Jacquie Miller, Ottawa Citizen
At her modest apartment in Vanier, Nirmeen Alsebai greets a visitor with a table full of snacks, including several types of hummus and a specialty from her homeland called fatteh that layers toasted, crumbled pita bread with yogurt, tahini, garlic and lemon. It’s delicious.
Her husband, Jehad Alsebaee, explains that in Syrian culture, people who drop by — even newspaper reporters — are offered something to eat with a blessing that, roughly translated from Arabic, means, “We hope you enjoy this food and eat it in good health.”
Nirmeen is a fabulous cook, and there’s a dream percolating in the back of the couple’s minds. Perhaps, says Jehad, they’ll open a Syrian restaurant, quite likely Ottawa’s first. “Maybe we’ll start with takeout,” he says.
It’s something they talk about as they consider the promising new life stretching out before them.
From left, Twins Abdullah, 7, and Mohamad, 7. Mom Nirmeen Alsebai holding five-year-old Zeid. Father Jehad Alsebaee holds three-year-old Lyana.
From left, Twins Abdullah, 7, and Mohamad, 7. Mom Nirmeen Alsebai holding five-year-old Zeid. Father Jehad Alsebaee holds three-year-old Lyana. Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen
The couple arrived with their four children in late December, one of the first Syrian refugee families to land in Ottawa as part of the massive federal government resettlement program. They didn’t know a soul or speak a word of English. They were exhausted, uncertain about what lay ahead and too overwhelmed to say much to the Citizen reporter who was at the airport.
That was only five months ago. But it seems like much, much longer. Sitting in the cosy apartment, chatting with the help of an interpreter, Nirmeen and Jehad are relaxed and upbeat.
These days, Nirmeen is giving advice to newer Syrian refugees moving into the neighbourhood, she reports with a peal of laughter. She lists some of the places they need to know: FreshCo, Value Village, the Middle Eastern supermarket, the community centre with a library and pool, the store that sells hijabs. “The newcomers are asking us where to go!”
They knew very little about Canada when an immigration officer interviewed them in Lebanon, where they fled after civil war ravaged their hometown of Homs. But the officer was kind, and even spoke gently to the children about soccer, they said.
“So we anticipated that all Canadians were like that,” said Jehad. “Which is true.”
He believes God intervened to give them the Ottawa South Committee for Refugee Sponsorship, a group of several dozen volunteers who have helped them with everything from finding and furnishing an apartment to arranging for dental work and language classes. Jehad invokes another Arabic saying to explain: “Because of my parents’ blessing, God gave us this group to take care of us.”