Yukon’s first family of Syrian refugees has arrived in Whitehorse, after months of planning and fundraising by local volunteers.
The Aarafat family was greeted at Whitehorse airport on Saturday evening by volunteers from Yukon Cares, its local sponsor. Health Minister Mike Nixon, Kwanlin Dun Councillor Sean Smith and deputy mayor Roslyn Woodcock were also present. Yukon MP Larry Bagnell accompanied the family from Vancouver to Whitehorse.
The family has 11 members – parents Hussein and Fatima and their nine children, who range in age from 16 months to 21 years.
“It was very special,” said Raquel de Queiroz, who started Yukon Cares in September. “I am relieved that everything went well and that they’re here. And also very happy. I feel like it was the same labour as having a baby – but without the pain.”
De Queiroz said the public wasn’t informed of the arrival ahead of time because she didn’t want the family to be too overwhelmed by a big crowd at the airport.
The family had been staying in Lebanon before coming to Canada. They flew first to Montreal, where they spent three days before leaving for Whitehorse.
Since their arrival, they’ve moved into the house that Yukon Cares had furnished for them. They’ve spent a lot of time resting, de Queiroz said, “because they were just absolutely exhausted.”
They’ve also been going through the clothes donated to Yukon Cares and building a wardrobe for the nine children.
De Queiroz said the next priorities are to help them get their vaccinations and other medical and dental care.
“And we are going to focus on getting them enrolled in English training as soon as possible,” she said.
The Aarafat family speaks very little English, though de Queiroz said a few family members can read and write some English.
The children haven’t had any education for a few years, so it may take some time before they’re all ready to go back to school.
But de Queiroz said the two oldest boys, aged 19 and 21, are very anxious to finish high school. One of them wants to become a pharmacist, she said.
And as for the family’s first thoughts about Whitehorse: “They commented on how long the night was,” de Queiroz joked, adding that the volunteers will have to teach the children how to build snowmen.
She said the family has also been asking how to thank the community for its generosity.
Aside from helping with basic needs, Yukon Cares also plans to take the family out for activities, to help them get to know the community.
“Our translator, Ehab (Alhag Hissen), is also very active in the soccer community,” de Queiroz said, so he may get the children involved as well.
Yukon Cares is still collecting donations, as the group hopes to bring a second Syrian family to Whitehorse. In fact, Hussein Aarafat has a brother still in Lebanon, and Yukon Cares may try and reunite the extended family.
Meanwhile, a second volunteer group at the Riverdale Baptist Church hopes to bring a third refugee family to Whitehorse within the next few months.
Donations to Yukon Cares can be made at www.gofundme.com/3k3babf5 or by sending a cheque to the Whitehorse Diocese. The group can be followed at www.facebook.com/groups/yukon.cares.
Contact Maura Forrest at