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Syrian refugees learn about First Nation history, and find connections

Nineteen-year-old Naim Saban balances on a log in East Sooke Park as he learns the story behind the ancient petroglyph carved onto a rock.

Nineteen-year-old Naim Saban balances on a log in East Sooke Park as he learns the story behind the ancient petroglyph carved onto a rock.

Randy Chipps, an elder from the Beecher Bay (Scia’new) First Nation, explains to Saban and five other Syrian refugees that thousands of years ago, this image of a seal would have acted as an address, a way to mark a family’s territory.

For most of these young men, age 16 to 23, this excursion on a hot August day is their first time hiking and their first time hearing about Canada’s First Nations history. It was organized by Robin McGeough, who works at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Victoria and secured $1,000 in funding through the company’s Big Day Out program.

As the group walks along the picturesque ocean-front trail, Chipps has only an hour to explain the deeply embedded roots of Indigenous culture and how the legacy of colonialism and residential schools uprooted people from their homeland.

It’s a story to which these Syrian youth can relate. They know the trauma of being ripped from their home, know the gaping hole that’s left when families are torn apart.

Saban, who wears stylish Ray Ban sunglasses, a palm-tree patterned button-down shirt and jeans, has the confidence of someone who has quickly adapted to Canadian life over the past 18 months in Victoria. He has a Canadian girlfriend whom he met while living in temporary accommodation in Langford before he settled into permanent housing. He found work as a tiler, and in September will continue English classes at Camosun College.

But one thing is missing: his family.

Saban was resettled to Victoria with his older sister, her husband and their kids in April 2016. But their parents and five siblings remain in a refugee camp in Turkey. His mother has cancer, and Saban is worried she’s not getting the medical care she needs.

Every month he sends part of his earnings, between $400 and $500, to help pay for her medication. He’s desperate to have his family sponsored to come to Canada, so they can leave behind the monotony of the refugee camp, to experience the freedom to go on a hike.

“Sitting in a camp, it’s nothing. Every day the same, it doesn’t have new life there.”

When McGeough was organizing the outing, it was important that it be grounded in First Nations culture.

“I wanted to connect a new community with an old community around a natural space that’s really meaningful.”

The hike symbolized a connection between “where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” he said.

If you ask Ayman Al-Sultan where he’s going, the answer is simple. He’s going to be a soccer star. Wearing a black track suit, the 19-year-old sees himself playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Canadian national team.

Al-Sultan said the two years waiting to be resettled in Lebanon put his soccer career in limbo. But since moving to Victoria with his family, his resolve has hardened. He’s playing on a Division 1 team with Gorge Soccer Association and has tried out for the Victoria Highlanders.

“I just need good direction, the right hand,” he said. “I need an opportunity.”

The group stops for a picnic on a rock with a view of boats across the water. McGeough unpacks hummus, vegetables and Red Barn sandwiches. He shows the group how to make coffee by boiling water on a portable burner stove and pouring it into a French press.


At one point, McGeough points out a seal in the water. Ahman Hj, the youngest of the group at 16, looks out at the ocean, perhaps looking for a whale.

Laura Chipps, Randy Chipps’ wife, has already explained that whales are sacred in First Nations culture. She told the group how in 2010, a 10-metre grey whale washed up on the beach, which drew hundreds of spectators. She recounted how upset Indigenous people were when some onlookers climbed on the whale and cut off pieces of the carcass.

Randy Chipps tells how generations ago, the process of hunting a whale was a year-long feat that included the entire community. He acts out the motion of plunging a spear into the whale’s heart and says every inch of the whale would be put to good use, the bones carved into weapons and tools, the blubber turned into oils and soap. He finishes the story with a traditional blessing in Ditidaht, an Indigenous language that few still speak.

Later in the hike, Randy Chipps and Saban trade language lessons. The elder asks: “How do you say: ‘How are you?’ ” and Saban answers in Arabic, correcting Randy’s pronunciation as he repeats the phrase.

Saban said once he asked a Canadian “how are you,” and the person responded: “I’m hunky-dory.”

“What this mean?” Saban asks Randy.

“It means things are all right, not great. Not too good, not too bad,” he explains.

The day ended with a paddleboard lesson from two instructors from Pacifica Paddle Sports. As the six Syrians zipped up their life vests and pushed the boards out into the waves, they appeared confident with the new sport.

Ammar Kahil said he always jumps at the chance to try new things, which he often hears about through the Intercultural Association, the resettlement agency for refugees.

“It’s amazing. I love to do something that’s the first time I do it,” said the 23-year-old from Damascus.

He loves Victoria, his second home, but says his mind and his heart are still in Syria.

“I miss my home, my country, my street, my house, my friends, my neighbours.”

Kahil said his home country is like a mother. You can’t choose it, and wherever you go, it will be with you your entire life. But you can choose your wife, so Canada, he says, is like his wife.

Randy Chipps said he was happy that all six Syrian youth seemed eager to learn about the Indigenous history of their new home.

He wants newcomers to Canada “to know that they’re welcome and that they won’t be lost. That they can bring their stories here and add to ours.”