Newcomer Story: Sawsan Alhamwi

She came on the screen smiling and fresh-faced. Sawsan greeted me warmly over Skype and I felt a positive connection. She confidently talked to me as if she had been speaking English all her life.

Amazing, considering that she came to Manitoba just less than three years ago. Sawsan, her husband and baby boy arrived in Winnipeg in November 2016 from Turkey. Having been displaced by war in their native home Syria, she and her family, including their extended families, have been living there for two years before they moved.

Although they didn’t exactly choose Manitoba (as refugees, the government chooses for them), she is thankful that she came to such a welcoming place. “Manitoba is so friendly, it’s so good for families because you can connect with other Syrian families like us or with Canadian families. They are so helpful to us! We have had some Canadian neighbours who were so friendly. A couple even took us to dinner and to the Forks. They are wonderful!” said Sawsan.

“Now I know my weaknesses in my pronunciation, sentence order and a lot of things. I thought my English was good enough but I realized that there was more to learn. I would make mistakes and didn’t realize it. Jill teaches me how to handle every mistake. I am still learning but I feel that I am so confident now with speaking.”

Settling in Manitoba

In their first few weeks in Manitoba, she and her husband became all too aware that they were now on their own. Despite the welcoming community they settled into, they could not help but yearn for the presence of their family who were all overseas. “Living without family was worrying. Another thing was raising my children (she also now has a daughter) in a very different culture. That is why we always call my mom, my siblings and siblings-in-law , and we do video calls. I want my children to see them, to know our relatives and to feel like they are close to us,” she said.

Language was another major challenge for Sawsan. “I was lucky that I had a little knowledge of English when I came here. I would say that I could manage, but it was not as good as I speak now,” Sawsan said. “That was my greatest concern – how I can learn and how fast I can learn because I was very ambitious. I felt that I had to learn everything on the first year,” she said.

“One of the first things we did was go to WELARC to get our language benchmark. Then I went to MOSAIC to study for five months from January to June 2017. When I got pregnant (my due date was in November) MOSAIC didn’t accept me because I didn’t have time, just two months from September to November. So I researched a lot on how to study because I still wanted to learn English during my pregnancy and after giving birth. This was when I learned about English Online and LINC Home Study,” she remembers.

Sawsan registered with EO and was paired with an e-Volunteer EAL e-Tutor. “I had 10 sessions with my e-Tutor Anna from Toronto. She was very helpful. We talked a lot. Then I applied to LINC Home Study and in April 2018, I started to study with my awesome instructor Jill Hart, she beams. “Now I know my weaknesses in my pronunciation, sentence order and a lot of things. I thought my English was good enough but I realized that there was more to learn. I would make mistakes and didn’t realize it. Jill teaches me how to handle every mistake. I am still learning but I feel that I am so confident now with speaking,” said Sawsan.

She adds, “LINC Home Study with English Online is very flexible. We can book a class anytime and we are relaxed because we study at home. We don’t have to go out in the chilling winter and I am with my two kids. It also doesn’t take a lot of time. I study five hours a week and I can see that I improve.”

Future plans

Sawsan is a holder of an Anesthesiologist Assistant degree from Syria. She had just finished her course and was volunteering at a public hospital when the war broke out. Now, with her English studies getting further along, she is planning to upgrade her education after she completes her LINC Home Study course. “I am looking for options to study again in a university or college. I don’t have a specific course or school yet but I want to get a Canadian degree and then get a job,” she said.

For now, the young mom is taking things step by step and is slowly but surely reaching her goals. In the meantime, Sawsan continues to enjoy beautiful Manitoba which she says “has a lot of sun! Even in chilly winter there is a lot of sun. It gives you energy even when you are at home,” she said. “Summer and spring here are awesome! This summer we went to a lot of places like Gimli and Winnipeg Beach. You’ll find a lot of things to entertain yourself here,” she adds.

Tips to other newcomers:

Reflecting on her experiences so far, Sawsan pauses and shares a few tips for other newcomers like her:

  • “Everyone who comes here should have a partner. My husband and I always remind ourselves of our goals. We think about what we have achieved and what we would like to achieve. This kind of support is very important especially for newcomers who don’t have family in Manitoba. Life won’t be easy if we didn’t support each other.”
  • “Try and do things yourself. Try first and then if you can’t do it, ask for help. This will give you a good experience – you will find your strengths. Don’t rely too much on other people’s help.”
  • “Be positive. I know it’s hard since we are away from our families. But it is important to be positive all the time especially for our children and for the community. Entertain yourself and go outside. Go to the beach in the summer. In winter, try and find what is good out there. There are a lot of activities you can do in winter. Winter is so long, you have to do something. Don’t just sit in the house thinking about your relatives.”