Syria to Haliburton: one year in
With the danger and uncertainty behind them, the Wisos rebuild their lives in Haliburton
|By Alex Coop - Staff Writer | September 21, 2017|
Police and government employees in Lebanon have no qualms about using violence against refugees, says Hasan Wiso, 20, which is why he was shaking when police pulled him over in Minden this summer.
“I was so nervous,” says Hasan.
During a trip to the Mississauga Aquarium with his younger brothers and sisters, a passerby misinterpreted a can of Pepsi for a can of alcohol, and called police, claiming Hasan was drinking and driving with children in the car.
When police pulled Hasan over, they quickly discovered there were no signs of impairment. They checked his driver’s license and insurance, and let him go. But before they did, they asked him why he was so nervous.
“I told them, where I came from, they hit me for being Syrian,” he says.
This week, the Wisos celebrated one year in Haliburton. They came from Lebanon after fleeing Syria.
Refugees and aid workers in Lebanon have said some police and other government employees use the country’s strict and expensive process to renew residency permits, as a means to exploit them, according a report from the Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit nongovernmental human rights organization.
In Beirut, he says he was on his way to work at his construction job one day, when government officials pulled him aside, asked for his identification, and discovered he had failed to pay his renewal fee on time.
The $200 annual fee is a considerable sum for 70 per cent of Syrian refugees who fall below the poverty line, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“They said ‘you have to come with us’ and tried to keep me away from my boss … they hit me, beat me,” says Hasan.
“When you’re talking to police here [Haliburton County], it’s so different. They are doing a job, but they are nice.”
The brief police encounter was just one of many eye-opening moments for Hasan, who, with the help of Anglican and United Refugee Alliance (AURA) and the Haliburton Refugee Sponsorship Committee, moved to Haliburton a year ago with the rest of his family.
“The biggest difference is the people. People here are so kind,” says Yousef, Hasan’s father, adding refugees in Lebanon were often taken advantage of with low wages and long work hours.
Hasan’s mother, Ghiyab, says she was extremely nervous on the plane ride to Canada as she knew very little about her destination.
But those feelings were washed away instantly, she says, when they arrived and were met with open arms by committee members.
- According to the UNHCR, there were more than one million Syrian refugees who had been registered in Lebanon in 2016.
- Canada has admitted the largest number of refugees in a single year in nearly four decades, (46,700), according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
After living in Haliburton for 12 months, Yousef and Ghiyab have been busy building a new life and learning English. Hasan translated for them during the interview.
Ghiyab, and her daughters, Bayan, 18, and Rihab, 17, work with Janine Papadopoulos at Into the Blue Bakery. Papadopoulos says the two teens, who attend Haliburton Highlands Secondary School (HHSS), will continue to work with her until the end of October before things slow down. The trio will likely be back next summer.
“They were great additions to the team, very fun to work with,” she says.
Ghiyab worked as a bread maker in the kitchen. Papadopoulos described her as “a key player” during the busy summer.
HHSS senior student Mikaela Kauffeldt first met Bayan and Rihab in her hospitality and tourism class last year.
“I helped them learn some simple English words … assisted them during class,” Kauffeldt says. “They seemed to be drawn to me and my friends so we wanted to help them.”
She says she often talks with Bayan and Rihab in between classes.
Kauffeldt’s sister Abigail, who’s in Grade 10, says Bayan is a talented soccer player as well. Last season, she played for the school’s team.
“She’s very outgoing, too,” she says. “Rihab is shy, but very kind.”
Hasan works at McKecks Tap and Grill while attending the Adult and Education Training Centre in Haliburton. His co-workers are some of the friendliest people he’s ever met, he says.
Head Lake Park was a popular destination for the family of 11 this summer, and so was the farmers’ market. Trips across the street – the family currently lives in the St. George’s Anglican Church rectory next to the church – are not fraught with danger, but filled with greetings and handshakes.
These gestures were part of everyday life in Aleppo, Syria, the Wisos original home, before civil war ravaged the country’s largest city in 2012, says Hasan.
Zigzagging down the street suddenly became second nature to the family during trips to the market or grocery store.
As tensions continued to rise in Aleppo, Hasan recalls a neighbouring near-vacant apartment that struck fear into everyone in the area. Armed with a gun, its lone occupant took pot-shots at residents passing by, fearing they were police or looters.
He didn’t care who they were, says Hasan.
“I saw someone get shot and die,” he adds. “We just knew, you never, never go in a straight line.”
He points to Rihab’s arm.
“He shot her in her arm,” he says, while Rihab rubs it momentarily.
But now, with the chaos and uncertainty behind her, Rihab is dedicated to achieving her dreams.
“I want to be a police officer,” she says.
Bayan wants to be a doctor. Hasan wants to be in the medical field.
“I want to help people, and give back,” says Hasan. “I want to help people the way people have helped me.”
ALEX COOP is a reporter for The Highlander.