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Syrian family marks one year in Whistler

Five members enjoying Canada

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Moving across the world to a different country with a brand-new culture is a challenging endeavour.

To do it after fleeing the horrors of war in your own country only adds to the tumult.

But after a year in Whistler, five Syrian refugees — mother Randa Hiswani, siblings Dani, Bassam and Lina Alshami and cousin Ebtessam Alkhoury — are settling into Canadian life. Ebtessam moved south to Port Coquitlam within months of arriving after reconnecting with a friend, Hossam Mansor, who she knew previously. They were married in March and are now expecting their first child.

"It was lovely to see her get married," Dani said. "When we arrived here, we communicated with a church in Vancouver, but I didn't expect that she knows somebody here in Canada."

After recently buying a reliable car, Dani said it'll be easier to go visit Ebtessam and the rest of the expanding family.

The other four family members are living and working in Whistler. Dani and Lina both work at Nesters Market while Dani, a hairstylist, is also working a day a week at The Loft while Lina currently works at the Resort Municipality of Whistler's after-school daycare. Bassam is a rising star at the Four Seasons Hotel after achieving permanent status in three months instead of six and is currently working on the breakfast preparation crew. Randa, meanwhile, is progressing with her English but not to the same extent as her children. She is always looking for social opportunities within the community and keeps busy managing the household and keeping the family well fed.

Both Dani and Bassam said that they've appreciated their time in Whistler so far, even if it was chillier than they expected.

"It's been amazing. It's been one of the best years of my life. I don't want to say it was a culture shock. It was great. It was a positive shock," Dani said.

Later, he added with a laugh, "I knew it was going to be cold... It was

really cold."

Dani said he was surprised with how warm of a welcome he and his family received not only from locals, but from tourists as well.

"Whistler is one of the best places in the world to live in," he said.

Added Bassam: "Canada was my dream since I was a kid. I always imagined myself right here.

"I love Canada, I love Whistler and I love the people here. They're all nice people. It's easy to talk with everyone and it's easy to make friends."

Whistler Refugee Response chair Michael Blaxland said though the group was responsible for the family for its first year in the country, they have been self-supporting since the summer. It's encouraging news, he told the group at a celebration at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church on Dec. 3, at a time where there are reports of other families struggling to adjust.

Blaxland praised the community's response, noting 75 people offered to help the family settle in.

"We actually had too many names because we couldn't give everyone a meaningful role," he said.

Blaxland noted the committee split into groups tasked with easing different aspects of the family's transition: legal issues, immigration, education, health, communications and housing.

There were some initial bumps as the family had hoped to come to Canada as early as April last year, but the first three didn't arrive until October.

"There was no real reason why not. The paperwork was in order. We were already talking to them in Beirut. We couldn't get them on the plane, basically," Blaxland explained. "Then Bassam had a really weird thing happen. The government refused to give him an exit permit.

"We had a bunch of issues like that that were hard to resolve without the help of the government."

Randa stayed with Bassam to help him sort it out while the other three family members came over.

Once they hit their one-year anniversary in Canada later this month, the group's involvement will officially be completed, though Blaxland said members certainly hope to maintain their personal relationships with the family.

Bassam said he and his family were used to city life before they fled Syria and are planning to move to Vancouver at some point.

"It's not going to be my decision because we are a family," he said. "We have to see what we have here.

"Eventually, we are going to Vancouver, but I'm not sure if it's going to be this year or next year."

Still, they love the small-town life and won't be that far away from some of their favourite parts of it.

The family tried and enjoyed skiing and they've gotten into biking, though with some tough results. Dani crashed and got a concussion, while Bassam broke a finger in a separate incident, causing him to miss some work.

"To be Canadian, you have to have your accident," Dani said. "I had a really bad accident."

Dani and Bassam also enjoy soccer and working out at the gym. Bassam, in particular, can be found at the Meadow Park Sports Centre nearly every day.

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