by Kieran Murphy
“Do you still have all those watermelons?” asked Linda. “Yes,” replied Ahlam, “four hundred.” Francesca and I looked at each other shocked and then stared in awe at Ahlam.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “How did you get four hundred watermelons?”
For the previous twenty minutes, Francesca, Linda and I had made small talk over homemade shawarma while Ahlam stayed relatively quiet. Francesca Billington is a fellow student wh o was invited to eat with refugees at Bergthaler Mennonite Church in tiny Altona, Canada. Linda Loewen, a volunteer at the church, has helped privately resettle refugees. Ahlam Dib is a mother of eight who came from Syria to Altona two years ago, with the the church.
My first impression of Dib was that of a shy mother. She sat quietly and held her eleven-month-old daughter while we talked and ate. Loewen first piqued her interest when she asked Dib about her watermelons. Dib immediately brightened up and began talking about the farm that she owned and operated. Having been a farmer in Syria, she now grows watermelon, zucchini, tomatoes, and fava beans, though her Syrian eggplants won’t grow in Altona, much to her chagrin.
In Syria, Dib helped her husband run a sheep farm, planted and sold vegetables, worked as a hotel manager, and owned a clothing store for women and children. When the Syrian Civil War escalated, she and her family, including six children, moved to Lebanon. In Lebanon, Dib had a find a way to pay for her children’s education, as school was not free. So she continued her farm work while also holding a job cleaning and assisting at a pharmacy.
After three and a half years of living in Lebanon, Dib received a call that she had been accepted to move to Canada: in two days. Dib knew there was no time to lose. She began her two sleepless days by immediately going to the store and buying all the seeds she could get her hands on: she needed to continue her livelihood in Syria. She also bought Syrian food and spices and new clothes for her children—she had no idea what would be available in Canada.
In what seemed like no time, Dib and her children were stepping off the plane in Winnipeg with eighteen bags—two filled with food and one filled entirely with hijabs. Dib cried when she saw her reception, both from shock and happiness. Shock from the snow and the cameras (her family was the first Syrian family to arrive in Altona since the Prime Minister announced the refugee focus on Syria), and happiness that Loewen and her husband, Ray, were welcoming her to Canada. In their hands they held signs that said “welcome” in Arabic, and they greeted Dib and her family with standard Arabic pleasantries.
Today, Dib says she loves living in Canada. Her oldest daughter has 3 diplomas, and her second-oldest has two. Her 14-year-old son is the star of his high school’s soccer team. Her produce business is thriving and she has made many Syrian friends.
What strikes me most about Ahlam Dib is how she embodies the “resilient survivor”, a personification of the refugee experience that tends to be much more respectful and accurate than portraying refugees as victims. Though I knew most refugees fit this mold, I didn’t expect the first woman I interviewed to represent the resilient survivor in every way.