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Teacher helps Syrian refugee find his voice

June 14, 2016 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Refugee Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah and his ESL teacher Winnie Canuel proudly display a manuscript for Homes, a novel Canuel has written based on al-Rabeeah’s life in Syria and Iraq. (Photo: Cory Hare)

You don’t forget your first car bomb.

Edmonton student Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, remembers his first car bomb as seeming detached from reality when it happened two years ago. A resident of Homs, Syria, at the time, al-Rabeeah was directly facing the cab when it rose with a whoosh then came crashing back down, the blast throwing onlookers to the ground and spraying gravel and sand everywhere.

Unlike in the movies, al-Rabeeah’s ears didn’t ring and the world wasn’t muted for an extended period. The dominant sound, which he still hears whenever he remembers, was his ­father’s voice screaming his name.

That memory is just one of many documented in a new book and related speech crafted by ESL teacher Winnie Canuel, who has been working with al-Rabeeah at Edmonton’s Highlands School since last fall.

“The dream was actually just to write down his story and to have him speak to people about what’s happening in Syria,” Canuel says.

Throughout three months, Canuel spent hours interviewing al-Rabeeah during lunchtime and after school. Some days, the experience left the student so drained that he went straight home afterward and slept.

Based on those interviews, ­Canuel wrote a novel entitled Homes and created a speech that al-Rabeeah has been delivering to various student and leadership groups, including the trustees of Edmonton Public Schools and students and staff at his school. Neighbouring school jurisdictions have also invited him to speak, and MLA Brian Mason introduced him and Canuel in the ­Alberta legislature.

Traumatic but happy childhood

The al-Rabeeah family now calls Edmonton home after fleeing Iraq then Syria.

The book and speech are sprinkled with anecdotes from al-Rabeeah’s traumatic past.

One of those anecdotes recounts how, on his first day in Grade 2, al-Rabeeah introduced himself to his new teacher, who immediately slapped the boy across the face because his name identified him as a minority Sunni Muslim.

“I was stunned. I didn’t know what I did wrong,” the speech reads.

“You might not believe me, but I didn’t cry. I started to but I stopped myself because I could hear my father’s voice in my head: ‘A good Muslim doesn’t hate. A good Muslim responds with love and peace. Leave all judgments to God.’ That was my first day of Grade 2.”

That incident occurred when the al-Rabeeah family lived in their native Iraq. After years of living with religious tension, which was escalating to the point that Sunni families were receiving death threats and bullets taped to their doors, al-Rabeeah’s father moved the 10-person family to Syria, to the city of Homs (pronounced Homes).

That was 2010. Al-Rabeeah was in Grade 4.

As the family was settling into their new life in Syria, the Arab spring uprising of 2011 gave way to violence in Syria as various rebel groups rose up against the corruption and tyranny of President Bashar Assad’s government. From that point, normal life was permeated by the roar of fighter jets, the crack of sniper fire, the smells of hot grease and gunpowder from machine guns and the sharp panic brought on by the mere sight of Assad’s roving gang of lawless thugs.

“It also felt like the stuffy air of my cousins and I packed into one of our bedrooms, playing PlayStation all night to pass the time because, somewhere outside, a massacre was happening,” al-Rabeeah says in his speech.

A strong theme that permeates the speech and the book is the fact that, while he was growing up in the midst of tragedy and the horrors of war, al-Rabeeah was also experiencing many happy times. He enjoyed normal childhood pursuits like playing soccer and video games while hanging out with his friends and cousins, and surrounded by a loving mother, father and seven siblings.

“My life has not just been about the car bombs and shootings. When you look at me, when you look at us, please don’t just imagine tragedy,” al-Rabeeah says in his speech. “I am not a victim of war. I had a traumatic childhood, yes, but I also had a happy one.”

Explosions and violence were part of life in Syria for refugee Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah.

Al-Rabeeah says people in Canada are very careful when speaking to him, because they know he’s had some tough experiences. His message: loosen up; I’m a normal person.

“You don’t need to be so serious or careful with me just because I am a refugee or Muslim,” al-Rabeeah says in the speech. “Joke with me; laugh with me. I’m really not so different.”

A bright-eyed teenager with a ready smile, al-Rabeeah says he’s struggled with Edmonton winters and communicating in English since coming to Canada in November 2014. He also misses his cousins and friends back in Syria, with whom he communicates daily through social media.

Al-Rabeeah says he survived the war because of his family. His father refused to let them be victims or give up on life.

“He said that we cannot carry these awful things with us, we simply have to carry on. He taught us that our love for each other and our beliefs will keep our hearts clean and happy.”

For the first time in his life, al-Rabeeah is making plans for the future. A die-hard soccer enthusiast, he’s enrolled in the soccer academy at M.E. LaZerte High School in the fall. He says he’s looking forward to improving his soccer skills and studying hard in school.

Al-Rabeeah says he’s thankful for the life he has now and for having survived the war. Though it took away some people he loved and robbed him of a simple childhood, it also showed him the power of a family’s love and made him a stronger, more mature person. Those trade-offs continue.

“Here, I am safe, but I am also terribly lonely. There are no bombs, but our path ahead is still uncertain. But, the beautiful thing about my life here is that I can imagine any future I want.” ❚

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