04/04/2016 02:02 EDT | Updated 04/05/2016 12:59 EDT

Syrian Refugee Children Delighted By How 'Soft' Snow Is

The bus ride was quiet for the first hour.

Forty-five Toronto-area Syrian and Iraqi refugees — men, women and children — sat in silence while a coach bus carried them to one of Ontario’s provincial parks last month for their very first taste of snowshoeing, skiing and tubing.

Organizers were nervous. The volunteers were nervous. There was the language barrier to consider, lost translations to anticipate. Culture shock was on the horizon.

Then a child looked outside and saw an unfamiliar sight that made her jaw drop.

“One of the little girls looked outside and saw the banks of the road filled with snow, called the other children over and they all just stared outside the window,” wrote volunteer Amir Fishman of Overhang Adventures in a blog post about the field trip.

The silence on the bus was shattered with everyone clambering to the window for a look, kids confirming with others about what they were seeing.

“This was the first time any of them had really seen snow. It was a truly wondrous and humbling sight,” wrote Fishman.

A photo posted by Parkbus (@parkbus) on

The volunteer called the scene “chaotic” once the bus arrived at Arrowhead provincial park.

Toronto-based, non-profit CultureLink had provided every refugee with warm coats, snowpants and boots. And when all the children unloaded from the bus, some volunteers took patient kids to the bathroom, while others were swarmed by dozens of small hands asking for help to put on mittens.

“I remember the first kid who got a bunch of snow go down their back and the subsequent shriek and frantic attempt to get it out.”
— Amir Fishman, volunteer

It wasn’t too long before someone threw the first snowball.

“Language barrier or not, if someone throws snow at you, it's time to start throwing back,” said Fishman of the 50-person snowball fight that broke out that day.

“I remember the first kid who got a bunch of snow go down their back and the subsequent shriek and frantic attempt to get it out.”

All photos courtesy of Parkbus/Motion and Still

Guides from Overhang Adventures and COSTI volunteered their services for the special field trip. Arrowhead’s superintendent waived park fees and Toronto-based Parkbus donated the use of one of their coach vehicles for the day.

“Language barrier or not, if someone throws snow at you, it's time to start throwing back.”
— Amir Fishman, volunteer

As much as the day was memorable for the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, sharing a full day with families affected by war was an eye-opening experience for some.

“Of course I knew that beforehand, but until that moment the Syrian refugee crisis didn't have a face,” Fishman said. “Now it was the little boys and girls who happily smiled as they tried to teach me to count to 99 in Arabic.”

Snowy fascination

Whether it was by tubing, snowshoeing, stomping to the top of snowbanks or just enjoying the spectacle and sensation of watching snowflakes melt into warm hands, the white stuff continued to fascinate and entertain kids all day.

“Some kids were really fascinated how the snow clumps together and made big blocks out of it, they had their first snow fight, and they commented how ‘soft’ the snow was to lie on,” Boris Issaev of Parkbus told The Huffington Post Canada.

Girls lay in the snow at Arrowhead Provincial Park. (Photo: Motion and Still)

By the end of the day, young Hussam got hit by his first snowball. Eight-year-old Isa, who was a bit hesitant to slide down a hill in a tube, became the hardest to persuade when it came time to leave. And mother Bilal shared a moment with her son Yussef, fitting him with his first pair of gloves.

On the way back to Toronto, everyone settled back into their seats smiling. They had a hot homemade dinner, two days in the making, prepared by a refugee sponsorship group in nearby Huntsville to look forward to.

A little girl named Mona took it upon herself to provide some entertainment for the two-hour ride home, playing peek-a-boo with volunteers and new friends.

Snow day participants. (Photo: Motion and Still)