Three Syrian mothers share stories of starting over

Pregnant when they arrived in Canada, they describe their experiences of giving birth, settling in and the parenting customs of their new home

Kalli Anderson
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Syrian refugee Ibtesam Hamza (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Syrian refugee Zaka Alsaleh (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian refugee Zaka Alsaleh (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Over 40,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since November 2015. We gathered the stories of three mothers who came to Canada last year. They were all pregnant when they arrived and have since given birth to some of Canada’s most adorable new citizens. We talked to each of them about their journeys to Canada, their impressions of Canadian parenting customs and the challenges of adapting to life in a new country as a mother.

Zaka Alsaleh, 35
Husband: Abdullah Darwish
From Aleppo, Syria
Left Syria in 2013 and moved to Turkey
Arrived in Canada July 14, 2016
Mom of six: Fadileh (age 17), Fatimah (age 15), Mohamad Nour (age 11), Rama and Reem (twins, age 8) and Reham, now five months old (born Dec. 30, 2016).

Zaka and her husband, Abdullah, packed up their family of seven and left their home in Aleppo, Syria in 2013. They spent about three years in Turkey before coming to Toronto as privately-sponsored refugees in the summer of 2016. Zaka was four months pregnant when they arrived, and she gave birth to baby Reham on December 30, 2016. The family now lives in an apartment in a converted house in downtown Toronto.

What made you decide to leave your home in Aleppo?
We had to leave because it started to become too dangerous. The shelling was hitting buildings on our street. We were especially afraid of being hit because we lived in an apartment on the top floor. When we left, we only took the basics, like clothing for the children. At the time, we didn’t think we would be away for long.

What was life like for your family in Turkey?
It was safer in Turkey than in Syria but the educational opportunities for the children weren’t good. They had to go to schools just for Syrian refugees, segregated from the regular schools, and there was no future there for the older children in terms of eventually going on to university.

What did you know about Canada before applying to come here?
All we knew is that Canada had good education and healthcare, and no discrimination. I did not have any big expectations, and I was a little worried about the cold weather and what life would be like here. But the people we have met here have all been very nice and they quickly made me feel welcome and comfortable. I didn’t have to be so worried. And I don’t think it’s too cold!

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How did your experience of pregnancy and birth in Canada compare to what you had experienced with your previous children?
It wasn’t so different compared to what I’d experienced at the hospital in Syria. But it was certainly different than what I would have experienced in Turkey. In the hospital there, they don’t allow the labouring woman to have anyone with her during the birth. My sister-in-law gave birth in the hospital in Turkey and I was not allowed to go in to see her. A woman standing by the hospital room door threatened to call the police if I tried to get inside to be with her. I was early in my pregnancy at the time, and I was just praying to get to Canada in time to not have to give birth in Turkey.

My labour with Reham was about ten hours, so I was happy to be able to have my husband and sister-in-law and a friend with me. I liked having a baby here—my doctor was very attentive and the level of care at the hospital was excellent. I told my husband, it was such a good experience, it almost makes you want to have another baby to go through it all again! It was difficult to be without my mother and sisters, but our Canadian sponsors have been so supportive that I feel as if they are family now.

Syrian refugee Zaka Alsaleh and some of her children (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian refugee Zaka Alsaleh and some of her children
(Photo: Jenna Wakani)

I heard your sponsors threw you a baby shower. Did you receive any baby items that are different from what you used with your older children?
Reham received so many things—more than what she needs! The one item that I hadn’t seen in Syria is the electronic baby swing, that rocks by itself. I used to sit and rock all my children to sleep in my lap. But it was tiring. That little chair is so convenient.

What are your hopes for your family’s future? 
I wish for my children to continue their education and for Reham to grow up here. As for myself, I hope the war ends soon and I get to go and see my family. My mother hasn’t met the baby. We try to use Skype, but we can’t very often because of the time difference, and the network isn’t reliable in Syria. I would like to be able to go for a real visit someday.

Syrian immigrants Nazlia Jouma and Masowd Sedow (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian immigrants Nazlia Jouma and Masowd Sedow (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Nazlia Jouma, 20
Husband: Masowd Sedow, 23
From Aleppo, Syria
Left Syria in 2015 and moved to Turkey
Arrived in Canada Sept. 14, 2016
Mom of one: Sophia, now five months old (born Jan. 4, 2017).

Nazlia Jouma and her husband, Masowd, left Syria for Turkey in 2015. They got married in Turkey in December 2015 and came to Canada as privately-sponsored refugees the following September, when Nazlia was pregnant with their first child. Their daughter Sophia was born four months later, on January 4, 2017. They live in north-east Toronto, in an apartment just down the street from Nazlia’s mother, aunt and her two brothers.

What made you decide to leave Syria?
The situation was becoming more dangerous every day and men were being forced into the army, so we decided to go. Masowd went first, in September, and I followed with my mother, my grandmother and my two brothers. It took us ten days at the border trying to get into Turkey. We had to keep trying, nine or ten times. Finally, we found a smuggler who had gotten another woman and her children in, and we paid him to help us get across.

What was your life like in Turkey?
In Syria, my husband had worked as a carpenter, but in Turkey he didn’t have the right certificate to be allowed to work in his field, so we had to take any job we could get. We both worked in a greenhouse, growing and harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s hard work and it can get very hot. When I found out I was pregnant, I was happy, but it was hard to keep up the work when I was so tired and feeling sick in the first trimester.After two months I stopped, and my husband worked even more, sometimes from 6 a.m., all day and all night.

How did you decide to come to Canada?
I had an aunt who had emigrated to Canada about five years earlier. She didn’t tell us much about Canada. She just said we would like it here and we had to come see it for ourselves. “Seeing is believing,” she said. She helped arrange for us to be sponsored through an organization here. My mother, another aunt and my two brothers came first, and we followed a few months later.

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What kind of prenatal care did you receive once you arrived?
Our sponsors helped us get a midwife. Midwives are common in Syria, but I didn’t realize there would be midwives in Canada. In Syria, midwives come to your home for the birth, but here they can also go with you to the hospital. I was happy to have that option because it was my first baby and I was afraid. I wanted to be in a hospital near the doctors, just in case.

Syrian refugee Nazlia Jouma and daughter Sophia (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian refugee Nazlia Jouma and daughter Sophia (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Who was with you for the birth?
I had the midwife, my husband, my mother and my aunt with me. The labour was difficult—harder and longer than I thought it would be. I’m glad I got to give birth here and not in Turkey, where I wouldn’t have been allowed to have my family with me. At one point my mother cried because I was in so much pain. The midwife put a TENS machine on my back to help reduce the pain, and having all of them around me, holding my hands and supporting me helped me get through it. And then when Sophia was finally born and they put her on my chest, I forgot all the pain.

What are some things about how we care for babies here that you’ve noticed are different than what you’d seen back home?
In Syria they don’t use car seats, but we do here, of course! And here Sophia sleeps in a crib. In Syria, we slept on a mattress on the floor and the baby would have slept with us, but we follow the Canadian rules and customs we learned from our sponsors. The only thing I haven’t tried yet is the baby carrier. She sleeps well in the stroller and her crib, so it hasn’t seemed necessary.

What languages will you speak to Sophia?
We will speak to her in Kurdish (my mother tongue), English and maybe Arabic when she is older. I want her to grow up here and get a good education. My hope for her is that she can take music lessons and learn to play an instrument. In Syria, we only have core subjects in school. I get a lump in my throat thinking about how I didn’t have access to arts and music growing up. I want Sophia to be able to discover her own talents.

Do you plan to have more children?
Yes, I think one of two more. My husband says he wants ten children. But that’s because he isn’t the one who has to have the contractions!

Syrian refugee Ibtesam Hamza and two of her children (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian refugee Ibtesam Hamza and two of her children (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Ibtesam Hamza, 36
Husband: Naser Hamoud
From Homs, Syria
Left Syria Dec. 27, 2013 and moved to Jordan
Arrived in Canada Jan. 6, 2016
Mom of seven: Duha (age 16); Hiba (age 15); Jafaar (age 12); Mohamad (age 7); Abdullah (age 5); Omran (age 3); Raneen, now 13 months old (born April 20, 2016).

Ibtesam Hamza and her husband, Naser, left Syria in 2013. They spent two years living in Jordan, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the capital city of Amman with Ibtesam’s mother, her two brothers and their families—five adults and 10 children in total. They came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees in January 2016, when Ibtesam was six months pregnant with her eighth child. They now live in an apartment in northwest Toronto.

What made you decide to leave Syria for Jordan?
We had been staying with family outside of the city because it had become too dangerous in Homs. While we weren’t home, our home was shelled. And when we went back, all the windows were shattered, many walls were down, so we could not stay there. We gathered our things and we left. I was nine months pregnant at the time, with Omran.

How did you get to Jordan?
We were packed into a livestock truck for two days, sitting in a ball with my knees up at my chest, with my children around me, unable to move or stretch out. Then near the border, we had to get out and walk for five hours in the desert. As we arrived at the refugee camp in Jordan, I started to go into labour. As they were processing our papers, an officer saw me and my condition and let us through, otherwise it can take a week or more just to get processed. A doctor examined me, and when the labour became more intense they transferred me to a hospital in the city for a C-section.

Syrian refugee Ibtesam Hamza (Photo: Jenna Wakani)
Syrian refugee Ibtesam Hamza (Photo: Jenna Wakani)

Had you had a C-section before? 
No, that was my first one. They said it was necessary because my cervix wasn’t opening and the baby wasn’t descending, maybe because of sitting in that same position in the truck all that time. I was very afraid, especially because I was alone. They wouldn’t let my family in the room with me, and I was worried because we didn’t even have baby clothes with us. They put me under general anesthesia for the operation and I remember opening my eyes and just weeping. And then I saw my mother, but I couldn’t see the baby. In that hospital, they keep the babies in another room until you pay your bill and leave. My husband could see him through a window, but I only got to hold him for a short time and then they would take him back to the nursery.

When did you find out you were going to come to Canada?
At the end of 2015, we found out we would come to Canada. I was six months pregnant when we arrived in January 2016. I got a midwife and she arranged for me to have another C-section in a hospital here.

How was this C-section compared to your first one?
A friend came with me for the delivery. This time I was awake and I wasn’t scared. I had my friend there beside me, supporting me. And I was curious to see what the doctors were doing. Then, when Raneen was born, they put her on my chest immediately. I loved that.

How have your older children been adapting to life in Canada?
School was very difficult for the younger ones at first because they never went to school in Jordan, and not while the fighting was bad in Syria. So I went with them for the first couple of months and stayed with the younger ones at school. And they still get very afraid at night. Here we have three bedrooms, but the three youngest boys still come in and sleep in our room every night. In Jordan they used to run and hide in the bathroom every time they heard a plane, and in Syria I had to remove shattered glass from my children’s hair after a bombing. So we are all still afraid when we hear loud noises. We live close to the airport, though, so now we are used to the planes.

What differences have you noticed in the way parents look after children in Canada compared to what you’re used to back home?
It is very different here! Canadians pay so much attention to their children from the moment they are born until they are in university. In Syria, when a baby cries, we first finish what we are doing at that moment and then see what the baby needs. Here it seems the children always come first. My husband is very protective of Raneen and he likes to joke that everyone has to be extra careful with her because she is our little Canadian.

What have you changed about the way you parent after moving to Canada?
In Syria, the babies slept in our bed, but here the nurse told us about using a crib, so that’s where Raneen sleeps. And we are using a car seat here for the first time, but she really doesn’t like it, so I have to sit in the back right beside her. And with the children, I can’t let them roam free outside. At home, a five year old can go and play in the street or go to the corner store on his own. Here, people don’t allow that. Things are more regulated here, but we are adapting to the Canadian way of doing things.

What are some things that you haven’t changed, that you’ve done the same for all your kids?
I breastfed all my children. And the nurse here tried to tell me to do it a different way than I was used to, but I still did it my own way. And I use the same home remedies and special tricks. Like if the baby has a cough, I put tahini oil on a piece of newspaper and rub it on her chest. Or if she has stomach pain, I rub olive oil on her stomach and then wrap her up tightly and she will fall right asleep. That trick has worked for all my babies.

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Translation and interpretation by May Tartoussy, Fawz Khammash, Jessica Radin and Haneen Tamari. Interview by Kalli Anderson. Photos by Jenna Wakani.