Jack Knox: It’s so Canada: Opening our hearts to others

The tough thing about observing Ramadan in a northern country: You can’t eat or drink until sunset, but sunset isn’t until 9:19 p.m. today.

That’s an hour and half later than back in Syria.

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No problem, say Osama and Hanadi Shelleh. Fasting here is easy. It’s cooler in Victoria. When you do turn on the tap, you know water will flow out. There’s electricity, not like the dark days when Hanadi had to cook outside over an open fire — that is, when she could find food.

Most of all, Canada is safe.

Osama doesn’t worry about getting pulled from his car and thrown in jail, as happened when they lived on the outskirts of Damascus. Hanadi no longer needs fear the stray gunfire that slammed into their home, hitting their child’s bed.

Today, the only fireworks in their future are the ones over the Inner Harbour on Canada Day. It’s a country worth celebrating, particularly this year. We passed a test: The way Canadians reacted to the Syrian refugee crisis is a point of pride.

We last saw the Shelleh family — dad Osama, mum Hanadi, their seven- and eight-year-old boys and infant daughter — on Christmas Eve. That was just days after they landed in Victoria, not having even known their destination when they boarded the plane in Jordan. After 41Ú2 years of civil war and two as refugees in Lebanon, they were still trying to breathe.

They weren’t the first Syrians to arrive in Victoria, but they were the first here under Ottawa’s push to bring in 25,000 refugees by March. About 175 government-sponsored refugees have now arrived in the capital, plus scores more who were sponsored privately. The Shellehs were jointly funded by the federal government, which contributed $9,000, and five local couples — strangers — who put up $36,000 to help the family through its first year.

Fast-forward six months, and life is good. Osama and Hanadi still speak through an interpreter, but are studying English. They’re learning, but not as quickly as the boys, who are picking it up fast at school, which they love.

A car mechanic, Osama is studying at Camosun, looking to bring his qualifications in line with Canadian standards. Hanadi is taking a computer course at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre. They face the same conundrum as all Canadian parents: How to get the right kid to the right soccer team on the right day.

Imagine being a mother like Hanadi, going from war to that. Watching 14-month-old Loujain totter across their sunny, tidy apartment Wednesday, she spoke of a future where her children can chase dreams, succeed, live in safety. This time last year, that was impossible.

“They’re calmer,” Osama said of the children. “They’re not afraid like they used to be.”

The biggest surprise for the Shellehs? How much support they found here. How welcoming Canadians have been. How diverse it is, and how respectful people are of each others’ beliefs. Maybe they make us sound better than we really are. Or maybe they got it right.

Ours is a nation of immigrants, people who came from somewhere else, looking for something else: peace, prosperity, freedom from persecution.

More than seven million of us — 22 per cent of the total — were born outside Canada. Another 5.7 million — 17.4 per cent — had at least one parent born elsewhere. Most of us had at least one grandparent with an accent from somewhere else.

It’s a constantly evolving culture — even if each of us sees the version of Canada we grew up in as the “traditional” one, meaning we sometimes find it jarring when that tradition shifts.

A reminder of that came last weekend when Lt.-Col. Pritam Singh Jauhal died. He was the Second World War veteran who, after being denied entry to a Surrey Legion on Remembrance Day 1993, fought to have turban-wearing Sikhs exempted from the legion’s ban on hats. If barring a war hero from a veterans club because of his headgear — an article of his faith, not some grease-stained John Deere ball cap, for God’s sake — seems silly now, at the time people needed to think it through.

Another Second World War veteran, Nils Christensen, was on the phone from Salt Spring Island this week, irked after reading a story about Ottawa (temporarily) denying a man admission to a veterans hospital on the basis that Britain-based free Norwegian forces didn’t qualify as official wartime allies.

For the founder of Viking Air (“I’m the Viking!”) it dredged up memories of being sneered at as a “DP” when he immigrated to Canada in 1951 — this despite six years serving alongside Canadians in the merchant marine and air force.

But that’s the way of the world, particularly today. Outsiders often get a rough ride, if not flat-out demonized. (“We voted to Brexit! You can go home now!” a geographically challenged Londoner shouted at a Chinese-Canadian woman this week.)

That’s why Canadians’ response to the Syrian crisis should be applauded July 1. Given a choice, we shunned small-minded, fearful, mean-spirited xenophobia and did the right thing, the human thing, the Canadian thing.

As Osama Shelleh says: “Everybody wishes their country could be like this.”

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