With thousands of Selkirk College students ready to crack the books this week, there’s one newcomer especially grateful to be back in class.
Her name is Rahaf Zwayne.
She’s a displaced Syrian who at this time last year was merely existing as a refugee in Istanbul – that is until a Fruitvale couple walked into her place of work back in 2014, looking for Turkish tea glasses to bring back to Canada as souvenirs.
Melva and Ian Scott did buy those elegant glasses for their home and still display them today. But in that kismet moment, they gained something priceless, the chance to free a young Syrian from a dark world and bring her a promising life in a new country.
“We always say it’s like a movie and we are going to make it a movie,” Rahaf smiled as she talked with the Trail Times in late August. “When they came into where I used to work, I wasn’t feeling so well, there was a little trouble in my work and I was trying to smile … Melva didn’t understand what he (Rahaf’s boss) said but she could feel that something was wrong.”
After a discreet chat with the petite 28-year old, Rahaf is fluent in English, the Scotts left the store to take in the Turkish coastal scenery while she wrapped their tea glasses.
Sure the glass set is what the Scott’s were looking for, but what they really cared about now was the young woman’s plight.
“They came back and Melva said if you need anything or anything happens to you and you would like to tell me, this is our telephone number and (our) contacts.”
After countless emails, Skype and phone conversations with the Scotts,Rahaf boarded a plane this May and arrived at the Castlegar airport via the couple’s private sponsorship agreement.
Only days after landing, Rahaf was already interwoven into the local community. She talked at a Nelson event called, “I Have a Name,” and later that day, translated for the Queen City’s newly arrived Syrian family.
“‘I Have a Name’ is to let the community know that refugees used to have a normal life before their circumstances were turned upside down,” she said. “I spoke for about 10 minutes and then they asked if I would like to met the Syrian family who arrived in Nelson one day before me.”
Most don’t know anything about life in Syria before the war.
“They don’t have the details of our lifestyle before,” Rahaf added. “It might not be a perfect life, like anywhere, but it is still a life, wherever it is.”
She has stayed in touch with the couple and their two young children from Aleppo, most recently having dinner and staying the night in their Nelson home.
“It was really lovely that I was able to do this in the beginning,” Rahaf recalled of her first days.
”They wanted me to translate for them and tell about their life before, so I had the opportunity to honour this … it was really nice, when I was talking to the audience they were really sensitive, cared, and wanted to listen – there was respect. And respect is the most important thing from anybody, that’s what you need, respect for your culture and your background and for people to try to know more about you.”
Since then Rahaf has joined the Scotts on a trip across the prairies and later to Vancouver. She’s seen her first hot springs in Radium, rode her first ATV and pulled her first slot machine in Saskatchewan, made a visit to the Portage la Prairie Hutterite colony then the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg and finally, attended a wedding on the coast.
With summer over and plenty of first time memories, Rahaf begins the Resort and Hotel Management course at the Tenth Street Campus in Nelson this week – understandably, she’s a little nervous but ready to get at it and meet others her age.
Rahaf was interested in studying fashion or social work like she did in Damascus, but for now, the two-year Selkirk College course is a good opportunity to meet and grow her social group while learning a new skill set.
And the reality is, her lifelong Syrian friends are either dead or at best, living without papers somewhere in Europe or Asia.
That’s the harsh truth.
Some people call it the Syrian civil war, others call it a revolution – no matter the label the conflict is given, it’s obliterated everyday lives of families like the Zwaynes.
“I don’t care the name of what is happening,” she said. “At the end of it, it has destroyed our country, and led us to go from our country to start to build a new life from zero.”
Rahaf says the ongoing war had usually affable Syrians walking with their chins down, unable to look into each other’s eyes.
“This is a complicated war and there’s more than two sides, there are many sides because many people who live in Syria are not Syrian – so it’s a real mess.”
(A country of fertile plains, high mountains, and deserts, Syria was home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans and Turks).
“Most of us as young people we start to build ourselves, (all we know) is violence, blood and treatment like we are nobody,” Rahaf shared. “So this is a really bad feeling to build yourself in this way – it is not a normal way to start your life.
“We all had dreams and all the dreams are gone or put on pause because you can’t continue,” she said, “All during this period we always worked in Damascus, there were bombing terrorists, but we kept going (for six years).
“The rockets would fall down on people, people died in front of me. But we (kept) saying it’s okay we are still alive.”
With so many people lauding Rahaf’s courage to flee into Turkey with her father and brother then move solo to Canada, she says it’s not being “brave” that got her here.
“Everyone was telling me I was so brave,” she said. “I say to them, we saw so many horrible things in our country, I don’t think I will see it somewhere else again.
“What can you lose after you lost most of the things you had, friends and best friends?” she shared. “Some of them were killed, others I don’t know anything, they just disappeared for different reasons – we lost most of the things in our normal life.”
Now that Rahaf is safe and moving ahead with her own life, she still has one big wish – to reunite her family in Canada.
Her father, an architect, and brother, an accomplished artist, are still living in Turkey without papers.
“I always say I am so lucky because of Melva and my mom watching down,” Rahaf said, mentioning her mother passed away in Syria before the war began. “This is one of my dreams, to be reunited with my dad and brother because we used to be together (lived together in an apartment) it’s a cultural thing for our family to stay very close to each other.”
The Scotts are optimistic the family will soon be reunited. Ian says the West Kootenay Friends of Refugees and East Kootenay Friends of Refugee Society have been instrumental in advancing the process.
“The application has gone in,” he noted. “Because Rahaf was squeaky clean, the Canadian government would have investigated their family and extended family and done a complete criminal record check on everyone associated with the family – so we are optimistic that this is a family reunification, he added.
“Having said that, there are no guarantees – but we are hopeful.”