Trailblazer: Syrian refugees in Kelowna pay it forward - New Canadian Media
Syrian refugee family being welcomed
Mohammad Alshahoud holds up a pamphlet from 2015 that served as an invitation for a fundraising dinner event organized for his family by the Central Okanagan Refugee Committee (Aaron Hemens/New Canadian Media).

Trailblazer: Syrian refugees in Kelowna pay it forward

Seven years after arriving in Kelowna, British Columbia, as the town's very first family of Syrian refugees, the Alshahouds have become a full part of the local community.

Since first arriving in Kelowna, British Columbia, with his family as Syrian refugees, Mohammad Alshahoud has not missed an opportunity to lend a helping hand to newly arrived refugees and immigrants.

Whether it be helping to translate English to Arabic and vice-versa, assisting with filling out government documents, or transporting newly-arrived refugees to doctor appointments, Alshahoud is always happy to help.

“Any family — not just Syrian — any family that needs help and I can provide them with that need, I’m ready,” says Alshahoud, who, along with his wife and five children, were the first Syrians to be sponsored by the Central Okanagan Refugee Committee (CORC) in 2015.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the ongoing civil war in Syria has forced more than 5.6 million people to leave the country, with another 6.7 million displaced within it.  In response to the conflict, Canada launched Operation Syrian Refugees, an initiative that saw 25,000 Syrian refugees resettled throughout the country in just 100 days between November 2015 and February 2016.

During the family’s first six months in Kelowna, Alshahoud said there weren’t any other Syrians in town. Now, he estimates there are at least 75 to 80 Syrian families, most of whom know him personally.

“It’s not a big community, but it’s bigger,” he says.

“I consider it a duty. A duty to my family and my community…It’s nothing. Just takes a few minutes or one hour per day.”

After all, it was the help of others that got him and his family away from the conflict in Syria and into safety.

Escaping war

In March 2012, one year after the Syrian Revolution broke out, danger spilled into Alshahoud’s neighbourhood in Homs, as members of the Syrian Armed Forces made their way into the area. 

Mohammad Alshahoud holds up framed photos of him and his wife Sara in the living room of his Kelowna, B.C., home on March 1, 2022. The top photo was taken in 2017 in Vancouver, B.C., while the bottom one was taken back home in Syria in 1987. (Aaron Hemens/New Canadian Media).

Alshahoud recalls making holes in the walls of their house and in neighbouring residences along with his family members to use as escape routes. 

“If you get out of the house to the road, you will be killed,” he says. “We fled on our foot (sic) and just with the clothes we (were) wearing. We didn’t take anything else — nothing at all.”

They ended up walking 50 kilometres to a small town outside of Homs, staying there for 40 days. But as the situation in Syria worsened, Alshahoud and his family decided it was time to leave the country. In April 2012, they arrived in the neighbouring country of Jordan by foot.

“We found people. They helped out. They helped us, they gave us clothing, gave us stuff to sleep,” Alshahoud recalls, adding that even the Jordanian police were helping.

“They welcomed us and they were protecting the people, like a small camp.”

The family spent two nights in the camp before finding a rental home in the city of Mafraq, where they stayed for three years.

Alshahoud says even though it was illegal to work as a refugee there, “most” of his time in Jordan he would find work at the “auction of animals” in order to support his family. They would also get “some support from the United Nations,” he says.

‘Always give back’

Mohammad Alshahoud sits in the living room of his Kelowna, B.C., home on March 1, 2022 (Aaron Hemens/New Canadian Media).

The UN would eventually ask Alshahoud and his family if they would be willing to relocate to Canada and be sponsored by CORC, a collaborative initiative between three Kelowna churches:  First United Church, Winfield United Church and Rutland United Church. 

In 2015, the family made their way to Kelowna via Frankfurt, Germany and Vancouver.

“The CORC … welcomed us at the airport,” says Alshahoud. “They gave us everything we have to settle here.”

Nearly seven years later,  Alshahoud has not lost the passion to help others, buoyed more than ever by the kindness he and his family have been met with, and determined to keep “doing it until the last day of my life.” 

As he says, as long as you are breathing, you should always make an effort to help others. 

“Everything that you have, there is somebody that gave it to you,” he says. “There is somebody, in this way or another way. There is somebody who gave it to you and you should give back. Always give back.”

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Aaron Hemens is a freelance photographer and journalist currently based in Kelowna, B.C. Originally from Ottawa, Ont., he graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program in 2018. His career as a journalist has taken him as far north as Inuvik, N.W.T., and to rural farming towns such as Creston, B.C. His professional interests include community news, arts and culture, race and diversity, and solutions-based storytelling.

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