The Kazanjian family, refugees from Aleppo, Syria, who are spending their first Christmas in Toronto this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Safe from the strife in Syria, families struggle with new life in Canada

  • December 17, 2016

Before Christmas last year, Wartohi Myrdijian had to worry about the bombs falling on either side of her house in Aleppo. She was most afraid of the crude, unpredictable, improvised bombs that came from the ISIS side of the conflict.

“We were not afraid of the government forces. It was ISIS,” said the mother of two girls.

“The government was there to defend us.”

Whenever it was safe, Warhoti took her daughter Patil to one of the three Armenian schools in Aleppo still operating. The other five had closed. She had watched the Armenian population of Aleppo shrink from 80,000 down to about 10,000.

The decision to leave, and when to leave, was not easy for the Myrdijian family. There would be no do-overs. Leaving meant walking away from their home, the family business, generations of Armenian heritage and community in Aleppo to become refugees. Beyond that, everything was unknown.

“We always had the hope it will get better,” said Kyork Mydijian, Warhoti’s husband.

A year later, the Mydijian family is safe from ISIS attack in Toronto, part of the huge influx of refugees brought to Canada to escape the violence of their homeland. But this Christmas is still filled with the unknown for the Mydijians and other refugees, as they continue to struggle with feelings of home sickness while trying to make a new home in a new land.

For Kyork Mydijian, the point of no return came when a homemade rocket fell in their street in Aleppo.

That was it. The family headed for Beirut, following in the footsteps of Kyork’s sister-in-law. The sister-in-law’s family had cleared out of Aleppo when Kyork’s brother died of complications from untreated diabetes — untreated because of the bomb that had exploded next door.

In Beirut in time for Christmas, Kyork found work — a cash, under-the-table job as a mechanic. Refugees have no legal status in Lebanon and employers take advantage of them. The wages were pitiful and the family relied on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

This year in Toronto, the only terror that Warhoti and Kyork have to endure is the demands of their teenaged daughter Patil. She wants to try sushi. As far as her Armenian parents are concerned, there’s nothing very Christmas-y about rolled up raw fish.

Chances are Patil will celebrate Christmas with a traditional Armenian plate of ghavourma on Christmas Eve. The next day there will be Kibbeh Labanieh, a meatball yogurt soup. Sushi will have to wait.

While Christmas presents, lots of food and days off work and out of school sound much better than bombs, snipers and a flight into exile, it would be a mistake to imagine the Myrdijian family has landed in clover.

Through a translator, the family explained that Toronto is still a strange, cold and foreign city.

English is an exhausting, daily struggle. Work has been hard to find and he had limited success.

The city, they said, is so expensive.

The Kazanjian family was in Armenia last year, jammed in with Kyork Kazanjian’s parents. Kyork Kazanjian had spent 20 years building up an autobody shop in Aleppo. That was gone. There were no prospects and no hope in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. When the chance came for the Kazanjian family to fly to Toronto, where sponsors were waiting, there was really no choice.

But on the bleak bus ride from Pearson International Airport to the hotel last February, Kyork was sure he had made a mistake.

“What we felt…. It would be impossible for anybody to realize, to understand,” he said.

Ten months later, he still wonders.

“Some days I say I wish I was back home,” Kyork said.

Today he works in an auto body shop, which is not the same as owning an auto body shop. But there’s more to it than jobs and money.

“We had family in Armenia and in Syria. Here we have no one,” explains Vana Kazanjian, the eldest daughter.

Vana’s focus is on school. She dreams of becoming a lawyer — a dream she had in Aleppo and in Armenia.

“I want to solve problems, the problems of people,” she said. “I want to see people treated fairly, justly.”

The serious young teen has every confidence she will be a lawyer.

She thinks her chances of making it to law school in Canada are no better and no worse than they were in Syria before the war.

At the same time, she wants there to be more to life than the drive through a competitive education to a competitive career.

“(Last Christmas) I was with my cousins, my grandma and grandad,” she said.

Vana has tried to make friends in Canada, but it’s a slow process. She finds herself more at home on Saturday mornings in the Armenian language and culture classes St. Gregory the Illuminator Catholic Church offers with Toronto’s Catholic school board. She’s determined to hang on to her Armenian identity.

“I’m not going to be bad in my own language,” she said.

The Kazanjians are hoping to sponsor Kyork’s parents. They want to bring the family together again.

“Happiness during Christmas is having family and friends,” said Kyork Kazanjian.

“If you have a palace but no loved ones….”

Waiting for the Prince of Peace this Advent, he has one piece of wisdom.

“War is a very bad thing.”

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