Canada 104/150: Celebrating the holidays in a new home

By Niagara This Week - St. Catharines

This article was originally published on Niagara This Week - St. Catharines

For newcomers to Canada, the holiday season can be an especially lonely time. Several families share their stories of settling into Niagara and the community that helped make them feel welcome.

Amal Abou-Kalam could not understand why a new acquaintance was asking for the correct spelling of her children’s names. A few days later it all became clear when she was presented with gift-filled Christmas stockings, emblazoned with her son and new born daughter’s names. The memory of the kind gift moves Amal to tears even 13 years later. It was the Abou-Kalam family’s first Christmas in Niagara, a few months since emigrating from Egypt. Now a settlement worker with the YMCA, Amal describes the stockings with happiness, but clearly remembers the loneliness of those first few Christmases. She terribly missed family, friends and holiday traditions from back home and spent those first holidays alone with her small family. Several years later she connected with St. George & St. Mercurius Church and now annually celebrates Christmas with familiar people and their new traditions of a special mass on Christmas Eve, returning Christmas day for children’s games and festivities. While the fun and familiar food is appreciated, the most important part of Christmas to Abou-Kalam is the camaraderie and connection with people.

As many families leave countries suffering from poverty, war or political strife, Niagara can be a safe haven. Niagara is a peaceful and beautiful place to be but it can be difficult for newcomers as they leave family members behind and navigate the sometime confusing new traditions of their new home.

Fourteen-year-old Jackline Urube talks excitedly about her first Christmas in Niagara last year as she moved from Sudan to live with her aunt and uncle in St. Catharines. She fondly recalls the new clothes and necklace she received as gifts. With wide eyes she also vividly describes the snowman and snow angels she created with her new family during the holidays from school. Jackline laughingly describes the fun but also remembers the cold for which she was not quite prepared. Jackline reminisced about Christmas back in Sudan and the fun she had sneaking out with her cousins past her grandmother to go dancing. Her smile quickly disappears however when asked about dancing in the street. No, there was no street dancing in her Sudan community because there were too many “bad people to be afraid of. “

Eleven-year-old Aren Sayegh arrived in St. Catharines just before last Christmas. Aren had come from Aleppo, Syria. The athletic, fun-loving boy describes how frustrated he was living in Aleppo as he was never allowed to go outside to play because it was not safe. Aren recalls his attachment to his first pair of snowpants in Canada so he could play outside here without threat of harm. Christmas in Allepo was subdued with only a few presents under the tree for just himself, his aunt and Mom and Dad. Aren’s face scrunches up as he remembers the sounds of bombs being detonated, limited lighting and being afraid. Shortly after arriving in Niagara, the Christmas season was in full swing. Aren was astonished at the amount of decorations and the beautiful bright lights. Aren’s first Christmas in Canada was filled with so many gifts thanks to generosity of family and community members. His family also celebrated at a Christmas party with the Armenian Cultural Community Centre of St. Catharines.

Rose Karborani, a Settlement Services Coordinator with the Niagara Folk Arts Centre says “Christmas is for everyone. We love the (Folk Arts) Centre, it is in our heart. We have been in (immigrants’) shoes. At Christmas I hated to be alone, Christmas here in Canada is nice, a joy, peace, but it needs company, good friends.” While the Folk Arts Centre does not gather statistics about religion and has a policy to never discuss religion nor politics, everyone affiliated with the centre receives an invitation to the annual Christmas event. This is a multi-cultural event with dancing, cultural dress and a pot-lunch dinner showcasing favourite cultural dishes.

Karborani, who arrived in Niagara at Christmas time over a decade ago, fondly remembers her first Christmas in Niagara. She was immediately taken aback by the beauty of the region, particularly enjoying the Winter Festival of Lights. While the physical beauty of the area was treasured, Karborani quickly realized what made her first Christmas so special was the people welcoming her and inviting her to Christmas events with their families. She encourages others to contribute to this tradition of inviting newcomers into their home during the holidays.

Niagara is fortunate to have a wide variety of community organizations supporting new immigrants during the Christmas season. Scott Root, principal of St. Ann Catholic School, led his Catholic School Council, staff and students to fundraise and shop for families new to Niagara as well as others in need. Last Christmas over $1,400 was raised to buy clothes, coats, boots, toys and grocery gift cards for more than 11 families at their partner school, St. Alfred Catholic School, one of several hub schools for new immigrants within the Niagara Catholic District School Board. This project was an example of the traditional Christmas spirit of giving and receiving. The students at St. Ann felt the pleasure of giving and understood how fortunate they are to live in a peaceful country like Canada. The families receiving the generous Christmas gifts at St. Alfred appreciated the donations which made their Christmas in Canada so special.

Community Care is also an agency supporting not only new immigrants but all families in need, especially during this Christmas season. Community Care's website encourages individuals, groups or work teams to adopt a family to ensure everyone in Niagara can celebrate Christmas, “the season of giving, without stress or worry, knowing there will be food on the table and gifts for their children.” By logging onto and clicking “Christmas” a plethora of information is available to access Community Care’s donations as well as information how to support those in need in our community. Throughout Niagara organizations and individuals make Christmas special for our newest residents. It is proof of what Karborani discovered during her first holidays in Niagara where “before coming to Canada, I never felt such a strong sharing spirit, the giving spirit, never felt it before in any other country. It is the strength of Canadians.”

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