Newcomer story: Maysoun Darweesh

MaysounShe came on screen for our Skype interview smiling and gracious, although looking a bit tired. Maysoun had a busy day at work and had just arrived from driving her two daughters to their after-school activities. Nevertheless, during our conversation, she was pleasant and quite positive about her life and daily activities. Talking to her, you wouldn’t catch any hint of bitterness or angst for all that she had gone through in her life.

The Darweesh family’s struggle began years before the current Syrian refugee crisis that we know of now. About 10 years ago, Maysoun and her husband, both human rights activists, began to be persecuted by the Syrian government. Her husband was a businessman (he owned a company) who suffered for his three years of human rights work. He was picked up by the authorities, imprisoned and tortured. He fled the country the first chance he got and went to China.

From Syria to Macau

Meanwhile, it became evident that Maysoun and her kids had to leave Syria for two things. First, she feared for their lives because of her work as a journalist and because of the daily threats by the Syrian secret police. The police rounded up their friends who were active with them in their human rights work, and even imprisoned her husband’s brother to pressure them to give up her husband. Second, her husband needed her help because he was stuck in Macau. He went there to extend his visa but while there, his luggage and all his belongings, were stolen. Desperate to leave the country, Maysoun sought all means to depart from Syria. When she finally got the approval to do so, the next step was going through the grueling travel from Damascus to Dubai, Dubai to Hongkong, then finally to Macau, via boat, plane, and ferry. She went through all these with her young children, a three-year old and an eight-month old, in tow.

Reunited with her husband, life in Macau became stable for the family. They were free from persecution, and they were cared for by a support group of multinational friends who helped them live fruitful lives there. However, after being assured that they would be granted residency in the country, they were told that they can live in Macau but their rights and freedoms would be limited. This signaled another struggle for the family which led them to seek better options. At one point, officials threatened deportation which moved them to take their case to court. Despite winning the case, they felt that there was no future for them in Macau. Fortunately, the Winnipeg-based Douglas Mennonite Church came to the rescue. The church’s sponsorship was approved and the Darweesh family were Manitoba-bound.

“Syrian refugees just need a chance. They are peaceful people. Just like you and me, they just want a place where they can be human again, and to raise their families in peace. They are victims of circumstances that they cannot control and this could happen to anybody. They deserve our understanding and support.”

Life in Manitoba

They arrived in Winnipeg on December 13, 2012, a date that is unforgettable for Maysoun. Coming here, she felt that her family could finally live in freedom and in peace. It is a place where they can be “fully human” again.

Although they had been living in constant flux, life in Winnipeg was not really alien to Maysoun and her family. “We had a lot of western friends in Macau. We even celebrated occasions like Thanksgiving when we were there. I feel like our five years in Macau was training for our new life here in Canada,” she said. Quite fluent in English, she decided that the best way to settle was to immerse in the culture, mingle with Canadian neighbors, and become active in the community.

Another priority for Maysoun was her professional development. Although the experienced journalist and social worker was already proficient in English, she felt that she needed to improve her writing skills when she arrived in Manitoba. “I can be very hard on myself. I set high standards, especially when it comes to my abilities, I always want to be better,” she said. However, since she was doing shift work then, she did not have time for a regular program. She learned about English Online from one of her colleagues and decided to try it.

After learning with EO, she saw a marked improvement in her writing skills. “My e-facilitator, Iwona, told me to compare my earlier essays with my recent ones and I can see that I have vastly improved. I think that this online program is amazing! I am grateful for all the assistance and friendship that EO, especially, Iwona has extended. It helped me a lot when I was starting out,” she said.

One more thing that Maysoun is still adjusting to is keeping up with parenting. Since she wants her kids to have a normal Canadian childhood, she makes it a point that they become exposed to the usual activities that children their age are busy with. But sometimes, these activities can take their toll, especially with her work and other concerns. But the spunky mom takes it all in stride and sees everything in a positive light. ”We’re doing our best and we’re keeping up,” she says with a smile.

The need to feel human

Asked about the coming influx of Syrian refugees to Manitoba, Maysoun shares an expert’s perspective. Having had ample experience in settlement work in China and here in Manitoba, plus, being Syrian herself, she has a deep understanding of what these newcomers are dealing with. “Syrian refugees just need a chance. They are peaceful people. Just like you and me, they just want a place where they can be human again, and to raise their families in peace. They are victims of circumstances that they cannot control and this could happen to anybody. They deserve our understanding and support,” Maysoun said.

For her fellow Syrians, Maysoun shares these tips to ease their settlement:

“For these newcomers, I say that upon landing on Canadian soil, they should decide that this is now their country. This is their new home. They should establish a real sense of belonging to this land. I advise them to go out and immerse themselves, and meet people. They should not live in ethnic enclaves.

“It is very important that they should keep themselves busy. I would advise them to start learning English immediately when they get here. Knowledge of the language would lead them to job opportunities and help them adjust to life here faster. There are a lot of good support services in Manitoba (and I highly recommend English Online!). While they are still unemployed, they should do volunteer work. It will give them a good experience. They should continue being active in the community and take every opportunity to give back,” she said.

Maysoun Darweesh and members of the Syrian community are planning a series of events this summer to thank Winnipeggers for their warm welcome. Read about this effort in this news article: “We are ready to give back”: Winnipeg’s Syrian refugee community says thanks, Shane Gibson for Winnipeg Metro.