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Group photo of YMCA Newcomer Services participants and staff

When Waad Shurbaji flew into Vancouver International Airport in 2021, it was with fresh hope and fresh fears. She was arriving from Turkey, her home for eight years after fleeing the war in Syria. Her husband Nedal Izdden, who had gone on three years prior, awaited her at Arrivals. It was the end of an ordeal, but the beginning of another.

Like many refugees, the couple struggled to find their place in their adopted home. Learning a new language, navigating the system to find work, and making friends were all daunting obstacles that lay before them.

“When I arrived as a newcomer, I didn’t know anything about Canada, about Vancouver,” Waad said. “I’d run away from the war but when I got here, I felt culture shock. I didn’t know what to do.” She went on to describe how serious it had become. “I was so sad, depressed, and hopeless. I even had to get help from a doctor who gave me medicine for depression. I thought I wanted to commit suicide. I couldn't accept to skip my life, my certification, my career, and start from the beginning.”

Her husband Nedal had similar struggles. “As a racialized immigrant, I lost self-confidence upon arriving in Canada,” he said. “The different language and the Canadian bureaucracy pulled me down and down.”

While he had been a dentist in Syria, it wasn’t as simple as hanging a shingle in Vancouver. He made ends meet by taking on research work with the University of Victoria focused on the impact of war on Syrian refugees. But he was adrift. He was alone in a strange land, his isolation exacerbated by the pandemic shutdowns.

And he was no ordinary refugee, to the extent such a thing exists. Nedal is a co-founder of the White Helmets, a humanitarian organization credited with saving at least 100,000 lives in the Syrian conflict, and winner of the prestigious Tipperary International Peace Award. But here in Canada, he struggled to figure out where he fit in.

YMCA: More than a gym

It was by accident that the couple found the answer they’d been seeking. Joining Nedal one day for a workout at the Robert Lee YMCA, Waad discovered a suite of programs designed specifically for immigrants and refugees. They include programs focused on learning English, healthy eating, social education, physical education, and more.

Lizeth Escobedo, Manager, Adult Training and Immigrant Services at the YMCA of Greater Vancouver, oversees the department and is enthusiastic about its ability to create lasting social impact. “A flexible service like this can be very powerful in helping newcomers build skills, improve their English, and foster both friendships and a sense of belonging,” she said.      

One available option is the Canadian Fitness Connection Program, which introduces attendees to the fundamentals of tennis. Through a partnership with Tennis BC and funded by Leith Wheeler Investment Counsel, the program runs eight weeks and provides instruction and gear to help get people out on the courts.

It’s proven to be a popular element of the overall training–especially with Nedal, who now practices three hours daily and has set himself the goal of becoming a tennis instructor for kids. From dentist to refugee to White Helmet to advocate to tennis pro, it’s been a long but ultimately satisfying journey for the Syrian native. On this new focus for Nedal, Waad commented, “Before tennis, he just thinks about the war, even in his work here. But on the court, for the first time in his life, he thinks about something else.”

The program also facilitated social connections, as Waad met her closest friend, Maryam Ghaderibafti, through it. Maryam and her husband Alireza immigrated to Canada from Iran in February and she experienced similar struggles in the early months.

“Everything was new for me [and] it was really hard for me to make a connection with society,” she said. “In the first months, I tried to refuse to go outside and see people because I thought I can’t make communication with others and I don’t know the culture [and] people.”

A Google search led her to the Y’s programs, and she registered in them all, including the tennis program. “You can't believe how much I like tennis,” Maryam said. “It was terrific because when I was playing, my mind was at peace...I also started communicating with other people and making friends, and also practiced my English.”

Like Nedal, it has led her to pursue further training to become a coach herself one day. She and Waad also engaged directly with Tennis BC, volunteering about 70 hours to help stage the 90th Annual Leith Wheeler Stanley Park Open and ultimately landing jobs with the organization.

Longer-term Waad has also found a new purpose through the program–something that eluded her and Nedal even in peacetime Syria. “In our country, you take university and start working. No one asks you what you love,” she said. Before arriving in Canada, she had worked with the Darya City Council in Turkey, but through courses at the Y, she has discovered a passion for helping people. She is now studying for certifications in nutrition and personal training, and after completing the YMCA Child Care Career Exploration program, found she loved working with kids too. At the time of writing, she’d just been offered her first position in a child care centre. On our call, her excitement was palpable.

Each of the participants in these programs are strong, capable people who’ve done amazing things in their prior lives. The YMCA programs have helped them find those people again.

For Nedal, he sees a parallel to the example of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan immigrant himself from the West Indies who went on to great things, including being a founding father of the United States of America. “We are still humans, and we can get success if we can find people who light our paths,” he said. “This happened to us when we joined the YMCA and Tennis BC. All the barriers began to disappear, and we felt we belonged to this community that believes in difference and is distinguished by its diversity.”

"Sometimes", Waad added, “you just need someone to help you.”

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Written by Mike Wallberg