The country has given a warm welcome to thousands fleeing Assad’s regime – but can they weather its bitter winters?
When Ziad Ammar arrived in Canada, he had been out of jail for only three months. Tortured and starved in one of the prisons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he was weak and malnourished. It was not the best state in which to face a Canadian winter. “I bought everything that I needed for a whole month and then never left the house,” he said, laughing.
Ammar, whose name has been changed to protect family members still in Syria, arrived in Montreal in the autumn of 2014. A native of Latakia, a coastal city on the glittering Mediterranean, he had never faced harsh winters, certainly nothing close to the blanket of snow that often adorns his new home city.
Having to get used to the Canadian cold, and quickly, he took to developing his culinary skills, cooking Syrian dishes after work. Now he regularly makes kibbeh labanieh, meatballs made with bulgur and cooked in a yoghurt stew, the quintessential comfort food, and a lentil soup that reminds him of the version he used to order at a specific restaurant every time he drove from Latakia to Aleppo. He also serves up traditional knafeh pastry, served warm with piping-hot sugar syrup, alongside a glass of salep, a creamy Ottoman drink made with orchid flour, milk and cinnamon.
“Sitting around a table of food with family in the cold makes you feel warm,” said Ammar, who has been reunited with his wife in Montreal. “Here, you can have that same feeling of warmth because of the memories.”
Over the past three years, Canada has accepted more than 50,000 Syrian refugees as part of government- and privately-sponsored resettlement programmes. In an initiative that ran counter to the global mood of growing xenophobia and rightwing populism, its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, welcomed the first group of Syrians arriving as part of the government’s campaign in late 2015. Many who came after enduring war and displacement, and the misery of refugee camps in the Middle East, set about rebuilding their lives in Canada.
Added to the usual challenges of integration – finding work, accommodation and acquiring the language – learning to love the Canadian winter has proved a formidable task.
In Montreal this weekend temperatures are expected to plunge to -20C with occasional snow flurries. The city launched a partial snow-clearing effort on Friday morning but freezing temperatures have made it extremely difficult for municipal workers to de-ice pavements. Horror stories – such as one from 1 January in which a couple driving on a highway in Quebec had their windshield shattered by flying ice – make it tempting to stay at home.
Yesterday the weather in Damascus, by contrast, was bright and sunny, with a high temperature of 14C.
Syrians in Canada have countless stories about their first winter in the country – hibernating for weeks on end; the first few times they slipped on ice and broke a limb; miscalculating how long they would have to wait in -20C for the bus; shopping for proper winter coats and boots; or splashing hands with hot water after a walk in freezing weather.
For many new arrivals, the shock of the whole thing can drive them indoors.
“If there’s a tiny bit of snow, they won’t come,” said Joulnar El Husseini-McCormick, an estate agent who volunteers to translate for newly arrived refugees at government departments, and who is originally from Homs herself.
“You call them and they say, ‘It’s cold’. I remember one of them asked to postpone the appointment until March. I told her that in March there is snow,” she laughed.
“They’d ask us if they can keep the kids at home when it snows,” she added. “We told them, ‘You can’t keep them at home for six months!’”
In Montreal the shopping districts, cafes and restaurants were bustling and alive ahead of the holidays. The city also boasts an extensive underground network of pedestrian tunnels to avoid the worst of the weather. But as the Christmas lights came down and local markets with mulled wine and were dismantled, winter really began to set in. Charming festive vistas are giving way to brutal icy streets and freezing rain.
Rather than conjuring up scenes of familial gatherings and comforting childhood memories, winter, for some new arrivals, symbolises a greater estrangement: a reminder of the warmth of communities they left behind, however torn apart by war they may have become. It can become a powerful sign of how different their new home is from the one they fled.
“I was alone when I arrived in Canada in January and had no idea how cold it was,” said Dina Haddad, who is also from Latakia and arrived in Canada a year ago.
“When I would take the bus, I didn’t know it arrived at specific times, so I’d freeze and my hands would turn white from the cold until they were numb, and I would cry and say, ‘I wish I never came to this cold’. People would gather around me and ask me, ‘Are you OK, ma’am?’ because of how much I was crying. Eventually, things worked out.”
For those who remain inconsolable, there is always the promise of spring. “I do regret it when I’m waiting for a bus, it’s -20C, windy, and the bus is late,” said El Husseini-McCormick, who moved to Montreal in 2014 with her Canadian husband. “That’s the peak of regret. I think to myself, what brought me here?”
“But when it’s 10 degrees and people are smiling, and you realise it’s spring, you’ll see it,” she added. “Spring is the best feeling in the world.”