GRATES COVE, NL — Asked to describe what was left behind when he chose to flee his home country of Syria more than six years ago with his family in tow, Mahmaed AlTaani avoids words.
Instead, he stands up in the living room of his family’s home in Grates Cove, points his fingers to the side and makes a “pow” sound. Mahmaed then makes a low boom noise, separating his hands simultaneously.
“You go in the road, dangerous,” said the family’s father, who is learning English.
The AlTaanis are from Daraa, a southwestern city very close to the Syria-Jordan border.
For almost seven years, Syria has been engulfed in civil war. Over 400,000 people have been killed, and millions of refugees have fled the country.
“I liked to live there because that’s my country,” said Mahmaud, the eldest of Mahmaed and Feda’s four sons at 15 (he helped translate some of his father’s words when necessary during an interview with the Compass). The seasons were generally warm, excluding winter months, when the average temperature moves towards single digits.
“You can sleep outside the house. Here (you) can’t smoke,” Mahmaed said with a laugh, indicating the cold wind makes it difficult to light a cigarette outdoors.
Almost seven years ago, Mahmaed left Daraa and went to Jordan, where he stayed for six months before coming back to retrieve his family. The AlTaanis spent time at a refugee camp in the Jordanian capital of Irbid.
Mahmaed said Jordan also proved to be a dangerous place for his family. Abdulaziz, the youngest child in the family, was three months old when they left Syria.
Leaving was especially hard for Mahmaed. His mother died while they were in Jordan, and he hasn’t seen his father in years. An older brother disappeared four years ago, and Mahmaed doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive. His brother had five children in Syria.
A son of Mahmaed’s from a previous marriage was killed in Syria. Three others — two with families of their own — remain there, while a fourth, Ahmed, is in Turkey. According to Mahmaed, police in Turkey recently picked up Ahmed, who is undocumented, and assaulted him. He is now looking for ways to get his 21-year-old son, who was studying to be a teacher, out of Turkey to join his family in Grates Cove.
According to Courtney Howell, one of several co-sponsors for the AlTaani family, they now initiating a process for other dependents to come to Canada. They’re also eager to access someone with legal expertise in immigration law who might help expedite the process, given the AlTaanis are concerned about Ahmed’s safety in Turkey.
“Now that the police have found him, he’s in a lot of danger,” Howell said.
Mahmaed said it was about a year and a half ago that his family started the process to emigrate from the Middle East.
The AlTaani family came to Newfoundland in darkness last August following 16 hours of flying. A month later, the AlTaani children started attending schools. Mahmaud and 13-year-old Abdulah attend Baccalieu Collegiate in Old Perlican, while Abdulaziz and seven-year-old Ibrahim go to Tricon Elementary in Bay de Verde.
“Everyone in school is my friend,” said Mahmaud, who grows more confident with his use of English with each passing month. “Everyone knows me.”
Howell gives kudos to the schools for making the transition to English-language schools so smooth for the kids. They have an English as a second language teacher helping, and Howell said some of their teachers have made separate lesson plans for them.
The AlTaanis do have a car that one of the co-sponsors donated, but Mahmaed still needs to get a driver’s license (he has an international one, but still must complete a test locally). They’ve been dependent on the kindness of others for getting around to look after errands.
They have met some fellow Syrians in St. John’s. Remarkably, Mahmaed met a woman who is actually related to his mother’s family.
“They’re close with a couple of families in St. John’s,” Howell said.
Once the winter settles down, Mahmaed will do some work with Grates Cove Studio, a restaurant Howell owns and operates with her husband Terrence. He’ll help in the kitchen and with some vegetable gardening.
Beyond that, Howell said she is committed to doing whatever’s necessary to help the family make a new life, whether that’s in Grates Cove or somewhere else.
“The more we get to know them and the kind of life that they lived in Syria and what they like doing, it fits with here, so we all think and work and research very hard at how we can incorporate that either into (Grates Cove Studios) or if they want to start their own (business) or want to go somewhere else,” she said.
“They’re a wonderful family. They’re good people.”