After fleeing from the deadly threat of jihadist militant group ISIS and living as refugees for nearly three years, an Iraqi family has found a new start here in Fort Frances.
The Al-Zeebaree family, consisting of father, Bashar, mother, Julia, 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, and sons Fadi, 18, Michael, 10, and Philip, five, arrived at their new home Friday evening after flying into Thunder Bay the previous day.
“You have very nice people. It is a small, beautiful town,” said Bashar, as translated by Imad Qeer, a fellow former Iraqi citizen who now lives in Thunder Bay.
Qeer has helped the Al-Zeebaree family interact with Kathy Mueller of the local “Families for Families” committee, which raised funds to sponsor the family and get everything ready for them here in town.
Bashar said the family already has a lot of friends, especially the “Families for Families” committee.
“I’ll do my best to speak English and be a friend to everybody,” he pledged.
Prior to their arrival, “Families for Families” had arranged for an apartment for the family to live in and furnish it with everything they could need to start fresh.
Bashar said he and his family have been surprised by the generous show of support for them.
“I am so happy they support me a lot, and I’m thankful to them,” he remarked.
Julia said she feels “safe for her kids” now that the family is in Canada.
“Now they are going to learn,” she noted. “They’re going to have a nice life here in Canada.
“Here, I’m not frightened for my kids,” Julia added. “I am happy they are coming and going–everything will be okay.”
Mueller and her husband, Terry, went to Thunder Bay to meet the Al-Zeebaree family when they got off the plane last week, and she has been visiting with them and helping them settle in ever since.
“As much as they’re appreciative of us, we’ve been so blessed by them already,” Mueller said.
“I feel like they’re part of our family already,” she added. “They’re just so delightful.
“It was very exciting when they came off the airplane,” Mueller recalled. “We cried, we hugged. It was like we already knew each other.
“We’re sort of joined at the heart.”
Mueller and the family also have been sharing quite a few laughs as Julia tries to teach her Arabic.
“My mouth doesn’t work that way,” she chuckled.
The family, meanwhile, is fast becoming acquainted with the community. Being Catholic, they went to mass Sunday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church (where they will go every Sunday).
Then they attended the C.W.L. Christmas tea and bazaar that afternoon, where many people offered handshakes and hugs.
Fadi already has been spending time at the Fort Frances Public Library, using the public WiFi there to keep in touch with his friends halfway around the world.
Fadi also enjoys soccer and hopes to play again in the future.
Next week, Michael will begin school at St. Francis while his younger brother, Philip, will start at St. Michael’s.
Community members are urged to smile and say “welcome” to the Al-Zeebaree family if they see them around town, noted Mueller.
Now that they’re in Canada, the biggest obstacle facing the Al-Zeebaree family is language.
Since Arabic is their native tongue, Qeer stressed it is crucial they learn English, as well.
While the youngest family members likely will absorb the language quickly, it will take the older ones longer to do, he said.
In fact, the children no doubt will help their parents learn it.
Sarah already has a head start.
At the insistence of her mother, the 19-year-old studied English in school for about two years before the family had to leave Iraq.
After that, she kept on learning by listening to music with English lyrics and watching Arabic movies with English subtitles, and vice-versa.
“The first thing I want to do is learn English very good, step by step,” said Sarah.
“When I was in Iraq, I studied English and math and physics to study space,” she added, noting she wants to know English well enough to go to college or university and study astronomy.
Likewise, Fadi must learn more English to be able to continue his education.
The same goes for Bashar and Julia in their everyday lives.
Bashar worked as a locksmith for 30 years and had his own business in Mosul, Iraq. After fleeing ISIS with his family, he worked as a lineman on electrical transmission lines.
He said if he got the support and help, he would be happy to open his lock business again.
“I wish I had a small store here to start my job again,” Bashar remarked.
But Qeer stressed that this and other opportunities won’t happen until the family gets much better at speaking and reading English–after all, they cannot depend on others to help them forever.
Bashar and his family left Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq, which at the time was falling under ISIS control.
“I had everything in Iraq,” he recalled. “I had rented a house, I had a car. My kids went to school, and my wife did everything.
“I was happy.”
But he and his family’s way of life was turned upside down when ISIS insurgents came to his locksmith business and gave him three choices: become a Muslim, pay money to them, or be killed.
Bashar refused, and he and his family were given one day’s grace to pack up the bare necessities and flee, leaving the business and all of their other possessions behind.
They fled Mosul and travelled 30-40 km outside of the city, first staying in a tent and then a one-room caravan (camper trailer), before the family could not stand to live that way any more.
So they travelled west to Beirut, Lebanon, where they stayed for two-and-a-half years living in an apartment.
Since Lebanon is one of the most expensive countries to live in, Bashar, Sarah, and Fadi all had to work to support the family.
When he found out through the UN that his family had been sponsored to come to Canada, Bashar was elated.
“I was born again,” he enthused. “Me and my family had a new life.”
“It was like someone held out a hand,” noted Sarah, adding the family truly was relieved to receive such help.
While the family had gone through all of the proper channels and anticipated they would be able to come to Canada this past May, repeated security checks delayed their arrival until last week.
“Thank God they are here,” said Qeer, noting the past “is all gone” and the Al-Zeebaree family now can move forward.
Looking ahead, they will be joined here by familiar faces. A second Iraqi family–Julia’s brother’s family, in fact–has been sponsored by “Families for Families.”
They currently are working through the immigration process and it’s not known how soon they’ll arrive, noted Mueller.
But hopefully they’ll be able to come here soon, as Julia said she looks forward to being reunited with her brother, his wife, and their two girls.
The “Families for Families” committee first got together more than two years ago–Oct. 17, 2015 to be exact–to start planning to sponsor a refugee family here.
Before Christmas of that year, it had raised more than $60,000.
The committee then sent away the application and the Al-Zeebaree family was assigned.
Because it had surpassed its initial fundraising goal of $35,000 significantly by January, 2016, the committee then decided to fund a second refugee family.