12/03/2016 17:11 EST | Updated 12/04/2017 00:12 EST

Friends of the Family connects Syrian refugees, Canadians

Basel Alzoubi laid out a generous spread of traditional Syrian breakfast foods — olives, hummus and makdous  — at his South Keys home on Saturday morning.

Alzoubi, a Syrian refugee, is looking forward to welcoming a Canadian family to his home and sharing his culture.

"To practice English with them and teach them some Arabic, more about Arabic food, to learn more about Canadian food," he said. "To make a mix, I want to make mix." 

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Alzoubi has signed up for the Friend of the Family pilot project through Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization. The three month project, funded by private donations, will pair 30 newcomer families with established Canadian families and groups of friends.

Alzoubi has a wife and three young children—four-year-old Amir, two-year-old Maria, and one-year-old Moussa. 

"It's to know more about Canadian traditional [sic], to know more about Christmas," he said. "And it's good for my kids, my wife."

Before leaving Syria, Alzoubi owned a candy store. He worked for the World Food Program while he lived in Jordan and came to Canada late last year.

He said he wants to improve his English so he can study at Algonquin College and work for a non-governmental organization that helps immigrants. His wife is also planning on taking language classes. But he said it can be difficult to find ways to practice his new language.

'Try, try, try'

Alzoubi said he was grateful to find other Arabic-speaking families when he arrived in Canada. It helped establish a support network for the community. But, he said, it's a problem that newcomers in his neighbourhood don't practice their English enough.

"In our community, like in my neighbourhood, there are 30 to 35 Syrian families. We speak Arabic, always Arabic ... that's not good," he said. "If you want to speak English, you have to practice with Canadian[s]."

Alzoubi said he has heard of neighbours going to a bank so they can get service from an Arabic-speaking employee.

"No, I don't like that. Go to English, to try. If you make mistake, that's okay," he said. "For me, if you can't: try, try, try."

OCISO program organizer Bonnie Thornington said Friends of the Family is meant to help newcomers connect to people outside their cultural community.

"I think some of them realize that to learn English, to step out of that comfort zone, in a way, in order to establish themselves in this new life, making connections with Canadian citizens, Ottawans, is really important."

Family to family

Thornington said Friends of Family is an opportunity for parents to involve their children with volunteering.

"Go to the park, go to the library for story time," she said. "You do that already. Why not join up with another newcomer family and do it together? It's a great opportunity for your children to understand and see how their parents model that generosity and friendship."

Dana McDonald and her husband James were one of seven volunteer groups that took part in an orientation for the program on Saturday, learning tips on how best to help Syrian newcomers feel at home in Ottawa.

The couple first met while volunteering and are now looking forward to meeting a refugee family with their children Isla, 2, and Hannah, 4.

"When you're parents, you always talk about your kids," Dana McDonald said. "Whatever language barriers or cultural difference there are, you always find things to talk about when you have kids."

James McDonald said whether it's how to sled safely or enjoy Winterlude, there are many tips and tricks a Canadian family can offer to newcomers.

"Kids are so much better at getting to know people and breaking down barriers, so I'm happy we can do that as a family," he said.