A young girl's journey from fear to freedom
By: Isabelle Bennett
“Everyday I say thank you, my God, I am here with my daughters,” says Syrian mother of three, Hanan Assi. Hanan clutches the hands of her oldest daughter, Deyana Altahsh, in their home in Calgary. They were sponsored to come to Canada as refugees in 2016. Photo by Isabelle Bennett.
Trochu epitomizes small-town living in about as many ways as there are people: 1,058, according to the 2016 census. Just north of Three Hills, Alta., Trochu is the humble home of farmland, an arboretum and St. Anne’s Ranch — whose founder the town is named after — in addition to basic amenities. On paper, it strikes as simple, even uneventful. But to 18-year-old Deyana Altahsh, her mother and two sisters, Trochu is the first step in a promising journey here in Canada.
Deyana and her family are Syrian refugees.
As a young girl, Deyana was eager and driven — hoping to be an astronaut when she grew up. She loved school and her academic performance was exceptional. She did a lot of her growing up in Homs, and has great memories of the vivid activity of the city.
“It was peaceful, alive, vibrant. You would always see people in the street,” she says. “We used to walk to my grandparents at, like, two in the morning and it was so safe — so, so safe.”
Everything changed when Homs became the site of opposition between the Syrian military and their opposition as part of the Syrian Civil War.
“There were riots happening…and then we started hearing about people being killed…so we just kind of stayed at home and never went out. There was always that hope that it will calm down, it will calm down,” says Deyana.
Deyana — about 10 at the time — says the conflict quickly became normal.
“You’d always hear the bomb sounds — it was so normal. Everywhere you’d go there would be holes in the walls from the bullets — in schools and everywhere. If a day comes and you don’t hear the sound of the bomb, they tell you to stay home because something must be happening — [the opposition] must be planning something.
Deyana Altahsh sits in her living room in Calgary, Atla. before heading off to work with young immigrants in the area. Photo by Isabelle Bennett.
“[Then] the schools closed for about two months,” she says. “I used to wake up every morning and dress in my uniform and wait for the bus to come. My mom would say that it’s not coming and tell me to go back to bed, but I wanted to go to school — to see my friends and actually do something … but the bus never came.”
It was then that Deyana’s mother, Hanan Assi — widowed years prior due to a car accident — decided it was time to leave their deteriorating quality of life in search of safety. They moved to Mashta Al Hilu, a town in the mountains, and returned to Homs when they heard that things had calmed down. Still, it wasn’t what Hanan wanted for herself and her daughters.
Hanan Assi, the widowed mother of three is passionate about art, fashion and design and is excited to contribute her skills to the country they now call home. Photo by Isabelle Bennett.
“I saw many people killing before my eyes,” says Hanan. “I left everything, but that wasn’t important...they still have big problems in Syria, some areas seemed safe after the war but there are still germs with no medicine, poor people, kidnapping people for money — there was no future.”
Deyana recalls applying for asylum anywhere they could — desperate for a better life.
“There was no future [for us in Syria], you know? The system is corrupted. We applied for Switzerland, for England — any country that would take us,” she says. “At the end of all our tryings, my uncle, who lives in England, helped us fill out our application to Canada.”
The waiting game was dreadful, and — as optimistic as Deyana remained about her future — she doubted the move would actually happen.
“We were so anxious… we had tried so many times before and we’d think we’d travel the next month, and then it would always fail,” she says.
Deyana Altahsh talks about her life in Syria, her journey as a refugee, and her future in Canada. Video produced by Rose De Souza.
Arriving in Canada
Meanwhile, St. Anne’s Catholic Church had been saving to sponsor a family of refugees, an act which the church parish raised $35,000 to fund.
“The parishioners were very generous,” says Gail Ashcroft, a church member who was chosen as leader of the resettlement committee. She arranged about 20 sub-committees to help the family with accommodations, healthcare, paperwork, getting to school on the first day, and anything else they would need.
“It’s within our catholic philosophy to reach out and help the needy at home or wherever they might be throughout the world, within our means,” Ashcroft says. “The government was asking Canadians to open up their hearts and welcome these people. There was no hesitation — we raised the money within a couple months. “
The church members did everything possible to help Deyana and her family feel welcome, donating everything from beds and furniture to clothing to basic groceries.
“[When I arrived] I was so happy and so tired at the same time. All the members of the church were in our house and they prepared a meal. It was so cute — they made us supper and they said it was like a Syrian supper they had looked up online — it wasn’t, but they were trying, and they cooked us a lovely meal,” says Deyana.
Although Trochu didn’t have many resources in place for immigrants, they met with an ESL teacher and social worker on a regular basis while they got settled. Her mother and sisters adjusted a bit more slowly due to having less knowledge of the language, but are progressing well.
“In the three years I’ve been here, I’ve done so much and grown so much — I feel like I’m actually doing something, accomplishing something, reaching my goals everyday,” she says. “I just love Canada — it’s a safe country and it’s so beautiful. And because people were so giving and generous and inclusive, I want to stay here and give back.”
Their family has since moved to Calgary for Deyana to attend university. She is currently studying kinesiology on her path to becoming a doctor. Eventually, she hopes to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders.
“A lot of external opinions [about immigrants and refugees] affected my opinion, at first,” says Deyana. “I actually work with immigrants now, and the potential that you see from those youth are amazing.
“I know a lot of people complain about [immigrants and refugees] not being able to work, and it’s true that their parents may be relying on the government right now. But their kids will grow up to be doctors and lawyers and teachers and all of those amazing careers and they will pay back what the government has given them,” she says. “I just hope everyone understands that.”