Rym Khawam and her family fled the war in Syria in 2015, leaving behind their homeland, their family and their friends. They were welcomed to Edmonton as refugees with the help of Catholic Social Services and St. Thomas More Parish.
Rym, her husband Mansour Tarabishi, and three children, Jalal, Danielle and Samir, share their harrowing story of leaving their war torn homeland, the impact of Caritas International on relief efforts in Syria and how their faith in Christ has fortified them in times of danger and grief.
On Solidarity Sunday (March 26), we are invited to join Development and Peace-Caritas Canada in prayer and to consider supporting the humanitarian and emergency response work of Caritas in countries such as Syria.
What was the Catholic community like in Syria?
We lived in Aleppo, the nearest city to the patriarch of Antioch.* As Catholics who live so close to the ancient locations of Christianity, we always feel that we are responsible for spreading the word of Jesus.
As Syrian Catholics, we tried not to miss a thing in our Catholic traditions, especially since Catholics are a minority in a majority Muslim country. Only about three per cent of Syria is Catholic, so we need to be strong in our Catholicism.
In Aleppo, it’s really amazing how diverse and enriching our spiritual life was as Catholics. Our religious life was a big part of our social life. During Lent, everyone is fasting. Everyone doesn’t eat meat. As Catholics, we do everything together. We encourage each other.
There were many Catholic churches that we attended. Within one mile of our house, there were probably 13 Catholic churches.
*Antioch is one of the first Christian communities established by St. Paul, and it was the first place in history that Christians were called “Christians.”
So in Syria, Catholics are devout, and faith is taken very seriously?
Yes! My three kids went to three Bible studies each weekend and then we would all go to Mass on Sunday. We were all together, a big, big Catholic family.
Religion is an essential part of our lives as Catholics in Syria.
We raised our kids to be apostles. We are all apostles. We consider everyone in the Middle East to be an apostle of Jesus. So that’s why we have Jesus in every single detail of our life.
My daughter Danielle, who is 20, is good at painting. There are lots of things she could portray in her art, but she wrote an icon of the Holy Family. So our faith is always first.
We have a lot of vocations to the priesthood in Syria. Our religious life is everything to us, so there are many men who want to become priests. In Aleppo, there are more than 150 priests.
It is a proud thing. We are proud to be Catholic!
What were the events that led you to leave Syria?
We weren’t safe. We were witnesses to the war for more than three years. There were many civilian deaths. Many of our friends, their kids. Many people died.
Because of the bombings, there was no potable water. There was no electricity. It was really cold. There was no food. We were under siege as a city because of rebellions in surrounding areas. Food and basic supplies for living were not making it into Aleppo.
Aleppo was the center for one of the big battles. We were trapped. At the start of the war I hid – in a box – some jam and biscuits for the kids, just in case we ended up with no food. And for almost 40 days, there was no food. We had to eat whatever we had saved.
Our churches were destroyed with several bombs. Our own home was exposed to many shells, many bombs, but we still had to go to work because we needed money. I was a lab instructor at the University of Aleppo. I’m an engineer. My husband is also an engineer and he also had to go to work. His shop was in the middle of an area where rebellions were organized. So he was risking his life every day that he went to work.
One day, we had a missile that entered our house through one of the windows. I was at home with the kids, who were still so young. And then I told my husband, because he wasn’t willing to leave, that we need to leave.
But it is not easy to leave. Everyone loves their country. This is your routine. This is your roots. This is your life. It’s not easy after being with your family, with your relatives, to just, in one second, decide to leave. It’s not easy at all.
First, we moved to my Mom’s place, which was in a more protected area. But then I remember Easter Sunday in 2014. We were five of us in the car, going to Mass. We listened and we heard the noise of a small bomb. We didn’t know what had happened. But the missile was inside our car. We don’t know how it got there. We got out, but we were not safe. It gives me goosebumps to think about.
Rym’s daughter, Danielle, adds:
We had to change schools three times because of the bombing. And then one of those times we just did school in a basement. And all of us kids had to wear these mining headlamps so that we could see in the basement, because there was no electricity. So in the classes, you’d see all the students with these big lights on their heads, looking at the chalkboard. It was pretty funny.
My husband said ‘Ok, we cannot risk this any more’. So we moved to Lebanon. We had a friend living in Edmonton who said Canada was opening to help Syrian refugees. We registered ourselves right away with UNICEF.
After a year, we arrived in Edmonton. Catholic Social Services supported us. CSS contacted St. Thomas More Church and gratefully, parishioners were donating and they were sponsoring families. We were lucky to be one of these families.
When we arrived at St. Thomas More, we found an open heart. We were surrounded by many families. They were mentoring us. We didn’t know anything about Canadian culture. That community was teaching us everything from A to Z. And thanks to them, we are a success. I thank God for that.
Now we always attend Mass at St. Thomas More, because our first Mass in Canada was at St. Thomas More when we arrived in December 2015. That was one of our first memories, attending Christmas Eve Mass here in Canada.
What role did Caritas play in your relocation to Canada?
We were first exposed to the efforts of Caritas during the Iraq War. Syria shares a border with Iraq, so that war was very close. So many refugees from Iraq came to Syria. I remember seeing the work that Caritas was doing and thinking ‘Wow, they are doing a great job. Who are these people?’
And then the Syrian war started in Aleppo. There was no money, no work, no food, no medication, no hospitals, no water, nothing. Caritas played a big part in helping with that horrible situation. I didn’t directly have contact with Caritas, but they were helping people all around us, many people that we knew.
They would bring huge containers of water so that every home could have a reserve container of water. There was no medication for the sick; Caritas was importing medication from everywhere. You could go to a pharmacy run by Caritas and they would give you medication for free.
They were preparing hot food. They would prepare basic needs for every single person and they wouldn’t ask for any money. You didn’t need to prove who you were. They gave bedding to anyone who didn’t have a bed anymore. They gave out food hampers, with enough food for even big families. Caritas was amazing with emergency response.
At one point, churches in Aleppo were opening their doors so that Caritas could work out of them. There was a convent of nuns that evacuated so that their convent could be used to serve people through Caritas.
When we were refugees in Lebanon, before we went to Canada, Caritas was running clinics there to help us. They were amazing.
How did your Catholic faith help you, as you were making this life-changing move to a new country?
When the war came to Syria, we were wondering, like all Syrian Catholics, ‘Why is this happening?’ We don’t have anything to do with this war. We don’t believe in this. So why is this catastrophe happening to us?
I remember on the day of my daughter Danielle’s First Eucharist, the bishop was saying Mass and the church was bombarded. We were hiding in the basement chapel of the main church. And the bombardment made the bishop fall down during the Mass.
We know that Jesus loves us. You don’t know when you will see his hand holding you. I remember because we had a lot of moments of hesitation. Why, Jesus, have you let this happen? And there came the hard decision of deciding to leave Syria. We felt a conflict in our spirits. We asked a priest, “Are we betraying our people, our church by wanting to leave?”
Since we are a minority faith in Syria, we were encouraged to keep going, keep representing our religion, keep reflecting Jesus’ words at your work.
So we had this confusion. Are we betraying our responsibility? The priest told me that you have to be proud of God’s plan for your family to spread His word and share about Christians of the Middle East, all over the world. So you are not betraying anyone. God has a plan for your family, so go beyond Syria.
And now there have been many moments where I have prayed here in Canada and thanked God for what he has called us to as a family here in Canada.
There must have been a lot of grief leaving your life in Syria. How did you not lose trust in God amid all of this uncertainty and fear?
I would not say that we ever lost total faith in Christ, but there were definitely moments of hesitation.
When the disciples were in the boat and it was a storm, they were asking Jesus, ‘Please help us’ and He said, ‘Relax, relax, you have to have faith’. So always going to Church protects us from this lack of trust.
Our first year in Canada was very challenging and yet so many families and mentors gathered around us at St. Thomas More. They would listen and pray with us, so that kept our faith in God strong.
When we arrived at St. Thomas More parish, we were blessed to have Father Mitch (Fidyka). He was a great person and in his homilies he would always say that if you want to know God, you have to come and visit him in his own home. And that means coming to church.
What are your thoughts after the earthquake in Syria and Turkey?
I don’t know what Syria would do without Caritas. Caritas is in five cities all across Syria, because there is such a need. The people are humiliated, because they have nothing. A war, and now this earthquake – Caritas has done much to help that.
Unfortunately because of the political sanctions against Syria, we cannot have any money sent there. So the only charitable organization that was ready for the response to the emergency of the earthquake was Caritas. With the sanctions, people spent more than 100 days without anything. It was Caritas that was ready to help people directly, despite the sanctions.
Is there anything else you want to share about your Catholic faith and your move to Canada?
Personally, I keep being impressed. We’re proud to be Catholic, Christian. And when I came here to Canada, I found out that our faith is all over the world. It’s strong enough. We don’t have to be worried about the Christian faith.
Christians in Edmonton are like the mustard seed. We have real Christians here.
They grow like the mustard seed, like Jesus said. Regardless of the obstacles, the problems in the world, our Christian community keeps going, keeps moving forward. And when we met Archbishop (Richard) Smith here in Edmonton, that’s what he said. That our Christian faith is strong, here and in Syria.
Rym Khawam was a longtime instructor of computer engineering at the University of Aleppo and after obtaining a education degree at the University of Alberta, she is presently serving as a teacher at Ecole Quatre-Saisons in Beaumont, Alberta.
Rhym Khawam and her family are members of the Melkite Greek Catholics Church, and they are presently parishioners at St. Thomas More Church in Edmonton. They also support the Syrian Catholic community in Edmonton through St. Nicholas Melkite Catholic Church.
Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
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