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Former refugees adjust to Canadian life, second Syrian family coming to valley

Anto and Rema Kahkejian experienced a special family moment together when their toddler daughter Tia took her very first steps at a playground near their mountain home in Canmore.
Canmore’s Anto Kahkejian with wife Rema and daughter Tia, pose at a playground in Spring Creek in Canmore on Tuesday (May 30).
Canmore’s Anto Kahkejian with wife Rema and daughter Tia, pose at a playground in Spring Creek in Canmore on Tuesday (May 30).

Anto and Rema Kahkejian experienced a special family moment together when their toddler daughter Tia took her very first steps at a playground near their mountain home in Canmore.

“It was really amazing,” said Anto, listing off the handful of words Tia can say right now.

Baby Tia is the youngest member of the Kahkejian family and was born while her parents were refugees on the growing waitlist to travel to Canada and become permanent citizens after they fled Syria in Oct. 2013.

The family led a pretty normal life in the city of Aleppo before a bombing destroyed the apartment building the Kahkejians lived in.

The conflicts of the Syrian Civil War ignited in 2011. At the time, Syrian armed forces were engaging three rebel factions – one being ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

The United Nations’ Antonio Guterres, high commissioner for refugees, declared the Syrian refugee crisis the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”

The Kahkejian family, a six-member, three generation Christian Armenian-Syrian family (Anto, wife Rema, daughter Tia, sister Sevan, and parents Eklas and Sarkis) are a few of over 4.4 million people whom fled Syria since 2011.

The family arrived in Canmore seven months ago; a three-year process which started when they escaped the civil unrest in the Middle Eastern country.

“We still have a family (in Syria), it’s better than before, but they still don’t have electricity, they don’t have water, they don’t have important things to live,” said Anto.

The group that assisted in bringing the Kahkejians to Canmore is the Bow Valley Syria Project (BVSP), with support from the congregation of Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.

The group sponsored the Kahkejians, which means support to the family for one year (housing, income support, settlement support) following approval from the Government of Canada.

Canada is the only country in the world that allows private citizens and groups to sponsor people to whom they’re not related.

Since their arrival, the Kahkejians are fitting quite well into their new community, and one of their current initiatives is improving their English through courses and tutors.

In a Nov. 2016 interview with the Outlook, an interpreter was needed for all parties involved. However, a translator was not needed this time.

Anto said that Rema and he plan to plant roots in the Bow Valley with Tia, and just three months after arriving, Anto started working as a full-time baker at the local Save-On-Foods.

“Mr. Blaine (Laird), the Save-On store manager, and Kuzuko (Dixon), the bakery manager, they are great persons, they are helping me to be best in my work,” said Anto.

“Canmore is a great place to live, it is a great community around us, we would love to stay in Canmore. We applied for Canmore Regional Housing to make it easier for us, especially after the first year.”

With the success of aiding the Kahkejians on their journey to Canmore, the BVSP have announced approval of a sponsorship for a second Syrian family expected to be coming to the Bow Valley.

The family, comprised of three adults (a woman, her husband and her mother-in-law) fled Syria’s capital Damascus to Egypt in February 2013.

They already have a family connection in the Bow Valley, so BVSP Chair Debra Hornsby said it made perfect sense to aide in bringing them to Canada.

“The family connection has stepped forward and will supply the housing,” said Hornsby. “The other obligation is (BVSP) has taken on … one year of support, to help them get on their feet.”

After seeing dead bodies laying in the streets and experiencing an increase in hostility in the community, BVSP’s newest sponsored family bolted from Syria. By August of 2013, Egypt, too, had an uprising, which turned violent.

They were forced to flee once more to Malaysia, a country that accepted Syrians without visas at the time.

“They have no refugee status in Malaysia, so their situation is quite precarious there,” said Hornsby.

“They are going through the process of the health checks, the security checks and all those things that go with an application to emigrate to Canada as refugees. Canada does not have an embassy in Malaysia, so it may take a long time, we’re not sure how long it will take, but we’re hopeful (it’s soon).”

All three are fluent in English, and the mother also speaks French. The wife and husband are graphic designers, and former students at the University of Damascus.

The timeline for when they will arrive in the Bow Valley is still uncertain, Hornsby said. As an example, BVSP found out the Kahkejians were on their way two weeks prior to arrival.

BVSP has a fundraising goal to reach $40,000 by the end of the 2017, a sufficient fund to support the three adults. A fundraising dinner this fall is currently being planned.

For more information on BVSP and where to donate, please go to www.bowvalleysyria.ca.


Rocky Mountain Outlook

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