‘We’re so thankful to be here,’ says Whitehorse’s first Syrian refugee family

Last weekend, under a bright blue sky, the Aarafat family had their first taste of a time-honoured Canadian tradition.

Last weekend, under a bright blue sky, the Aarafat family had their first taste of a time-honoured Canadian tradition.

Hussein Aarafat and his wife, Fatima, took their nine children to Shipyards Park for their first toboggan rides on Sunday. The Syrian family was accompanied by volunteers from Yukon Cares, their sponsor group.

After watching some local kids go hurtling down the hill, the Aarafat children decided to give it a try.

Bundled up in snowsuits, three of the younger daughters took turns on one of the gentler slopes, switching between a couple of plastic sleds and a traditional wooden toboggan. They took their little brother on a few rides with them, too, tucked into the front of the toboggan.

Even Hussein and Fatima slid down the hill once or twice, while the small crowd cheered them on.

The Aarafat children blended right in with the other kids at Shipyards Park that day. They were totally fearless, smiling and laughing as they tumbled off their sleds at the base of the hill.

After a little while, the family moved on to a longer run. The kids didn’t miss a beat, launching themselves down the steeper slope without a second thought.

The family also had a chance to check out the sled dog teams taking kids for short rides around the park.

“The weather is amazing today,” said Hassan, the Aarafats’ oldest son, speaking through an interpreter. “It’s sunny and it’s beautiful to go sledding. Everybody is welcoming and they’re so kind. We’re so thankful to be here.”

The family arrived in Whitehorse just over two weeks ago. Since then, Hassan said, Yukon Cares has kept them busy, showing them the downtown, the local banks and the hospital. The volunteers have taken them on a bus tour as well, to show them how to use the public transportation system.

And as of last week, he and some of his family members have started taking English classes at the multicultural centre.

“It’s good!” Hassan said, in English.

The 22-year-old said his family first learned they’d be coming to Whitehorse before they arrived in Canada. But at the time, they didn’t really know what that meant.

It wasn’t until they landed in Montreal last month that anyone explained to them where Whitehorse was.

“That was the first time that we knew we were coming to the North,” Hassan said. “Initially, we were a little bit frightened to know that we were coming very far from the major cities. But eventually, once we landed actually, we discovered how pleasant the opportunity was. Everybody’s so kind, everybody’s so helpful.

“We suffered a lot for the past four years and we’re just so happy to finally be settling.”

The Aarafat family is from a town outside Hama, a city in western Syria.

Hassan said he and his brother first left Syria nearly five years ago, when the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad began.

“The family wanted us to be away from any problems, because people our age are targets for all different militias and conflicting groups,” he explained.

The rest of the family joined them in Lebanon two years later, where they applied for resettlement through the United Nations refugee agency. A few months after they left, their home was destroyed by the Syrian army.

Despite what they’ve been through, the family was all smiles on Sunday. Hassan said they’re just happy to be here.

“I would like to express my gratitude and my family’s as well for all Canadian citizens, for the Canadian government, for Yukon Cares and for the communities here, for their support and for their welcoming.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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