By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun,
With their two sons serving as altar boys, and eight-year-old daughter Varti flying around the church hall in a red dress, Syrian refugees Ara and Sousan Strak celebrated their first year in Canada at St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church in Richmond on Sunday.
The family arrived in Canada last January and their one-year anniversary coincided with the celebration of Armenian Christmas on Jan. 6.
As the families arrived at church Sunday, the priests swung the traditional incense, and chanted the liturgy in the church. Downstairs, volunteers cooked a celebratory lunch in the community kitchen, filling the hall with the scent of fresh baked bread.
The Strak family is among the 140 ethnic Armenian refugees from Syria who were sponsored by the church after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made good on his promise to fast track 10,000 refugees last year.
Varti has become the family’s unofficial spokesperson, fielding interviews for multiple media outlets. Her favourite part of Canada is school, she said shyly, in a voice that is almost accent-free. She misses her friends in Aleppo, but she is making new friends here.
The family has come a long way since fleeing Aleppo in 2014. “In Aleppo our children don’t sleep, they don’t go to school,” said Ara. After ISIS bombs struck their apartment building, killing a neighbour and making their home uninhabitable, Ara and Sousan made the difficult decision to leave the country that had first taken their forebears as refugees after the 1915 Armenian genocide.
“Nothing is more important than the security of the family,” said Ara, who left behind an automotive business. Once in Lebanon, the family realized that returning to Aleppo was out of the question. They would have to seek a new life. They applied to come to Canada.
Ara Strak (left), his wife Sousan and daughter Varti pose for a photo at St. Gregory Armenian Church in Richmond on Sunday. The Strak family are ethnic Armenians who were among the 140 Syrian refugees sponsored by the church one year ago.Vikin Kovjian, an ethnic Armenian from Syria who immigrated to Canada as a skilled worker in 2012, worked with the St. Gregory congregants to match sponsors with families, bringing 140 people to their community. A year later, Kovjian says he is overwhelmed not just by the generosity of the local community, but by the energy and enthusiasm the refugee families have brought with them.
“The levels these families have reached has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Kovjian. “The children are doing well in school, the parents are working and many of them are moving along in the process of having their professional credentials recognized.”
What was unexpected, said Kovjian, is just how much the refugee families have given back. “We have more people to contribute to the community — it has brought a new prosperity to us,” said Kovjian.
Ara landed work in an automotive supply warehouse just 12 days after arriving. A few months later he moved to a higher-paying job with Lugaro, a gem and jewelry company run by Vahe Agopian, a member of the Armenian National Committee of Canada. Sousan is still looking for work in her field as an accountant, and the whole family is squeezed into a tiny apartment, but they have no complaints.
“We are here, we are safe and we wish to say thank you to the Canadian government, to the Canadian people for giving us the chance to start again,” said Ara.
Ara and Sousan said they have been touched by the kindness of all Canadians, from strangers on the bus to staff at local community centres. “We feel like we are part of a beautiful mosaic,” said Ara. “We hope in the future the government will give others this same chance they gave us.”
Vahe Andonian, chairman of the western region of the Armenian National Committee, said the group is open to sponsoring more Syrian refugee families of all backgrounds. “Many families, including Muslim families, have reached out,” said Andonian.
Anyone who wishes to donate to the committee’s efforts can go to syriahelp.ca.