Hunt is on for refugee housing

Support for Syrians: Public invited to educational evening March 7

Learning: Mustafa Zakreet practises English with volunteer tutor Mary Regier.

Learning: Mustafa Zakreet practises English with volunteer tutor Mary Regier.

Three members of the Salmon Arm Refugee Coalition have Syrian families arriving soon but have nowhere to house them.

They need help fast and anyone who can provide a lead on lodging is asked to go to the “post accommodations” link at

In the meantime, Salmon Arm’s first Syrian refugee is well on his way to learning English, thanks, in part, to the help he is receiving from Immigrant Services Shuswap.

Behind the glass walls of an office, animated conversation is at full throttle.

Mustafa Zakreet is practising his skills while learning about the vast country he can now call home.

With the help of volunteer tutor Mary Regier and laminated pages with facts and photos, Zakreet is becoming acquainted with Canada’s provinces and territories.

Enthusiasm grows when Regier reveals a photo of Saskatchewan.

“Flat,” he says clearly of the Prairie province and the photo of golden wheat fields.

Syria used to grow wheat for most of the Arab world, he explains. And even though the country has not been growing the grain for the past five years because of the civil war, Zakreet says stock-piled wheat is still available in Syrian stores.

It seems appropriate that Sicamous United Church Minister Juanita Austen arrives unannounced with a gift of za’atar she purchased through an organization that supports peace in Palestine and Israel.

Zakreet’s face lights up with anticipation as he clasps the small bottle that contains za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture used in many dishes and can be eaten on bread drizzled with olive oil.

“It  means a lot; you can’t know how important it is, I dream to have food from Palestine,” he tells Austen.

Grateful to all his tutors, Zakereet says he is picking up the language quickly, attending three sessions at Immigrant Services, two daytime sessions at Okanagan College and an evening one as well.

“At first it was difficult to speak, now it’s better; there are no Arabic people so I have to speak English,” he says. “And I dreamt in English the other night.”

This is important to Zakreet who was told he would know he was making great progress when he began dreaming in English.

“I was talking to my father in English and he was speaking English in my dream,” laughs Zakreet. “He said he can but I said you can’t.”

The young refugee is grateful to the volunteers who have stepped up to welcome and support him in his new home.

Immigrant Services Shuswap has been onboard since September when  Brian Ayotte and Joyce Henderson asked executive director Gudrun Malmqvist if she knew anything about the process of bringing refugees to Canada.

“We didn’t really know; our funding comes from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada  and is for permanent residents and refugees once they’re here in the community,” she said, noting her office’s commitment to finding out about the process. “From that point we were very involved with the group.”

“The volunteers have put together a program so they’re on the same page, but it still remains flexible enough they can adapt to whatever he needs,” Malmqvist says of the lessons being provided to Zakreet.

Members of the community are invited to an educational evening of films and discussion at 6 p.m. Monday, March 7 at the Salmar Classic Theatre.

Ayotte says the films, one with a young girl whose family fled Syria, will make people aware of why Syrians are looking for a safe and welcoming place to start their lives over.


Salmon Arm Observer