Back row from left: Jeff Johnson, Yasser Badawi, Nahed Kashour, and Tina Johnson. Mohammed Badawi, 12, is at centre, and Jack Johnson, 7, an unidentified child, and Lujin Badawi, 3, are in sled.

Two Red Deer families overcome differences and bond over being Canadian

Central Albertans help Syrian refugees get footing in Alberta

A friendship that bridges language and cultural divides has blossomed between two Red Deer families in Canada’s 150th birthday year.

Tina and Jeff Johnson and their two kids have been helping Nahed Kashour and Yasser Badawi and their four children start over in Canada ever since the Syrian family arrived here in 2016, after spending five years in a Turkish refugee camp.

After sharing meals, birthday and holiday parties and excursions, the two families have come to a common understanding that’s not always based on language.

“They sure have a sense of humour, because we have had many ‘lost in translation’ moments,” said Tina, a receptionist with the Chinook’s Edge School Division. “We just laugh through it! We both get it. It will take time, but they have great attitudes!”

The Johnsons resolved to help a Syrian family acclimatize to Canada after hearing some negative local comments about refugees. After Googling: ‘How can I help?’ Tina was put in touch with the C.A.R.E. (Central Alberta Refugee Effort).

The Johnsons were eventually matched with the government-sponsored, Arabic-speaking Badawi family, and C.A.R.E. initially provided translators to help them get past the communications barrier.

Tina and Jeff, who’s a teacher in Spruce View, and their children, Havana, 11, and Jack, 7, helped show the newcomers around Red Deer. They assisted in finding them rental accommodations, a vehicle, licence and insurance, and affordable places to shop.

The Badawis are “very happy” to have new Canadian friends that made them feel welcome in Red Deer and assisted them with understanding “everyday things.” It means a lot, the couple added.

Tina recalled that Nahed and Yasser were initially afraid to allow their children, ages three to 12, to play outside because they were used to uncertainty and violence. “We walked with them to the park, so they would know it was safe… They weren’t used to feeling that way.”

The reality of the Syrian war was brought home to the Johnsons at a celebratory dinner with the Badawis (“It’s their way of showing gratitude. Nahed is a very good cook!” said Tina). The evening turned to a sad affair after news reached them about friends and relations killed in a chemical gas attack.

Pre-war photos showed the Badawis’ hometown of Aleppo looking much like Toronto. It’s now been reduced to rubble.

“I’m just so thankful to live in Canada, where I don’t have to worry about these things,” said Havana, who feels the friendship has provided lessons in compassion, world affairs and cultural relations.

One day, she and her mom got their hair done and tried out hijabs, the modest head coverings worn by married Syrian women. “I thought it was pretty cool. I was excited to learn about a different culture,” said Havana.

The Badawis helped re-enforced Tina’s own gratitude for being Canadian because “they are just so thankful to be here.”

The couple praise Alberta’s fresh air and open spaces, saying they believe their children will have a healthier future here.

Tina thinks about other refugees arriving in Alberta, and hopes other local families will help them out. “If this was ever to happen to us, I didn’t want to look back and think we did nothing.”

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