No translator was needed to understand how the Alkerdi family was feeling.
The shy smiles and sighs of relief said it all.
Syrians Saer and Khaldya Alkerdi and their five children moved into a three-bedroom house in West Park on Wednesday.
It’s been a long and exhausting five years for the refugee family, which began in the spring of 2011.
Speaking through an Arabic translator, Saer said when the civil war broke out and the bombs started landing on the village, he locked the doors to the house and drove his wife Khaldya and his children west to neighbouring Lebanon.
They fled with only the clothes on their backs and the keys to the house.
“I thought it wouldn’t be safe for me and my family,” Saer said. “I had young kids then and I just wanted to flee the problems of war. I thought it would not be more than a month or two.”
Life was not easy in Lebanon and it became increasingly difficult as the days, weeks and months went by.
They initially stayed with Saer’s brother in a cramped two-bedroom house with about 40 other people.
Saer, 46, who worked in construction before the war, tried to find work and a place for his family to live. The United Nations helped with food and an allowance.
“We were struggling to live and we lived with whatever the UN gave us,” he said. “We had no choice.”
But as the war continued and more refugees arrived in Lebanon, it became nearly impossible to live and be granted legal residency.
The children could not go to school because they were harassed and bullied. Instead Saer and Khaldya taught the children — who range in age from six to 15 — at home.
Saer said police took men from their homes and put into prison for two or three days before releasing them on the street.
“The last year I was there I didn’t go out because I was afraid the police would get me,” he said. “We didn’t lose hope all at once. We lost it gradually. We had hope in a month or two that we would go back. Then a year turned to two and we lost hope.”
But the hope was renewed in November when the family got the call that they would be resettled in Canada.
“We started dancing with joy,” said Saer.
They arrived in Red Deer in mid-January and stayed in a hotel while Catholic Social Services found a place for the government-sponsored refugees to live.
They haven’t seen too much of Red Deer yet but the family said it is beautiful and the people are respectful. They have spent time with some other Syrian families but would really like to make some Canadian friends. They said they are grateful to be given a new start in Canada.
“We noticed people respect people a lot,” said Khaldya, 43. “We felt we have a value here.”
Their first order of business is to learn the language.
“We want to learn English and our kids to go to school,” said Saer. “I want them to be something when they grow up. I have hope in God that they will be something.”
Language assessment and training starts on Monday, another milestone in the family’s new life. The children will be registered in the school system while the parents will be learning English through Central Alberta Refugee Effort.
Walaa, 15, who will be in Grade 9, said she loves all subjects in school and is excited to be back in the classroom. She loves makeup and wants to be a hairdresser.
Fourteen-year-old Saer loves soccer and is just as happy as his sister to attend Grade 8.
Saher, 11, will be in Grade 6 and Sehar, 10, will be in Grade 4 while Khaldya jokes she will be in kindergarten with daughter Alisar, 6.
The couple want their children to live in peace and to help others.
“I want them to do good in Canada that brought us here,” he said.
It is only when the conversation turns to the family and friends remaining in the Middle East that the conversation takes a sombre tone. The couple’s eldest daughters Tharaa, 18, with her new husband, and Tharwa, 20, are still living under duress in Lebanon.
“They are in the same condition that we were in,” said Saer. “They can’t go out. We used to live together. My son-in-law’s family was not there so he was living with us. I tried to tell people to help me to bring them here but I had nobody to help me.”
Khaldya wipes the tears away as she thinks about her two eldest daughters.
“There is nothing more I could wish for then to have my daughters to be with me,” she said. “We wish. We wish.”
They also want the other Syrians who are suffering to find peace and the war will end.
The seven new residents bring the tally to 78 government-sponsored refugees settled in Red Deer since late December. A family of eight is currently waiting for housing.
Red Deer is expected to be the home for about 126 Syrians by the end of February, part of the government’s commitment to re-settle 25,000 Syrians.
Remza Mujezinovic, program supervisor for Catholic Social Services Immigration and Settlement in Red Deer, said the number fluctates every day. She said it could be more or it could be less but they believe they are halfway through with settling the new residents.
The refugees stayed in hotels on average 10 to 12 days before they were found a place to live.
“We moved them really fast,” she said. “However they are not as affordable as they are available. They are paying lots of money for rent. We are very fortunate in Red Deer compared to other centres that are struggling. Landlords have been very collaborative and some will wait for damage deposits. However rents are still very high and it affects their monthly allowance.”
After the refugees are settled into their homes, they will receive support from in-house workers that will determine their needs. It could be anything from getting around Red Deer, helping with medical appointments to using an appliance.
Asam Houssein, Catholic Social Services settlement worker, is one of five counsellors that speak Arabic helpeing the new arrivals. She was with the Alkerdi family on Wednesday.
“All of them are thrilled to be here,” she said. “Tired, yes. Shocked about the cold, yes. But very much happy.”