Jan 18, 2023
Their living room was full of supportive community members all wanting to share that official announcement.
January 5 was an amazing day for Bahzad Abdo. On that day, at 2:31 pm this beaming Kurdish refugee earned the right to be something most of us take for granted. He was officially sworn in as a Canadian citizen. The huge smile on his face during the whole protracted zoom process spoke volumes about his pride and excitement at becoming one.
Bahzad’s journey to get to that point in time is one that tens of thousands of refugees from around the world have taken. Most times it is a desperate journey fleeing oppression and war, in search of a better life and opportunity here in Canada.
Bahzad and his wife Farha fled from Damascus in 2012 to a refugee camp in Iraq where they spent a mind numbing six years. The camp is called Darashakran, about an hour’s drive from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It has about 13,000 refugees and conditions there are dire with limited supplies of drinking water, overcrowding and widespread poverty. I cannot imagine for the life of me what that life was like. A picture of their hut reveals it was clapped together bits of salvaged metal, wood and plastic.
The fact that one of their children Sham, who is now 6, was born in that camp, speaks to their ability to adapt and carry on in very difficult times. And carry on they did until 2018 when they were finally given the opportunity to come here as permanent residents. That is to say, given the right to live and work in Canada without any time limit on their stay.
The whole process can get quite convoluted but there are some very dedicated private sponsors who work diligently, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender, to create lasting change in the lives of refugees. In the case of the Abdo’s it was the Anglican Diocese of Calgary, who have an official agreement with the Government of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
According to Brian Gallant, one of the original local committee members formed to facilitate bringing a family here, it is a success story for all concerned. He, along with motivated individuals like Jenice Smith, Kat Williams, Elizabeth Anderson, Lynnette Jessop, Jackie Woodman and Tom Head, spent 18 months working to find the Adbo’s and it took another four months to get them here in May of 2018.
Brian says that the community was very supportive when it came to the fund raising element of their journey. It truly was a community effort and continues to be. The qualifications for getting your citizenship include being a permanent resident, have lived in Canada for 3 out of the last five years, have filed taxes if you need to, pass a citizenship test and prove your language skills.
With regards to the language skills, community members like Brenda Davison and Rick and Judy Cooke spent many hours coaching the family and there were also online classes that they took.Jill Burnell, Literacy Programmer with Crowsnest Pass Adult Education also worked with Farha and Bahzad and Farha has taken her language training a step further with online courses with Lethbridge College. The family got help with the tricky citizenship exam which covers Canadian geography, economics, history, government, voting in Canada, citizenship responsibilities, our culture and symbols and current events.
To witness Bahzad hold up his right hand in that zoom gathering that day was truly a privilege. Their living room was full of supportive community members all wanting to share that official announcement. The facilitator spoke at length about their journey and the difficulties faced coming into a new culture, learning a new language and even enduring drastically different weather.
He pointed out that becoming Canadian comes with very special rights, rights often stripped away from others. The right to live free from persecution or discrimination, the right to express your opinion without fear, the right to practice your religion, the right to vote and the right to live and work in any province or territory in Canada.
The facilitator also stated that becoming a Canadian citizen comes with responsibilities such as, “obeying the law, taking responsibility for yourself and your family, voting in our elections, doing your part to protect Canada’s environment and heritage and helping others around you by being good community members.”
Prior to the official oath recital Bahzad was asked to present two pieces of ID, one being his resident card, the other being his driver’s license. He was asked then to symbolically cut up his permanent resident ID card in front of that government representative conducting the service. The person was quick to point out, with some humour, to make sure it wasn’t their driver’s license that they cut up.
It was a bit comical at times for the computerized swearing in process, which involved the coordination of no less than 141 persons from 37 different countries via zoom. It took time and patience to have all 141 hold up their right hands and recite together the following oath.
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King Charles lll, King of Canada, his heirs or successors. And that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the constitution, which recognizes and affirms the aboriginal rights of First Nations, the Inuit and Métis peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
Although it was not required Bahzad gamely recited the very same oath in French, respectfully acknowledging our two official languages.
The Abdo’s have been here now since May of 2018 and in that four years plus time have blended nicely into our community and become an active working part of it all. Bahzad’s background as an apprentice tailor led to his now full time employ with Prestige Cleaners. The Saretzky family have been over the top supportive of the Abdo family and a blessing in their lives.
Bahzad’s wife Farha was principal in creating, in 2019, Abdo Kurdish Foods, which is Syrian food made and sold at our local markets and now at the Pantry. Farha also works part-time at Prestige and two of their children Mohammed, now 15, and Jolari, now 17, have also found work at Tim Horton’s and IGA. On the horizon for Jolari, when she graduates, is a university education to become a doctor. I strongly suspect that what she may have witnessed in her short lifetime is a motivator in her occupation choice, one that will allow her to be able to help others. Her desire to be a doctor is the epitome of how our country can open up opportunity to those who work hard.
Author’s Note: It was interesting to observe the Bahzad family that day and how well mannered and polite they are. In particular I was struck by their young son Ahmed, who was 1 ½ when they entered the camp and is now 9. His taught values of respect and courtesy were overflowing that day and his smile lit up the room. How blessed we are to have them in our community.