Maysoun Darweesh, 38, chops mint as her two daughters, Rooj, 11, and Naya, 8, watch over eggplants roasting in two industrial ovens. On the other side of the counter, eight blenders spin into overdrive as Darweesh’s husband, Nour Ali, also 38, pours bulk-sized cans of chickpeas into the machines. Their goal is to make enough hummus and baba ghanoush to feed 500 hundred people.
The family is preparing authentic Syrian appetizers for Douglas Mennonite Church’s after-service brunch. Maysoun and her family are adding the appetizers to the meal as a way to thank the congregation for its help over the past few years.
The family fled Syria in 2005 and spent several years in limbo in Macau before Douglas Mennonite Church found out about them through a common connection. Through sponsorship, the family was able to move to Winnipeg in 2013.
Don Rempel-Boschman, the church’s leading minister, says that refugee sponsorship resonates with many members of his North Kildonan congregation because they, too, came to Canada as refugees.
Maysoun says she is grateful to have the opportunity to live in a country that respects human rights and democracy. “I am proud to be Canadian,” she says. “It’s amazing here. I love Manitoba, really. We belong here.” Maysoun and Nour are also relieved that their daughters will grow up in a safer environment than they did. “We grew up in fear, nothing but fear,” she says.
As a young adult, Maysoun rebelled against social norms. She resisted the pressure to get married and have children, and enrolled instead in university. “I needed to prove myself in some way,” she says. “I rejected many things I love. I decided not to marry or have children. I chose my own way in life because I couldn’t follow blindly.”
However, her perspective changed when she met Nour in 2001 while studying journalism at the University of Damascus. After only five dates, Nour proposed. They were married two years later. Both of their daughters were born in Syria. But they were living in an unstable and often terrifying environment.
Nour ran his own company in Syria and was very active in promoting human rights. This got him into trouble. The government captured and tortured him three times. He was warned of a fourth arrest and fled to protect himself and his family. “He left without telling me anything. I didn’t see him for one year. He disappeared,” Maysoun says.
Months later, Nour called from Turkey. “He told me: they want to capture me and they will torture me and probably put me in jail for a long, long time. Maybe they will kill me,” she says. Nour went to China while Maysoun and her girls stayed in Syria, facing daily home invasions from government officials who suspected Maysoun of harbouring her husband. “It was terrible. A nightmare,” she says. “I told him he had to find a solution because I couldn’t continue.”
With help from her father- and brother-in-law, Maysoun and her infant daughters left Syria to meet Nour in Macau in 2008. The family was stuck there for five years, unable to leave until another country accepted them. In 2013, hope became reality when the Canadian government came to their aid.
Since arriving in Canada, Maysoun has volunteered at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM). “My heart is with refugees and newcomers. I used to assist refugees in Macau, so I’d love to do more of that here. I would like to help newcomers with the adjustment and integration process,” she says.
Maysoun says that the support programs for immigrants in Winnipeg should focus just as much on community building and integration as on paperwork and employment. After taking introductory and legal interpretation courses at the Immigrant Centre of Manitoba, Maysoun found the community support she was looking for. “The centre that works really well from my experience is the Immigrant Centre. They are really, really good. They focus on employment for clients, which is great. They also help with language and computer skills.”
“I’m so grateful for what I have now – the freedom I have,” says Maysoun. “Now it’s my turn to help.”
Article and photos by Katrina Sklepowich