Nisrin Aidak nestles on a couch with her three children as a beam of morning sunshine warms and brightens the living room in the old farmhouse the family now calls home.
Her family is safe. They joke, laugh and tell stories. It’s an idyllic morning. And for Nisrin, 38, it brings up many emotions.
Qussai, Mahfouz, Nisrin and Selina
“After what I suffered before, I feel this is like heaven for me,” she said. “You cannot understand what safety feels like if you didn’t lose it.”
Qussai, 18, is tall, handsome and fluent in English. He helps recall his family’s story before slipping away to prepare for a math test at St. Peter CSS—his new high school.
Six-year-old Mahfouz, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, leaps off the couch to grab a book from his room before settling beside his grandmother Houda in a donated rocking chair. Later that morning, Mahfouz will visit his new school—St. Teresa CES—and meet his classmates.
Six-year-old Mahfouz gets a warm welcome from his new classroom at St. Teresa Catholic Elementary School in Peterborough.
Selina, a shy three-year-old, stays close to Nisrin at all times.
In September 2015, Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington (PVNC) Catholic District School Board partnered with Sister Ruth Hennessy and Casa Maria Refugee Homes to sponsor the extended Aidak family. Students and staff across the board brought in small donations. Each dollar added up, each dollar helped bring Nisrin and her children to the safety of this living room.
“When I came here, and I saw this house, and I met Sister Ruth, and all these people had helped prepare this for us… these people, this humanity,” Nisrin explains, wiping tears from her eyes. “If I spend all my life saying thank you, it won’t be enough.”
Nisrin’s brother Ammar and his two children—Mohamad and Hour—were the first to arrive in Peterborough in October 2016 (see video below). The two children attend Immaculate Conception CES.
Houda, the 67-year-old matriarch, joined Ammar in Peterborough’s East City several weeks later. “From the fire, to the safety,” Houda says, describing her journey to Canada.
Nisrin, who was an educational assistant in Syria, and her husband Safi, a tradesman, arrived with their children in Toronto on February 27th, 2017, five years after fleeing their hometown of Aleppo. They are now living in a home in Peterborough.
“The problems started at the beginning of the war. The first bomb in Aleppo, it went off beside Qussai’s school,” Nisrin says. “After that, I was so scared. After that, the bombs started to come more and more and more.”
A gifted student whose grades put him at the top of his class, Qussai was forced to leave school in Grade 7.
“As a kid, I only had two things, my studies and my extracurricular activities and both of them were in my school," he says. "School was technically all I had and that was taken away from me."
The family fled to Jordan in 2012. There, they at least had running water, electricity and security. But life in Jordan was tough. The government prohibited Syrian refugees from working and the family, like many other refugees, faced discrimination.
“In Jordan, it was another kind of miserable life,” Nisrin says.
Nisrin gave birth to Selina and homeschooled Mahfouz.
Without work, the family sold off its possessions and relied on help from family and friends to send money and food. Nisrin said the family pinched every penny to ensure Qussai could remain in school.
“For Qussai, no way was I going to interrupt his school," she says. "I do my best so that every dollar I had I put it for Qussai’s school."
As tough as it was in Jordan, Nisrin watched with horror as her mother Houda, brother Ammar and sister Lilas lived through the civil war in Aleppo. Bombings became a daily part of life and family members routinely hid under beds and staircases. A bomb once dropped right through the roof of Ammar’s bedroom mere minutes after he had left his room to fetch water with his mother.
Lilas and her children eventually made it to Jordan too and then moved to Toronto after Casa Maria sponsored her family in 2015. Ammar eventually brought his children to Beirut, Lebanon while awaiting their trip to Canada.
After three years of precarious living in Jordan, a family friend secured a visa allowing Nisrin and her family to move to Saudi Arabia, where the cost of living was cheaper and the government allowed Syrians to work.
In September 2015, PVNC agreed to sponsor the extended Aidak family. Lilas, her husband Amjad, and her children Karam and Zeina toured PVNC schools to share their story. More than $30,000 was fundraised board-wide.
Lilas Aidak, along with her her husband Amjad and children Karam and Zeina, visit St. Anne Catholic Elementary School in September 2015, telling her family's story and helping to launch a fundraising campaign to sponsor her siblings and bring them to Canada.
“I watched the pictures of Lilas and my niece and nephew meeting in the schools—I saw the videos and I was following you and I prayed,” says Nisrin, recalling how she followed the fundraising efforts closely from Saudi Arabia.
“These people in Canada, they don’t know us. They hadn’t met us. They haven’t seen our situation first hand, but still they were willing to help us,” Qussai adds. “That feeling is indescribable.”
It took more than a year to secure a flight, but finally, on February 27th, 2017, Nisrin and her family arrived at Pearson Airport, greeted by Lilas, Ammar, Houda and her nieces and nephews—all of whom are now living safely in Canada.
“Seeing them right there in front of me and welcoming us into Canada, it was extremely overwhelming—I was in shock,” says Qussai, whose dream is to obtain an undergraduate and attend orthodontic school.
Nisrin and Selina share a laugh in the living room of their new home in Peterborough.
For the first time in five years the family has some stability. Nisrin is once again optimistic about her children’s future.
“I cannot explain it really. It is something like a dream,” she says. “Because everything I want is a future for my kids.”