By Francesca Billington
Ahlam Dib bounces her 11-month year old daughter in her lap. Sham, Arabic for “Damascus”, smiles and points to her mother’s plate for more food. Sham was born in Altona, but her seven siblings—two sisters and three brothers—were born in Damascus and lived there with their parents until 2012. Ahlam owned her own clothing store and managed a hotel while her husband raised sheep. But when “things started to get really bad” in Syria, Ahlam says, she and her family moved to Lebanon and filed for resettlement. In Lebanon, Ahlam started growing crops on a farm and worked other jobs so she could send her children to school. Then, one afternoon, Ahlam got a call that her family would leave for Canada in two days. Ahlam didn’t sleep her final two nights in Lebanon; she cleaned and shopped and packed suitcases—one 10-kilogram bag and one 2-kilogram bag for each family member. The bags were filled with clothes, spices, tea, coffee, bread. “Someone told me there would be no Hijab in Canada,” she said, so one suitcase she filled only with Hijab.
Ahlam remembers the day she flew to Canada. She lists the travel schedule to me: a nine-hour bus ride before a three-hour flight to Jordan, then a five-hour layover in Jordan until a 15-hour flight to Toronto. They slept for one night at an airport in Toronto before their final flight to Winnipeg the next day. She remembers being confused by the seating assignments on the plane. This is my family, this is my husband and we are sitting together, she told the flight attendants in Arabic. But the flight staff was not patient. When the plane landed and Ahlam saw snow piled on the ground, she thought she might cry.
Sometime in the middle of our conversation, Ahlam’s husband quietly takes Sham into his arms and brings her to another table across the room. Linda Loewen, an Altona resident who helped privately sponsor the family through Build a Village, said later that Ahlam’s husband’s English is not strong, and that he probably didn’t speak to us because of that. “Women tend to learn English faster than men,” she said. Loewen thinks this happens because Arabic men living in Canada socialize with each other more often than women do, so they practice English less.
Ahlam lights up when she tells us about stepping off the airport and seeing Loewen hold a welcome sign in Arabic. What sadness she felt seeing the snow moments before had dissolved. She now has a farm in Altona and sells her fruits and vegetables: zucchini, tomatoes, watermelon. She keeps getting calls from customers who want to buy ful—fava beans that aren’t typically grown in Canada. Some of her crops grow from seeds she brought from Damascus. Her husband herds sheep again. Ahlam’s husband brings Sham back to her mother and takes the car keys from his wife. Sham is still smiling and she wears a grey onesie with a fuzzy white animal on the front, which Ahlam points out to me. Linda says she thinks it’s a moose because of the antlers. But to Ahlam, it’s a sheep.