BY JOSEPH TUNNEY
She moves her hands with each sentence she speaks. She has short brown hair with piercing hazel eyes. In her living room hang a few photos of her past life. The rest are gone, left behind in Syria, in a home long looted.
She offers coffee, muffins, whatever she has to open her home to a visitor. She said it’s the nature of Syrian people to do this, to open up, to want to give.
The day after the first families of refugees arrived in Saint John, Layla Rahmeh went to visit them.
“They said to me, ‘can you please translate to (the sponsor family) we’re very sorry we don’t have anything to offer,’” Rahmeh said. “They felt embarrassed.”
Back home she used to illegally sneak blankets, carpets, whatever she had that was warm, to kids orphaned by the raging civil war.
She has a yearning to help her people.
Rahmeh’s is one of the first faces Syrian refugees in New Brunswick see, or the first voice they hear interpreting for them. She wants to help the newcomers avoid the loneliness and isolation she felt when she arrived from Syria in July, 2012.
So Rahmeh helps translate for the government and even narrated the welcome-to-New-Brunswick video produced for the new arrivals.
She knows some of the horror they are leaving behind.
From her former house in Damascus, she could see the government shell the neighbouring town with artillery from the mountains. Houses burning.
Now when she looks out she sees a snowy quiet street in east side Saint John, New Brunswick.
“When I first came here I thought, ‘it looks like it’s in a fairytale,’” said Rahmeh, reflecting on when she first stood at the top of King Street and looked down at the harbour. “It reminds me of when I was a kid reading books.”
And while she describes her new city as a fairytale, she says there’s something still alien about it.
She says the sky is different here. She can’t explain it.
Sometimes when she opens a drawer at her desk or opens the front door in spring, a particular smell hits her and reminds her of Syria, of Damascus.
It takes her back.
“It’s not about where you stay, it’s about the whole spirit of it.”
Before she came to Canada, Rahmeh worked at a telecommunications company half-owned by the Syrian government.
She graduated from Oxford through a program with the University of Damascus where she worked on a project on how to strengthen communities and create partnerships between the private and public sectors.
She and a few friends wanted to implement some of these ideas in Syria, and Rahmeh approached the first lady’s office.
“What happened is nobody listened to us,” said Rahmeh. The experience opened Rahmeh’s eyes and those of her friends to how unhappy they were with the government.
“If you are not agreeing, you are opposing, eventually,” Rahmeh said about the government’s mentality.
Syria’s fighting started in early spring of 2011 when the Assad government responded to nationwide protests with violence, including the use of chemical weapons on his own people.
By the time Rahmeh arrived in Saint John, 16,000 people had died and the Red Cross had officially declared the conflict a civil war. There are now 4.6 million Syrian refugees throughout the world with another 6.6 million displaced internally.
Rahmeh was told if she proved she wasn’t against the government by turning over telecommunication information about blacklisted people – including people she knew – she wouldn’t have to worry.
“I did not. I refused to do that.”
Soon after, government officials at her office started asking her if she knew where her daughter was, if she had checked on her in a while.
The veiled threats and the increasing violence convinced her she had to get her daughter out of the country. Her daughter had also narrowly escaped an explosion which blew up three huge apartment buildings minutes after her school bus drove past the site.
“I thought, ‘if I can send her to my brother (in Saint John) maybe I can put her to school here.”
She sent her daughter over to Saint John but kept working in Syria.
Not long after, government officials started asking questions about Rahmeh at her office.
That’s when she was advised by her manager at work to go on vacation.
She said she kept a cyanide pill on her at all times in case she was arrested.
“It was always in my pocket.”
“I had three of my friends who were in prison,” she said. “One of them died under torture.”
She came to see her daughter, her brother and her other brother in Toronto on a three-week vacation in 2012.
Around the time of her planned flight home, the airport in Beirut, where she had a connecting flight, was bombed.
Postponing her return, Rahmeh took a month off work, then a few more. She could see the situation in Syria was worsening.
“If I had known at the time that I wasn’t going back, I would have brought some other stuff with me.”
Her daughter needed to go to school but couldn’t with the visa she had.
So Rahmeh applied for asylum. A month later, her daughter could go to school.
“Which is very important.”
While Rahmeh had to go through another long process to get a work-permit and a job at Xerox, the real struggles she faced were with her daughter.
“Not good,” she said, describing the way her daughter took the abrupt move. “I tricked her.”
Because of the need to get her daughter out of the country quickly, Rahmeh told her she was only spending the summer in Canada.
She packed her bags and put her on a plane the next day.
Her then-15-year-old daughter didn’t even say goodbye to her friends.
“The hate word was said so many times,” Rahmeh said.
While Rahmeh originally planned to return to Syria, her daughter told her either they both go or they both stay.
She describes her first year in New Brunswick as terrible. Her daughter hated Saint John; their relationship was bad, and Rahmeh had to deal with her own loneliness.
Outside of her daughter, her brother and her parents who she brought along, Rahmeh felt she was the only Syrian in town.
Her daughter had school to make friends. Rahmeh had nowhere.
At first, Rahmeh lived with her brother but eventually she had to move into a bachelor apartment with her daughter.
She spent hours on her laptop in Starbucks, trying to talk to friends in Syria and get information on what was happening.
Her daughter told her she’d rather risk death in Syria than stay in a place where she was so uncomfortable.
Rahmeh herself felt dead.
“That was my state of mind, I am dead because I am not happy.”
Eventually things started to improve.
Her daughter still didn’t want to live in New Brunswick, but in her final year of high school she made some friends and then she went to university in Halifax, which has made her much happier.
Rahmeh used to flirt with the idea of moving to a bigger centre, like Montreal, but decided to stay. She, too, started to make friends.
Still, she was racked with guilt.
She felt she betrayed her country, her people, to run away, to be safe.
She would watch people still there trying to help, giving up their lives.
If she went out and laughed with friends, she came home and cried. She could feel her guilt with every bite she ate.
“(It) makes me feel like I’m choking.”
That is why she’s so engaged with the community coming to New Brunswick. She feels it’s the least she can do.
She also wants to help Canadians help the refugees. She thinks a lot about the long-term help these people might need, like mental health treatment because of the trauma of what they’ve seen and experienced.
The Saint John YMCA has sponsored at least 22 families, according to Rahmeh, and another seven are privately sponsored – most of the refugees are blue-collar people.
Whenever she can, she goes to doctor appointments with the newcomers to interpret. If she can’t, she does it over the phone.
“When I see those Canadian people doing as much, I feel guilty,” she said. “How could I say no to someone who has nothing to do with (the refugees) and yet is helping them?”
Her tears have dried up. She’s done crying.
Rahmeh wants to give these refugees what she never had, a community.
“Coming here, they’re so happy, they’re overwhelmed,” Rahmeh said, noting the difference between the privileged life she came from versus the camps many of the refugees are coming from, and how good Saint John looks in comparison.
She’s excited to think that in 10 years there might be a small but growing Syrian population in the city, somewhere she can reconnect with her Syrian identity.
What Rahmeh wonders and worries about is what these refugees will think about in a month when people leave them alone. When they have time to think and observe their surroundings.
But what she also reflects on is how things have changed. She questions if she ever truly was alive in Syria.
“It was a superficial kind of dignity,” Rahmeh said, after offering a second cup of coffee. “Soon I will be a real Canadian and I want to contribute to the country that opened up when it didn’t have to.”