By Nicholas Keung
Training her eyes on the Syrian artifacts on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Ghazel Alkak couldn’t help thinking of her now-ruined home near Aleppo. However, the 24-year-old law graduate is grateful and proud to see her culture and heritage preserved at the museum’s Middle East Gallery in Toronto, her new home.
“Given what we all suffered, our museums destroyed and artifacts stolen, it is great to see Syrian history represented at the museum in Canada,” said Alkak, as she and her peers toured the ROM with volunteers from a University of Toronto support program for newly arrived Syrian youth.
“We came from a beautiful country with a rich history. We are very proud of it.”
Only three weeks after her arrival via Turkey under Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program, Alkak is already making new friends through the Cultural Exchange and Support Initiative of the U of T Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department.
Since the project’s inception in the spring, Syrian youth eager to learn English have joined U of T student volunteers keen on brushing up their Arabic every Saturday, over a traditional Syrian lunch prepared by a group of newcomer Syrian women paid to make the food.
The sponsored tour by the ROM on this Saturday was one of many field trips and activities made possible by the many U of T volunteers and support from the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department and the Dean’s Office at the Faculty of Arts & Sciences.
“We do not want these youth to feel isolated, lonely, sad, excluded and neglected,” said Rasha Elendari, one of the program’s founders, herself a PhD visa student from Syria.
“We know our students here want to help support the Syrians and be their friends, and learn about their culture. This is a great opportunity for a cultural exchange.” During the weekly language workshops, participants are provided a theme and a list of vocabulary for their conversational exchange, followed by a writing exercise in which they’re required to read a sentence and write a short paragraph on the selected topic.
On this sunny and balmy November Saturday, participants were given a list of words about archeology and the question of why it is important to study the past and human history. Firas Baroody, 19, arrived in Canada with his family via Jordan in February and has been part of the group since May. He’s now in Grade 12.
“We can practise English here and they can learn Arabic from us. We talk about how to learn a new language and we use cue cards,” said Baroody, who commuted for 90 minutes from his home in Burlington. “Here we make Canadian friends and Syrian friends.”
Rob Martin, another co-founder of the initiative, said the program has a roster of 150 volunteers from all academic disciplines and the workshops have been well attended. “We hope this can be a stepping stone for the Syrian newcomers in Canada where they feel they are a part of something,” said Martin, a PhD student in archeology. “They have been through so much and endured traumas. It’s great to see them come out of their shells, make new friends and be happy.”
Karam Jamalo, who reached Canada by himself in April from Lebanon, said the U of T workshops are the highlight for him each week and he was thrilled to visit the museum to reminisce about his home country.
“I love the Syrian lunch. It reminds me of home. This is an amazing program for young people like me,” said Karam, 24, who dropped out of his business administration studies due to the conflicts in Syria and is now studying at George Brown to finish his high school equivalency.
Robert Mason, an archeologist with the ROM and a guide for the tour, said he hoped the visit would give the newcomers a sense of empowerment.
“We want to create a link between these artifacts and their descendants,” said Mason. “We want them to know that Syria isn’t just a bombed-out shell. Their country has made a lot of contributions to the world, to our civilization.”
Alkak and her family will move from a refugee shelter near the U of T campus to an apartment in Scarborough within days, and she said she can’t wait to move on and go back to school. “I will come to the workshop even after I move away. I’m so happy here,” she said. “During the war, it was difficult to trust people and communicate. Being here, I feel relaxed and learn you can trust people again and make friends.”
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The NMC-CESI is sponsored by The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, The Faculty of Arts and Science, and Victoria College at the University of Toronto.