“These women are the most fantastic dancers I’ve ever seen – like belly dancing on steroids. They take off their hijabs, you know, and are so free.” Lee Elliott, a volunteer coordinator for Hillhurst United Church’s Syrian refugee family, describes the beautiful ease with which the Yassin family’s five daughters dance in the company of other women.
The Yassin’s, which Lee describes as, “social, warm and loving” people with a great sense of humour, are finding their footing in Calgary after an unfathomable journey of war, loss and grief.
Stepping off the plane in Calgary last February marked the final arrival of safety, however Lee notes that they still face challenges as they adjust to life in Canada. When asked what surprised her most, Lee responds immediately and emphatically – “How difficult it is to not have a car in Calgary!”
Lee recognizes that this issue is an opportunity for Calgary to re-envision how our infrastructure and neighbourhoods are designed. “Many services that refugee families need to access are located all in the Northeast or downtown,” Lee says, citing Interim Federal Healthcare and language testing as examples.
The Yassin family-of-seven requires two volunteer drivers for outings or relies on public transit – which can often add up to two hours per commute. Lee wonders, with today’s technology, if there is a way to make these services mobile. “Why not have people from these offices come meet the families where they’re at?” Lee sees huge potential in the capacity for Calgary’s libraries to host such appointments. “That’s the great thing about libraries,” she says, “there’s always a library.”
Lee knows first hand the potential for libraries after the Southwood Library generously provided space for Hillhurst United’s Pop-up ESL school. The temporary school was a short bus ride away from the homes of the 17 Syrian refugees that made up the school.
Lee says the temporary school was created because, “all these refugees were just sitting in their homes, didn’t know anyone, and didn’t know the language,” while awaiting placement in more formal ESL programs. The pop-up school provided an opportunity for refugees to find a sense of community, connect with other Syrian families, and expand their network of friends.
In addition, the volunteer-run school provided students with 90 hours of extra English training during its 6-week duration. Government sponsorship for the family will end in February after one year of support but Lee is confident the relationship formed between the Yassin family and Hillhurst United’s refugee ministry will go on for years to come.