Syrian Refugees Find Welcoming Community at VIU Cowichan

Fanar Sheikh Zein, holding daughter Ariana, and Baraa Mohammed, Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada last March, are finding a welcoming community at VIU Cowichan.

January 19, 2018 - 4:45pm

Baraa Mohammed and Fanar Sheikh Zein are taking adult upgrading courses at the campus

A Syrian couple who spent four years living at a residential complex for refugees in northern Iraq are finding a welcoming new community at Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Cowichan Campus.

Baraa Mohammed and Fanar Sheikh Zein, Kurdish Syrians from Qamishli, in the northern part of the country, came to Canada looking for a better life for their daughter, Ariana, who was born shortly after they arrived here.

“We came for her,” says Mohammed. “We didn’t want her to go through what we went through and see what we’ve seen.”

Sheikh Zein is taking English and Math classes at VIU Cowichan and hopes to get recertified to work as a physiotherapist in Canada. Mohammed is taking an online English course and hopes to get back on track to finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree, which was put on hold once she became a refugee. She’d like to work in financial services or human resources.

Both Sheikh Zein and Mohammed are grateful about the degree of support and acceptance they’ve received at VIU.

“The people here are very nice and we love being in classes with Canadian students,” says Sheikh Zein. “The instructors are very supportive and answer all of our questions, even though sometimes we are just asking something out of curiosity. We’ve also been making friends here, which helps us cope with moving to a new country and away from our families. My big challenge when I arrived was English. I never imagined I could be speaking English – now I am attending classes at VIU.”

“Our journey in Canada starts from VIU,” adds Mohammed. “We got more than we expected here – when we first started we were worried because we are from a different culture, but we feel a part of the community. It’s amazing to have a university in a small city like Duncan – we both had to move away from home when we lived in Syria to attend university.”

Mohammed was studying English literature at Aleppo University when it was bombed in 2012 during first-term exams. She had been staying with friends in an apartment that had no electricity, running water or heat in the hopes of getting an education, but once the university closed, she had no choice but to put her dreams on hold. Travelling back home by bus before she fled the country, she was terrified by the violence displayed by different factions participating in the civil war.

Sheikh Zein worked as a physiotherapist in Damascus before the war reached that city, at which time the resort he worked in shut down. He was afraid he would be arrested and forced into military service. As Kurds, they faced another layer of persecution as an ethnic minority in the country, he added.

The couple met in Iraqi Kurdistan as refugees, where they both worked for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – the only work they could get as refugees.

“It wasn’t a healthy life there,” says Mohammed. “The water wasn’t clean, we always had health problems, the education system was poor-quality. It was a simple and basic life because everything is supposed to be temporary.”

When Mohammed was doing translating work for MSF International (Doctors Without Borders), she met Sybille Rull, a mental health activity manager from Canada who encouraged the couple to apply to come here. While awaiting approval of their application, the couple suffered a devastating loss when Mohammed delivered a son 42 weeks into her pregnancy who passed away upon birth.

It took just over a year to get to Canada and they arrived in March 2017, when Mohammed was five months pregnant with their daughter. They are both grateful to the Cowichan Intercultural Society for sponsoring them, and excited their daughter will grow up with access to the Canadian education and health care systems. They hope to help family members who are still refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Dan Vaillancourt is Chair of VIU Cowichan’s Academic and Career Preparation (ACP) department and a member of the nine-person group of concerned citizens who worked for almost two years through the Cowichan Intercultural Society to bring Mohammed and Sheikh Zein to Canada. He says there are about 10 Syrian refugees taking upgrading courses at the University. The students worked hard to reach a certain level of English fluency so they could be accepted into the ACP program.

“Many of them came here because they wanted a stable, safe environment for their children to grow up in where they would have an opportunity to get a good education,” he says. “I love seeing them interact between classes with the other students. It’s good for everybody. It’s an opportunity for people to get an understanding of what is happening in other parts of the world through hearing their stories. I’ve seen no incident of rejection or estrangement. Everyone is very accepting.”

To learn more about the Cowichan Intercultural Society’s sponsorship efforts, visit the program homepage. To learn more about upgrading courses at VIU Cowichan, visit the Adult Basic Education homepage.



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Tags: Cowichan | In the Community