Refugee given second chance in Canada helps Syrian family to safety
Given the opportunity to start over in Toronto, Thuy Nguyen pledged to return the favour one day. Now, she is helping the Nouman family from Syria begin a new life.
Thuy Nguyen and Narjes Nouman spend time at a beach in downtown Toronto.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab
When Thuy Nguyen first greeted the anxious Syrian family at Toronto airport in January 2016, their meeting triggered a wave of memories.
“It was very emotional,” says Thuy, 53. “I could empathize with what they were feeling. I could feel their sense of loss. But I could also feel their sense excitement for a new beginning.”
Forty-one years ago, Thuy was also resettled in Canada as a refugee at the tender age of 12, after fleeing war-torn Vietnam in 1975 with seven of her brothers and sisters.
Leaving behind their parents, the group had boarded a ship to South Korea, beginning a journey at sea that would last 18 days. Once they reached land, they lived in a South Korean refugee camp for two months. “You know vaguely that your life is falling apart,” says Thuy. “But you have the optimism of a young person – aware of all the wonderful things that you are going to do – and that is what we focused on.”
Among the nervous family members at the airport, Thuy spotted Narjes Nouman, the eldest of seven children. “When I looked at Narjes I could see how I was when I first came at the age of 13 – and all the different experiences that she will go through.”
The Nouman family is among the 13,000 refugees resettled in Canada over the past year, through the country’s private sponsorship program. Originally developed to assist Vietnamese refugees like Thuy Nguyen in the late 1970s, the system allows residents to pool their money and resources together to provide financial and social support for one year.
Two years after their own arrival in Canada, Thuy and her siblings were able to sponsor their parents, reuniting the family.
"I could feel their sense of loss. But I could also feel their sense excitement for a new beginning.”
“[My parents] instilled in us a sense of social responsibility,” says Thuy. “That, one day, we can also give back to others who were in our position.”
That day finally came in 2016, when she and husband Michael pored over a list of Syrian refugee families approved for sponsorship. When she saw a family of nine, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I told Michael, ‘I’m from a big family. I can handle this,’” says Thuy, herself one of 15 children.
For the Nouman family, the news they would be moving to Canada could not have come soon enough.
At one point in the war, as bombs pummeled the family’s hometown of Homs, Syria, they became trapped inside their house and huddled together in the bathroom for more than a week. During rare moments of stillness, they would sneak outside in search of food. Suddenly, the bucolic summer vacations spent at the sea and in the countryside with relatives were no more. “I didn’t want my kids to see death,” says the father, Mohamed, explaining their decision to flee.
The family fled from Syria to Lebanon and then to Jordan for safety. But the two years in Amman provided neither work nor stability. All members of the family slept in the same single room of a cramped apartment.
“On the day that we first heard that we are going to come to Canada, dad came and told us and I said to him, ‘Wow!’” remembers Narjes. “I started singing and dancing because we were going to Canada! It was such a wonderful feeling.”
On their first night in Toronto, worried they would freeze from the cold, the family all slept in their new winter clothes, only to find the building’s heating quickly left them sweating.
Trained as a welder back in Syria, Mohamed says he wants nothing more than to work again, providing for both his family and the community. “I love my profession and you must benefit the country with things that you know,” he says. However, his struggles with English make both working and expressing himself difficult.
“They took us in and I can’t ever repay them."
When Thuy, Michael and other sponsors come to visit, he feels helpless. “I can’t say more than ‘welcome’. Sometimes, I just want to sit and chat with them. I want to tell them about my life and what is in my heart, but I can’t.”
For Thuy, her aim is to give the family what she never fully had – a safety net. She remembers only too well how the anxiety of a new culture and language overwhelmed her when she first came to Canada.
“The sponsors and I have promised to stay in touch with each other for the rest of our lives,” says Mohamed. “They took us in and I can’t ever repay them. But if ever one of them gets sick or needs me, I want them to call. I will help.”
From Far and Wide is a series of stories profiling the Canadians who have welcomed Syrian refugees with compassion and support. All across the country, strangers, friends, families and communities are creating powerful bonds of friendship that transcend language and culture, when they are needed the most.