The War Kids

They fled war-torn Syria and arrived here with nothing. Here’s how they’re making their dreams come true

The kids arrive on day one at LEAP, the TDSB’s Literacy Enrichment Academic Program, clutching pencils and notebooks, anxious and vulnerable, many of them still coping with the aftershocks of war. Their English is weak at best, which limits their ability to navigate the city, order a meal, find a summer job—obstacles that the program aims to remove. Each year, at 33 TDSB schools, specialized teachers guide some 500 students through an intensive educational regimen aimed at boosting competency in literacy, math and study skills. The program, which began in 1998, has evolved alongside Canada’s changing immigration policies and priorities. Today, the greatest proportion of LEAP students come from Syria, all young people hoping for a better life. These are their stories.

Maya Aldroubi, 16

Grade 12, Marc Garneau Collegiate
Hometown: Homs
Arrived in Canada: June 30, 2015
Wants to be: A children’s dentist

I hated school in Syria. One day, a bomb hit the roof while I was in class, and the entire building shook. I didn’t want to go to school after that. Each time I went, I worried I might die.

My father has hemophilia, and we needed to find a country with better health care than Syria, so we crossed the border into Lebanon and registered with the United Nations as refugees. But when we tried to go back home, the border had closed. A year later, we learned that the Canadian government had selected us for sponsorship. Some Syrians spend up to five years in Lebanon. We were lucky.

I remember my first day at LEAP. I was the only Syrian in my class. I started off studying English letters and grammar, which I am now very good at. My main challenge has been learning math in English. I’d learned it in French in Lebanon, so doing it in a third language made it even more challenging.

Learning is so much easier now that I no longer fear for my life. I feel like I can do whatever I want! My attitude toward learning has completely changed. The teachers have helped me so much, and I am excited to go to university, though I’m overwhelmed by the variety of subjects. I like journalism, but right now, I’m most drawn to chemistry and dentistry. I love working with children and have done some volunteering at a daycare centre in Thorncliffe Park, so being a children’s dentist would be an amazing career.

Abdullatif Abdo, 17

Grade 12, Marc Garneau Collegiate
Hometown: Idlib
Arrived in Canada: February 20, 2016
Wants to be: A cellphone designer

My family fled Syria for Lebanon in 2011. I attended an institute in Beirut for engineering and focused on cellphone design, and I loved it. When my family got the opportunity to move to Canada, it was an easy decision to go, but I knew I’d have to put this passion on hold, as I’d have to learn English before I could do anything else.

My brother and two sisters were very aware of the difficulties we would all face when we arrived. I knew only a few English words when I started LEAP, so I focused on writing and reading as much as possible. My teachers have all been wonderful, patiently repeating explanations three or four times until I understand. One of them told me many times to focus and not despair.

I believe that you have to make your own effort to learn; it can’t just be what the school tells you to do. I practise speaking English at home with my siblings all the time—just everyday things, like “Pass me the salt,” or “Can you help me with this?” I also watch a lot of movies in English—Thor and Captain America are my favourites—which has helped me pick up a lot of words and expressions. Gradually, I’ve learned how to talk with people, and how to take care of myself if I am out shopping or going to appointments. I still astound myself that I can speak English.

It will take me another two years to graduate, and then my plan is to go to university to study engineering. I want to design cellphones.

Batoul Abdo, 18

Grade 12, Marc Garneau Collegiate
Hometown: Idlib
Arrived in Canada: February 20, 2016
Wants to be: A doctor

My family left Syria in 2011 and lived in Lebanon for four and a half years after that. We moved around constantly, and I saw Syrians with no money and no options for medical treatment. I’ve wanted to become a doctor ever since.

It took a long time for our family to all be together in Canada. My two brothers, sister, mother and I came here first, and our father joined us a year later. I’d managed to finish grades 9 and 10 in Lebanon, but the schooling wasn’t very high quality. My brother ­Abdullatif and I decided not to try improving our limited English before our language appraisal test. We wanted them to put us at the most basic level so we could learn English from its foundations. I spent five months in LEAP last semester and didn’t even know the word hello when I started. I was surprised to find such amazing teachers here. They are so kind and generous. It’s like a dream. Math has always been the hardest subject for me, and learning it in another language made it even harder, but I’m determined.

I can understand and speak English well now, and my grammar has improved. I never imagined I could speak English like this. I have loved the process of learning a new language. The main reason my family came to Canada is for us to continue our education so we can have success in our lives. I am now studying how to start a career, from how to write a resumé to what skills I need in a job interview.

Bilal Abbas, 20

Grade 12, Lester B. Pearson Collegiate
Hometown: Homs
Arrived in Canada: February 29, 2016
Wants to be: A mechanic

I was 16 when the government siege of the rebels in my hometown became too intense. My family escaped to Jordan, where we lived for almost two and a half years. I couldn’t go to school there. I had to take care of my brother and sister. I also worked in restaurants and pastry shops, and painted and did some home construction. But what I really wanted to do was work with cars, to build them and fix them. One of my fondest memories before the war was playing with toy cars my parents had given me. I’ve loved cars ever since.

When I arrived in Canada, it had been three years since I’d been in school. I didn’t know any English. My brother and sister are younger—13 and 11, respectively—so they picked up the language much faster. Within four months they had surpassed me. But I needed LEAP. I faced a lot of difficulties at first: I couldn’t even string together two words. But my teacher was patient and helpful. She taught me all the English letters, then basic words, and then questions and conversations you’d encounter in a normal day. She helped me stop worrying about mistakes and gave me the confidence to talk to people on the street, which is the best way to learn.

My reading and writing still need work, but I feel like I can at least carry on a conversation, which is key to finding a good job here. I still have one more semester of LEAP, and once I finish school, I plan to attend Centennial College and study to become a car mechanic.

Mohammad Alhmaidi, 16

Grade 12, Marc Garneau Collegiate
Hometown: Dara’a
Arrived in Canada: January 10, 2016
Wants to be: A pilot

I’ve wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember. Back home, I would watch the planes flying over me and imagine the amazing views. When I was 12 and had just finished Grade 6, my family had to leave my home in Dara’a. Some of the planes started dropping explosive barrels in our neighbourhood, and one of them hit my school. We crossed the border into Jordan, where we lived for the next three years. The education system there wouldn’t recognize my Grade 6 certificate, so I had to repeat the grade. Then I completed grades 7 and 8, but we didn’t learn any English.

We flew Air Canada to Toronto, and I loved our plane. All I knew about Canada was that it was cold. I imagined a land of snow up to your head. But when I got here, there were sky­scrapers and parks everywhere. I still remember the first time I saw Lake Ontario stretching further than my eyes could see.

I was nervous before starting school, afraid I wouldn’t be able to learn English. Now, 10 months later, I can write and ask questions in English—although art is my favourite subject. I love drawing birds, butterflies, the ocean. My teacher has helped me so much.

My life here is good. I’m now confident I will graduate. And I am more determined than ever to become a pilot, and hopefully for Air Canada, since it was their plane that brought me here. I want to see the vast, beautiful nature of Canada every day when I’m flying across the country.

Malek Al Rassoul, 17

Grade 12, Lester B. Pearson Collegiate
Hometown: Homs
Arrived in Canada: December 18, 2015
Wants to be: A police officer

The war forced my family to leave Homs in 2012. My father took my mother, me and my six ­brothers and sisters to Lebanon, where we struggled. My father, a carpenter, couldn’t make enough to support us, so as the eldest son, I’d help him with whatever job he could get. But what I really wanted to do was be a police officer, to protect my fellow Syrian refugees from being exploited by opportunists in Lebanon.

By the time I got to Canada in 2015, I hadn’t been to school for almost four years, and learning English was hard. I remember someone asked me “What’s your name?” on the first day, and I couldn’t understand the question. Eventually, though, I learned to speak with more confidence and I learned how to read, too. What really helped was messing up and then learning from my mistakes. Someone who doesn’t say anything because he’s worried about mistakes is already making one. Now my favourite subject is English. My brothers and sisters—I have seven now—speak English most of the time. They’re actually starting to lose their Arabic!

It’s been a long time since I lived in Syria, and I won’t return there once the war is over, except to visit. I have built a life here. Canada is where I got my education, and I want to pay this gift back. I still want to be a police officer, but to qualify you need to be able to speak fluent English, so that’s what motivates me to work hard and learn more. The more English I learn, the more I can help people.

Khalil Turkmani, 21

Graduate, Lester B. Pearson Collegiate
Hometown: Aleppo
Arrived in Canada: February 6, 2016
Wants to be: A restaurateur

I’ve always loved cooking. In Aleppo, I’d always be in the kitchen making food with my family. I can make any Syrian dish, though my favourites are a stuffed vegetable dish called mahashi and a meat and rice dish called maqlooba.

When I was in Grade 12, still too young to open my own restaurant, I studied accounting, a very desirable profession in Syria. I was progressing well when the fighting began in Aleppo—bombs were dropping all around us every day. When a house on my street was destroyed, my parents decided to leave. Two days later, we made our way to the Beqaa area near Beirut. I had to give up my studies to earn money, so I got a job stocking appliances in a warehouse. By the time I came to Canada, I had been in Lebanon for over four years and forgotten what little English I had.

I spent my first four months here in a hotel, dealing with applications and appointments, and searching for a home. After we settled at Markham and Eglinton, I applied for LEAP and started last January, working on grammar and English-language math. My love for cooking was as strong as ever, so I also took a cooking class, where we learned how to make pizza. LEAP was a wonderful experience, and I’m now starting a program for over-21 learners in Scarborough. Once I’m finished, my dream is to open an authentic Syrian restaurant in Toronto. Now that I can communicate, my dream feels much closer to becoming a reality.