirect refugees, disappointments or, as in George’s case, an initial class that is not adapted to people’s real needs, can create stress that expresses itself in different ways, depending on the individual.

Thus, the people around the refugees have a major impact. In George’s case, some of the people he met were racist. But he doesn’t want to generalize, pointing out that others were “wonderful,” like a teacher who taught him math by day and helped him fill out government paperwork by night.

Nevertheless, George thought about leaving school, until he heard about the adult education centres and decided to enrol in a two-year high school course, including French.

A stellar path

Finally in the right place, George experienced success. Quite a lot, in fact. “My math teacher called to tell me I’d gotten 100 percent, which had never happened before. And I was working at the same time, sometimes up to 50 hours!”

His incredible efforts paid off: he graduated from high school with the Governor General’s Medal for the highest grade point average in 2020–21. “It was quite something. I cried, and so did the counselor who worked with me. Despite the difficulties and the efforts I had to make, I didn’t give up. I told myself I hadn’t come for nothing.”

“It’s truly exceptional,” exclaims Mr. Ducharme. “He and his twin brother are really brilliant.”

He then went to Cégep Bois-de-Boulogne to study the natural sciences. His average dropped because of French and philosophy, preventing him from entering the dental medicine program at university. Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost sight of his dream. “I’m enrolled in occupational therapy at the Université de Montréal. I’m going to do my best to get my R score back up and get into dentistry, because that’s what I want to do with my life.”

Life outside the classroom

Music plays an important role in the Al Frieh family. So, in addition to being an incredible student, George has also been a musician since the age of six, and music has been part of his journey in Quebec. “Shortly after we arrived at Georges-Vanier School, there was a talent show competition, like ‘America’s Got Talent.’ My twin brother and I decided to give it a try by playing music. I played the guitar. We performed our piece, but when the judges spoke to us afterwards, my brother and I couldn’t understand a word! So they translated it into English and told us that they liked it! We went through all the subsequent rounds… and we won!

Finding time for music, between studies and work, is difficult, but George takes guitar lessons. “I was only playing oriental music… but I decided to try flamenco. I had thought about giving it up after a while because of work, but the guitar teacher convinced me to keep going.”

Finally, George also moved up the ladder in his job. After the CEO of Helium Wireless noticed and appreciated his work, George was offered the position of Business Development Manager.

“George’s journey is inspiring,” concludes Mr. Ducharme. “Inspiring not just for young refugees, but for young people in general, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Slide

For over 40 years, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has accompanied, served and advocated on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, so that they might heal, learn and determine their own future.

JRS recognizes the importance of empowering those directly affected by displacement. The Refugee Committee, for example, coordinated by Rocky Robenson within the framework of pastoral care, serves as a platform where refugees themselves play a central role in formulating policies and making decisions that impact the entire community.

 

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