Members of St Matthew’s enjoy a visit to the Syria exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto with the Berberian family, pictured from the far right: Parents Aroush & Marika, Narod (22 months), Mother Terez (the grandmother), and Tereza (5). (Supplied Photo)
By Catherine Sider Hamilton
ON THE DESK in front of me there is a picture: Aroush and Marika, Tereza and little Narod, surrounded by Christmas trees covered in snow. It is their first real tree (in Syria, for obvious reasons, the Armenian Orthodox use artificial trees) and they are enchanted by the snow. Marika said with a smile as the girls threw snow in the air, “We are happy today. It is a real Canadian day!”
There have been many “firsts” this year: our first glimpse of each other on January 14, 2016, in the pandemonium of the hotel lobby, all of them exhausted after 36 hours of non-stop travel with an infant and a 4-year-old. (To think, Aroush said recently, that a year ago we did not know you, and you did not know us…and now we are old friends.)
To our surprise and eventual delight we found that our family of four was a family of five; Mother Terez, the grandmother, arrived with them as a government-sponsored refugee on a plane-load of government-sponsored refugees. But there was no one there to greet her and, though there was some financial support and a temporary place to stay, no real personal support. So she became “ours” too, and we are glad; this close-knit family is unimaginable without her.
There were other firsts: first sight of the city that would be their new home; first streetcar ride; first time on the subway; first St Patrick’s Day parade, green faces and shamrocks and music, dancing in the street at Yonge and Dundas--they stumbled upon it by chance on a trip downtown and were delighted. First birthday celebration together: Narod, 1 year old in May. First trip to Niagara Falls, riding Hornblower under the thunder of the falls together. (First time for me, too! Mother Terez said, as we emerged soaking wet in spite of the raingear, “Catherine, I will tell you what I feel. God has the power. Power belongs to God and our lives, they are in his hands.”)
For us Canadians, first taste of Arak, an anise-based and – we discovered – quite powerful liquor, shared over dinner as we shared also stories of our lives. Our first experience of their hospitality, as they arrived at a dinner given for them with not just one but two gorgeous home-made cakes. It is a hospitality that is, we have learned, characteristic, and warm, and whole-hearted. To visit them in their home (and their home is always open) is to be greeted with laughter and kisses and more incredible home-made Armenian food than any one person can possibly eat. We thought to be a blessing to them. It is they who are in so many ways a blessing to us.
There have been practical tasks, too, and the challenges of life in a new place. Finding an apartment…finding an affordable apartment for a family of five in Toronto. Getting a health card. Registering for the child benefit. Seeing the doctor; seeing the dentist. Enrolling Tereza in school. Registering for English classes through the government-sponsored (and free) LINC program. Getting a driver’s licence (which both Marika and Aroush did handily after Marika translated the entire driver’s handbook into Arabic. We are telling her she should publish it.) Trying to find work.
It has taken a whole community – not just the people of St. Matthew’s but also the people of St. Augustine’s of Canterbury who came alongside us in the sponsorship; the people of St Paul’s, Minden who faithfully sent the proceeds of their Thrift Shop every month for a full year; the people of the neighbourhood around St. Matthew’s who gave clothes and furniture and grocery coupons in the early days; a dentist who lives across the street and did hours of dental work for the family – even surgery – at no charge. There is still a great deal to do, but one year later they are beginning to feel settled.
All of them are speaking English with some ease now; Marika is fluent and Tereza, after a year at Toronto’s Armenian Orthodox school, speaks at age five Armenian and Arabic, and English without any accent at all – or rather, sounding completely Canadian! We are happy today, because it is a real Canadian day.
As we have shared many joys – often simple ones: a cup of tea together; discovering new foods; Narod learning to walk; Tereza proudly counting in English – as we have shared many joys, so we have shared some of their sorrows.
The war has cost them a great deal: the factory they owned and operated; the new home Aroush and Marika had just built; the summer house by the sea where Aroush and his mother and sister and brother spent the long summer months, making apple syrup from the apples that grew in the garden. One day ISIS walked into the village and commandeered all the houses; the people fled.
Hardest of all to bear, the family left behind a young brother alone in Lebanon, and a sister who stayed in Aleppo with her husband and son to take care of his elderly parents. They talk to her when they can, when there is enough electricity for her to charge her phone, and pray for her as she lives in the midst of chaos, trying to teach school as bombs fall all around, often without running water and electricity. Their care for their family in Syria and Lebanon is a grief they carry with them every day. They long to be re-united. They grieve but they do not complain, and they delight in new friendships here and press home-baked olive buns into our hands.
Aroush drives Uber now (and is, he tells us, meeting Canadians more colourful, or at least less sober, than we are) and has opened an after-school café in the Armenian Orthodox school complex. He sells snacks and their own home-baked Armenian food and has learned how to make “Canadian coffee” (a pale imitation of the real Syrian thing – they are rather perplexed by its popularity here). Marika is enrolled in a full-time college prep program, studying math, computer science and English in preparation for a college degree. The girls are growing; Tereza is taking swimming lessons and skating lessons; Narod likes to say “hi” and “bye” with a wave. There is still a long way to go, and financial challenges loom with the end of funding in the 13th month.
But it is thanksgiving that is their theme. Ձեռքերուդ Դալար: tzerkerut talar, they taught us to say: “May your hands be green.” The Armenian people have many words for “thank-you”; they find our language rather bare. This family has shown us why: because they rejoice always, even in the dark times and places, and their word is “thank-you,” again and again.
Aroush and Marika, Tereza and Narod, Mother Terez: for your courage and your warmth, your generosity and your laughter, for the way you have shared your hearts with us, thank you. May your hands be green. TAP
The Rev. Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge at St Matthew’s Riverdale in Toronto and Assistant Professor in New Testament and Greek at Wycliffe College.