From Aleppo to Kingston
For many of us, Kingston is something of a second home during the school year. For Peter*, this city represents a second chance at life.
Peter arrived in Kingston on December 26th, 2015, among the first wave of Syrian refugees to make a new home in Canada.
It is a strange feeling when you meet someone for the first time, but you already know fragments chronicling some of the most personal details of their life through their refugee application package. There were things I knew about Peter without having met him, but there was so much of his story that I could not understand or imagine.
I knew he was 26 years old and that he had been forced to abandon his studies when terrorist militants bombed his campus, taking the lives of many of his classmates.
“Our lives turned from the ordinary, sometimes the mundane, into horror movies,” his application read.
I knew that after leaving university Peter had worked as a hairdresser in his home city of Aleppo, Syria and that he gave back to his community by making wigs for cancer patients. I knew from his application that he had been forced to flee Aleppo for Lebanon after ISIS began targeting hair salons throughout the city and his workplace was destroyed by a car bomb.
“I froze when I saw my workplace being destroyed … the damages were frightening. It was obvious these rebels were in power and no one was able to react or prevent the horrifying events,” he wrote.
Peter, in his own words, has shared more details of his journey from Syria and his plans for building a new life in Canada.
We meet for the first time at a small gathering at my home in Kingston. Any nervous apprehension I have about our first meeting dissipates when he enters the front door. I leap up from my chair to greet him, and we instinctively hug like old friends. “Welcome,” I say, in true Canadian fashion.
Peter and another friend take a seat on my couch. I offer them snacks and seat myself cross-legged on the carpet, eager to listen to whatever he is willing to share.
I ask him about his initial impressions of Canada and how he has been settling in.
“Canada is amazing,” he says, beaming with enthusiasm. “The people are amazing. They are lovely people, and peaceful. Kingston is especially amazing, and the Queen’s University students are helpful, they help a lot.”
I was immediately struck by Peter’s positive disposition. He is friendly, funny and genuinely excited to soak up as much as he can learn about Canada.
He laughs when we explain to him that Kingston’s cold snap began shortly after he came to town. As it turns out, we’re not the first to mention this.
“Wherever I go, I seem to bring the snow,” he jokes. “I don’t know why, but I am the snow man.”
He says he already loves the winter, even though he isn’t used to dealing with the cold.
Peter says he has felt welcome in Canada since the moment he arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Everyone on his flight was greeted with warm hellos and winter coats and boots.
“From the beginning, everything has been good,” he says. “I feel very welcome. Not just because I am a refugee, but because Canadians are interested in other people.”
Peter’s journey to Canada is being sponsored by a group of Kingstonians, including several Queen’s professors. He tells me about some of the events leading up to his arrival in Canada.
“A lot of things happened to me in Aleppo,” he explains, referring to the events detailed in his application. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had stayed there.”
I am perplexed as to why hair salons like his were specifically targeted.
“ISIS is close-minded,” he says.
Peter’s words convey so succinctly what we all read in the news, but to hear him speak them attaches a new gravity.
Tracing his finger along a map on my iPhone, he shows me the location of his family home and where it sits in relation to ISIS-controlled territory. ISIS now controls much of Aleppo, and it has a heavy presence in the northern parts of the city. The government operates from an area south of Peter’s home near the Aleppo Citadel in the Old City. This puts Peter’s neighbourhood smack-dab in the middle of an area prone to back and forth attacks and counter attacks.
Peter explains that his parents encouraged him to leave the city after his place of work was bombed. They feared for his safety. He chose to relocate to Beirut, Lebanon instead of nearby Turkey because he thought there would be more opportunities for him there as a hairdresser.
“Lebanon was great, but it is a small country and there have been a lot of people coming in,” he explains. “Lebanon cannot handle all these people. And they are right, but where can we go?”
About three and a half months ago Peter was given a choice between travelling to Australia or Canada as a refugee. His decision to come to Canada was informed by research he had done while studying hotel management in Syria. Students in his program were required to know about different countries and cultures so they could accommodate visitors and tourists. His impression was that Canada was a large and beautiful country where he could rebuild his life. The Canadians he had met were friendly people who seemed to care about others.
“I feel very welcome. Not just because I am a refugee, but because Canadians are interested in other people.”
Now that he has made Canada his home, Peter wants to learn as much as he can about our country and help others in the Kingston community.
“I want to know the culture, I want to read about the culture of Canada, and I want to be in touch with people and be someone who is not just a refugee,” he explains. “I want to be someone who is helpful, like my sponsors. I want to do good things for others.”
Other than people he met on the plane, Peter does not know anyone from Syria living in Canada. But his English is strong, and he is keen to help newcomers with their language skills.
Peter is especially eager to help orient another Syrian family expected to arrive in Kingston in the coming weeks.
“For sure, without asking. I will help as much as I can.”
*Peter is an alias he’s been given to protect his identity.
A group of Queen’s Law students—including myself, Kaisha Thompson, Rosa Stall and Lauren Wilson—has been assisting with Peter’s resettlement. Starting in September, we began reaching out to local lawyers, service providers and faith-based organizations to carve out a niche for law students interested in supporting refugee resettlement. Our group, the Queen’s Law Refugee Support Program, officially launched over the holidays to coincide with Peter’s arrival to Kingston.
We are continuing to collect donations to assist Peter’s sponsors with start-up cost for things like household items and clothing, as well as ongoing expenditures such as rent and utilities. Contributions can be made online here.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to our campaign so far. It has truly made a difference.
It has been a humbling and humanizing experience to play a small part in welcoming Peter to Canada and to introduce him to our country. In the coming months, we hope to expand the size and reach of our group as Kingston welcomes more families into the community.
For more information about the Queen’s Law Refugee Support Program and updates on volunteer opportunities, please visit our Facebook page.
Jess Spindler is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction and a founding member of the Queen’s Law Refugee Support Program. She is a 3L student.