iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Basel Alrashdan’s family fled their family home in Syria five years ago, with the boy’s father telling him to take only his “very important things” in a small bag.
Now, the 11-year-old is learning to ice-skate, enjoys building snowmen and speaks English with a Canadian accent.
“He loves everything Canadian,” his father, Amjad, told photographer Ashley Gilbertson.
The Alrashdan family was granted asylum by Canada and has since late 2015 lived in Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island. They are one of about 250 Syrian families who were resettled in the eastern Canadian province.
Gilbertson, who works for the VII Photo Agency, teamed up with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to chronicle what Basel’s life is like after a year in his new homeland. Gilbertson’s photographs and his account of Basel and his family’s journey and new lives were offered to ABC News courtesy of UNICEF.
Basel remembers the day his family left Syria amid heavy fighting in Daraa where a local uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ultimately expanded a year later into a full-fledged civil war.
“It was really fast and very sad,” Basel told Gilbertson. He said his father told him: “’Just take your very important things and put them in a small bag.'”
The family went first to Jordan where they lived first in a refugee camp and then eventually made their way to Amman, the country’s capital.
But opportunities for jobs and education for the children — Basel and his younger sister and brother — were scarce, the family told Gilbertson.
Basel’s mother, Ghouson, said she supplemented the children’s schooling at home. The father had to work two jobs from morning until midnight each day just to provide basic necessities for the family.
“Refugees’ rights in Jordan were less than other people,” the father, Amjad, said in an interview with Gilbertson.
Then in late 2015, the family was invited to apply for asylum in Canada.
Amjad said he told the Canadian government that he had family in Detroit and would like to be in Ontario to be near them but was told that would mean waiting a year, according to Amjad’s account to Gilbertson.
So Amjad asked where the family could go without a long wait.
“They told me Prince Edward Island. I didn’t know that place, but, I said, ‘Well, I love islands, so why not?’” he recalled.
Basel recalls the day the family arrived in Charlottetown on Dec. 27, 2015.
“When my toes went out of the airplane, my foot became freezing,” the boy told Gilbertson. “I’d never felt cold before that.”
Basel, along with his 5-year-old brother Idress and 7-year-old sister Shatha, now attend St. Jean Elementary School in Charlottetown.
Basel’s willingness to intervene in problems and help others has earned him a nickname.
“We call him ‘the little mayor,’” the school’s principal, Tracy Ellsworth, said in an interview with Gilbertson. “He’s very dedicated to what’s fair and just. That was evident with him from the get-go.”
Basel and his siblings aren’t the only newcomers at the school. Approximately half of the students are refugees or migrants, school officials told Gilbertson.
“We have children that came from no schooling whatsoever, or from British schools in the Middle East, and kids that have been in refugee camps for most of their life,” Ellsworth said.
In Basel’s class of 16 students, eight languages are spoken.
The scene around the local school is changing, too, Gilbertson noted. Queen Street, where the school is located, is peppered with shops and restaurants catering to an array of cultures, including Chinese and Lebanese, and the space between the haberdashery store and a yoga studio houses a mosque, where Basel’s father sometimes serves as the imam.
Multiculturalism in Canada is a concept enshrined by law, Gilbertson notes. In 1971, Canada became the first country to embrace the concept as policy. The country has fostered a cultural mosaic where people from different backgrounds live side by side.
“In Canada, I’m Canadian. I’m not a refugee,” Basel told Gilbertson. “I feel Canadian-Syrian. No … Syrian-Canadian!” he said, laughing.
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