André Al Kaed is looking forward to Christmas with joy for the first time in four years.
A Roman Catholic from Damascus, 20-year-old Al Kaed arrived in Salmon Arm in October, sponsored by St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.
He was reunited with his mother and three sisters on Dec. 5 in what Brian Ayotte, one of the founders of the Shuswap Refugee Coalition, called a moving reunion.
“He dropped to his knees to hug his sisters,” says Ayotte, noting there wasn’t a dry eye in the airport. “When his mother came through the door, she wrapped her arms around him and held on for about four minutes.”
Four years ago, Al Kaed was at school in Damascus when a neighbour called to tell him his house had been bombed.
“Everything was destroyed but nobody was at home,” said Al Kaed, who was a national chess champion at the age of 14. “All the neighbours said, ‘Jesus wanted this family to live.’ It was the last day I was at school with my friends, the last day I was happy.”
When his father refused to leave Syria, Al Kaed assumed the mantle of adulthood at 17 years, convincing his mother to take her daughters and flee to Lebanon with him.
“We had to sell all our belongings and lived one month in a Lebanese camp; life there is dangerous for little children and women,” he says. “One morning I woke up to see my two little sisters playing in the garbage.”
In the middle of war-torn Aleppo, Syrian Christians built a nativity scene to celebrate the holiday.
Shocked into action by the sight, Alkaed went to Beirut, seeking a home for his family and a job.
He found a room for $300 a month at the Church of Notre Dame des Anges, and worked two jobs seven days a week to keep his family together.
An accomplished jeweler, he worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. designing and making jewelry for the owner, who embraced his designs but paid his Lebanese workers more than Al Kaed, who was their supervisor.
“Just because I am Syrian,” he says. “One-third of the country is Syrian and the Lebanese don’t like it.”
For six evenings a week, Al Kaed worked from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. as a waiter in a nearby restaurant.
“We didn’t have the time, place or money to celebrate Christmas. It was very sad,” he says of looking after his mother and sisters, seven-year-old Jennifer, Angie, 9, and 16-year-old Elissar.
“I was just under 18 and was used to having fun with my friends,” he says. “With the bombs, I became a man.”
His jolt into manhood also came through a nasty confrontation with Syrian police.
When he was 17 and on his way to a Christian event in which participants shared fireworks, two police officers questioned him and decided he was disrespectful in his response to their questions.
They accused him of bringing fireworks from out-of-country to sell in Syria and took him to jail. Housed in a very small cell with only a tiny window high in the wall, Al Kaed was starved and beaten daily, suffering a broken jaw in the process.
Fortunately, the family was well acquainted with several priests, one of whom effected Al Kaed’s release after three terrifying days.
That terror lives on in the dreams that continue to waken the young man in the night.
It is another reason he is grateful for his new home and reunion with his family.
“I am so excited, really,” he says, radiating joy. “Now I will make the best Christmas for them; I will get a tree and nice decorations and I will introduce the idea of hanging stockings. My younger sisters don’t know about Christmas is yet.”
Jennifer, 7, and Angie, 9, sit in front of the Christmas tree in their new Salmon Arm apartment. André spent many hours perfecting the tree decorations for the first Christmas in Canada
His eyes light up again as he plans for this year’s Christmas feast – traditional foods such as chicken, salad and rice.
In Syria, young Christian boys learn to play drums and participate in lively Christmas parades in bigger cities. The boisterous event features Santa Claus, candy for children and is well-attended by Muslims.
“When children wake up, they go to parents and say Merry Christmas with hands out,” says Al Kaed, noting money is the traditional gift and children head into the streets to buy fast food and candy. “They’re happy because they can buy anything they want. That’s what I remember doing as a child in Syria.”
Like Christians around the world, attending mass is an integral part of Christmas celebrations.
“The mass is the same, the same songs and we have someone play guitar and piano,” says Al Kaed, noting the only difference is that the words are in Arabic.
The family’s Damascus neighbourhood was home to both Muslim and Christian families.
“We were so friendly together; in the war they helped us protect our churches and we helped with their mosques.”
Because he was over 18, Al Kaed had to have a separate application to come to Canada. Through the vagaries of bureaucracy, he arrived two months before his mother and sisters.
Known to some of the Syrian refugees as “Grandfather,” Ayotte says the local parish of St. Joseph’s is working on getting Al Kaed’s girlfriend and family out of Damascus.
“It’s a family of seven Christians, he says, expressing concern. “The Canadian government has slowed the process again. There were 36,000 (refugees) this year and 17,000 planned for 2017. But there’s already a waiting list of 17,000.”