When Reham Abazid and her family moved to Canada as refugees from war-ravaged Syria five years ago, she didn’t speak English and knew practically nothing about a country she was hoping would soon feel like home.
Reham spent three hours every day studying English classes at her local YMCA in Saint John, N.B., but it wasn’t enough. She felt that if she only could immerse herself in the culture and become accustomed to hearing the language of real locals, she could adapt faster and start to feel at home in her new environment.
Wanting to learn more about Canadians, where did Reham go? Tim Hortons, of course.
“I knew Tim Hortons was a very popular place in Canada – that all of these people loved to go there in their free time,” Reham recalls.
“I would take my pen and paper and go sit in Tim Hortons for a few hours every chance I could. I would take loads of notes on what people were saying. If there was a word I didn’t know, I would write it down, go home, enter it into Google Translate, and learn the meaning.
“Whenever I had time, I would go there.”
Each day, she would sit for hours munching on a donut or sipping a French Vanilla or Iced Capp (friendly staff would often send over hot coffee, too), listening intently.
Mostly, she recalls hearing conversations about weather. But she also took notice of how often she overheard her new neighbours simply taking an honest interest in each other and their lives.
It was the beginning of Reham discovering just how supportive her new community really was.
When Reham looks back at life in her hometown of Daraa, Syria, what stands out is the normalcy. She and her husband had a young family, stable employment, and a lemon tree growing in their yard.
Then, in 2011, Daraa became the centre of protests after the arrest and torture of a group of local children. That led to a government crackdown and, eventually, a bloody Syrian civil war.
Overnight, Reham’s simple life was gone – and simply staying alive became the priority.
“Bombs were everywhere. I have never been scared for myself, but it was so scary to have kids.”
Reham’s family eventually fled to neighbouring Jordan, where life remained hard. Because they weren’t citizens, Reham’s children couldn’t attend school and her husband couldn’t work.
When Reham’s family finally got the call from the United Nations that they were approved to come to Canada, it felt like a “new beginning.”
“We just thought we were luckiest family. Finally, a future for our kids.”
Building a home
It’s been five years since moving to Canada and Reham couldn’t be happier with how things worked out.
Her husband has found steady work here as a mechanic and the family has since welcomed another child.
When her family fled Syria, Reham brought her house key with her, always assuming they would eventually find a way back home. Now, they have found their home, albeit on the other side of the world.
“Saint John is my home,” she says. “The warmth of the people here – they make me love it more and more, every day. They are amazing.”
Now, Reham has entrepreneurial ambitions, hoping to open her own convenience store and embed her family even further in the community she’s grown to love.
Only a few years removed from her English “lessons” at Tim Hortons, she’s now fluent (and she still drops in often for coffee and croissants). Still, when she tries to describe how she feels about her adopted country, it’s a rare instance where Reham is lost for words.
“I wish I could have a word to explain how happy I am here.”