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New beginnings for Syrian refugees

Fatima Sabra helps newcomers to Nova Scotia thrive

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Fatima Sabra (right) draws on her experiences to help newcomers find a fresh start in Halifax.

Fatima Sabra (right) draws on her experiences to help newcomers find a fresh start in Halifax.

Fatima Sabra still remembers immigrating to Canada when she was 4 years old.

“It was me, my mom, my dad, my brother, and my sister—she was only a few months old,” she recalls. “My father borrowed money from his uncle so we could come to Canada. We stayed in the YMCA and my sister slept in a suitcase at the beginning.”

That was in Montreal in 1989.

Fast forward to now and Sabra has just finished her bachelor of education degree at Mount Saint Vincent University. As part of her program, she was a student teacher at Citadel High School. Since she was one of the only teachers there who spoke Arabic, she became an invaluable resource for the new Syrian students who recently arrived as refugees. Helping them at school quickly turned into a project that is now consuming most of her spare time, too.

It all started during a class where the refugee students were all asked about their hopes for the future.

“One of the students said to me, ‘I have no hope’,” says Sabra.

It was that statement that made her realize these students needed much more than the basic language skills they were acquiring at the school. Soon, the students opened up to her and told her about their homes, some said they only had mattresses in their apartments. When Sabra told the teacher she was working with about some of the challenges the Syrian students were dealing with, they both agreed something needed to be done.

“Suddenly, we were realizing that they needed a place to pray, we needed to find an imam,” says French teacher Nina Waite. “All of these things we didn’t know about became apparent once I could communicate with them through Fatima.”

One of the first things they tackled was finding a prayer space for the students. Then they visited their homes and made lists of things they needed. The next step was reaching out to staff at the school and the community to get donations.

“People feel profoundly sorry for what these people have gone through. They genuinely want to help,” says Waite.

Donations started pouring in.

“I just started getting flooded with donations,” says Waite’s daughter and Dalhousie student Lindsay Wood who asked for donations through a Facebook post. “People were messaging me texting me, just doing anything to try to give.”

Between the three of them, they worked out a system of going to the refugees’ homes and making lists of what they needed. The lists were often extensive and included everything from basics like cutlery and bedding to things they hoped to have eventually like laptops.

They would then triage the lists and start matching the items needed with the donated items.

“There was one family with four rooms and there was no overhead lighting,” says Waite. “So when it got dark, they were in the dark.” For that family, lamps made a huge difference. But each family’s needs are different.

As the donations began to pour in, the women quickly realized they were running out of space to store everything in their homes.

Mount Saint Vincent University, where Sabra was a student, offered to donate a room and it became a place for storing and sorting all of the clothing and housewares. But that room too, quickly began to overflow.

When the first refugee families were coming to Halifax, there was a temporary donation centre set up in the old Rona store in Bayers Lake. It’s something that this group would like to see again for the families that are still arriving and for those who still need the basics.

“My personal feeling is that a venue would solve a lot of the logistics,” says Waite. “I’ve had to turn down offers of couches because I physically have no place to store them.”
And as the list of families they hope to help grows, so too does their need for more volunteers.

“We started with a couple of families and then it kind of spread and the families we started to help started telling their friends and we found more families who needed help and added them to the list,” says Sabra.

While, the list of those who need help is growing, so too is the resolve these women have to help.

“I’m not going to give up,” says Sabra. “That’s why I’m keeping this up. I want to make sure that they feel like they’re stable.”

It’s the memory of her own beginnings in Canada that keeps her going. She knows there are more challenges ahead for these families as they begin to look for work and try to find their place in Canada.

For Sabra, it was a stroke of good luck that changed everything for her family.

Her father was a software engineer in Lebanon but worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Montreal. One day, the computer system at the restaurant failed. The restaurant manager contacted the company to come fix the problem but they told him it would be days before they could get there. Sabra’s father fixed it, surprising and impressing his boss. He introduced her father to a friend who owned a software company. The friend offered him a job, and the family’s fortunes dramatically improved.

Since then, Sabra has developed a deep commitment to making sure newcomer families thrive. Sabra’s life is already busy, she’s a single mother with two young children, but she’s been spending every free moment she has helping the newcomers. When she’s not delivering clothing and furniture, she’s helping them with myriad other things like studying the alphabet and finding groceries that are halal. But she knows that it will take many more volunteers to help everyone; she’s hopeful that others will see the work she’s doing and be inspired to do the same.

Knowing firsthand what the refugee families are going through has strengthened her desire to help and Waite notes that they wouldn’t be able to do what they’ve done so far if Sabra hadn’t initiated the process.

“She was very approachable and the students felt that she was someone young and energetic who had an interest in their plight,” says Waite.

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