One Syrian Family + Two Canadians = “so much joy”

Until recently, Mary Ward, of Peterborough, Ontario, led, what some people might consider, a fairly quiet life.

Lately, it’s become a whole lot livelier.

Most mornings she heads to the gym at Trent University with her husband, Terry. Both retired, they live in an East City apartment complex where they keep an eye on their more elderly neighbours. They frequently visit friends and family in Oshawa, where they both grew up.


Mary Ward

Just over a year ago, on Sept. 29, 2016, something changed.

That’s the date the Almohamad family  — a mom, dad and four boisterous young children — arrived in the city as Kurdish refugees from al-Hasakah , in the north-east corner of Syria.

Mary and Terry are now an integral part of this family’s life, as part of a volunteer support group organized by Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre: last summer there were weekly excursions to children’s soccer games; October meant searching for four kids’ first-ever Hallowe’en costumes; December landed them, for the first time in oh-so-many years, at a Santa Claus parade; the recent cold snap had them dealing with frozen pipes in the family’s home; and the holidays saw them splashing and spluttering in the YMCA pool and taking in a tour of the city’s fire hall.

And in between all this there have been the driving lessons for the family’s mom; day-care pick-ups; countless appointments;  medical concerns; housing problems; educational and language needs; money matters  — and the parents’ stories of left-behind, but still fresh, trauma.

T and M 2

Terry and Mary Ward of Peterborough

But awkwardness and the unknown have turned to friendship and love; and both families have discovered and delighted in many new and unfamiliar things  — not to mention amazing foods!

They have shared many frustrations, yet much laughter.  Momma Mary and Poppa Terry – that’s what they are called — have “been there” for their “family”, every step of the way.

“We no longer see this as a commitment which we must fulfill.  Our family are now our friends.”

And now, a year after the Almohamad’s arrival, their cousin, his wife and three children have made Peterborough their home. Guess what? Mary and Terry have welcomed this family into their hearts as well.


A trip to the Peterborough Fire Hall

But … we’ll let Mary tell her own life story and how she and Terry became such an important part of these new-to-Canada families — and, in return, have received “so much joy”.


By Mary Ward

My Background

I was born and raised in Oshawa, Ontario – a blue collar town. Almost all of my friends’ Dads  worked  for  General Motors, while my father was a plumber.  Back in the ‘Fifties, tradesmen made far less than GM line workers, so my brothers and sisters and I were always aware that we were poorer than everyone else in town.

. . . my father told all three of us that he had no money for the education of girls – he needed to save what he could to send his two boys to university.

Mothers typically didn’t go out to work then, so my Mother was able to have a vegetable garden to supplement the food budget, and she made most of our clothes.
She also took in  clothing  alteration work, and did enumeration work during elections, but there really wasn’t much unskilled work available for women in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.

My mother wanted  her three eldest daughters to continue their education after high school, and encouraged us to become either teachers or nurses.  But my father told all three of us that he had no money for the education of girls – he needed to save what he could to send his two boys to university.

This seems a shocking attitude now, but in the ‘Fifties, it was assumed that women would get married shortly after finishing high school and be supported by their husbands. And indeed, my first employer had a rule that women had to quit as soon as they got married.  This rule was changed in the mid-‘Sixties, to allow married women to work for two years after marriage!

I got a position with the Oshawa Public Utilities straight out of high school, and I was very lucky to work there. My immediate boss was an older unmarried woman, so my eyes were opened to the idea that I didn’t have to concentrate on getting married right away.  The pay was excellent for a woman at that time, and I was able to spend my money on clothing, entertainment, my own apartment and travel.  Marriage was of no interest to me.

I met my husband through a mutual friend when I was 18, and we dated off and on for about six years, but both of us were having too much fun to think about getting married.

It was my long-held desire to visit Australia, and I had originally planned to take an extended vacation Down Under with a girlfriend. She decided to get married instead, so Terry said he’d be interested in going with me.  We saved our money for a year, and booked a cruise on a P and O ship for the fall of 1971.

In 1971, unmarried couples travelling overseas together could not rent hotel rooms.  So we “had” to get married.  Which explains why I told Terry on our wedding day that I gave it, meaning the marriage,  five years at the most.  He still teases me about that – 46 years later. And I probably would have been correct if we had married and stayed in Oshawa and settled down.

mary terry wedding

Mary and Terry on their wedding day

We didn’t intend to stay in Australia longer than six months at the most, but fell in with a wonderful group of people who have remained lifelong  friends.

We lived there long enough to become Australian citizens – about 25 years altogether.  When Terry was turning  50,  we felt that the time had come to decide whether we were Australians or Canadians. Terry would have quite happily  stayed there.  The carefree larrikin attitudes that prevail there appealed to him, but I wanted to come home to Canada.  We were unable to have children, so family has always been important to me.  Our Aussie friends were very generous in sharing their kids with us, but it wasn’t the same as blood relatives.

We  had many different jobs in Australia, including running an off-track betting shop for five years, and opening a Sporting Goods shop that specialized in selling Canadian Woods tents and camping equipment that we imported. Terry ran the shop mostly on his own, but employed an older gentleman in the backroom doing repairs to tents, etc. on a big industrial sewing machine.

When this man had a heart attack and could no longer work, Terry ran the shop all day, and taught himself to do the repairs at night and on the weekends. He became very proficient at sewing, and people would bring him other projects to sew for them. His shop was next door to a sail maker and a ship’s chandler, so he got work making boat covers, sail covers, boat upholstery, etc.

Eventually, he had to decide between retail and manufacturing, and the choice was easy for him – he enjoyed designing and making  anything to do with boats. So we closed the camping equipment store and he specialized in boat canvas.

When we decided to come back to Canada, we needed to find something to do to make  money.  I wanted to open a laundromat  and  service centre where you could get a mani or pedi, your shoes repaired, a key cut, your pants hemmed, or have a beer and watch the hockey game while you waited for your clothes to be washed and dried. We had seen such an establishment in Vancouver once, and the idea stuck with me.

But Terry wanted to stick with boat canvas and upholstering, so soon after arriving back in Oshawa, we began scouting the Kawarthas for likely areas that were under-serviced with boat canvas, and quite quickly decided on Bridgenorth.

It was a lot of work getting a new business going, and we decided that I would be involved in the business this time, so Terry taught me how to sew.  We worked 70-hour weeks for about ten months of the year, and then hibernated and recuperated for a couple of months in January and February. I always had in the back of my mind the statistic that 90 percent of small businesses failed in the first five years, and we were both determined that we would be one of the ten percent  who succeeded.

So for the next 20 years we worked too hard, too long hours, with very little time for anything else. It was only after retiring three years ago that we turned our minds to what’s next. We hadn’t had time to plan a retirement – Terry had a heart attack, and I found out at the same time I was losing my vision in one eye, so the decision to give up work was forced upon us pretty suddenly.

“We needed to feel useful again.  At 68 and 66 years old, we felt we still had something to contribute to our community.”

We took quite a long time to adjust to retirement – first moving back to Oshawa for a year and then coming back to Peterborough.  We spent many  months  sitting around, reading, visiting with family, joining a gym, joining a card club –  just generally catching our breath and relaxing after too many years of nothing but work.

But this eventually became not enough for either of us.  We needed to feel useful again.  At 68 and 66 years old, we felt we still had something to contribute to our community.

I read an advertisement in early September, 2016  for volunteers to assist newly arriving Syrian refugees.  We went to a meeting at the New Canadians Centre (NCC) in Peterborough  with an open mind, just to see what it was all about, and  came home that night new members of a support group for one family who were going to arrive at the end of September, 2016.

This was a surprise to both of us when we  signed up that night.  I credit the wonderful people associated with the NCC for our decision to get involved.  That first information night, we met Michael VanDerHerberg,  Erinn  Burke, and a Syrian gentleman who had been in Canada for about six months, who wanted to tell these potential volunteers how much he appreciated the help he and his family had received.

skating m and t

Mary and Terry with the children at an outdoor neighbourhood rink. First time on skates for four young newcomers!

Neither Terry nor I came from a background of volunteering. Terry came from a Catholic family who generously supported the church. His family all trusted that the Catholic hierarchy would spend the money they gave where it was most needed.

My background was different – both my mother and father came from large close-knit families who lived through the Depression, and were too proud to take handouts from anyone outside the family. My father used to tell the story of how he quit high school the day that the principal called an assembly of all the students, and made those receiving welfare stand up. He wanted no further part of the school system, instead joining the Canadian Army in 1939.

Families helped each other then, and had little time or funds left to donate to charity or to volunteer. My father came back from the Second World War bitter about the waste of the lives of innocent civilians and soldiers, and the waste of money spent on munitions, etc. by governments.

Every year in public school, the Red Cross came to sign up all the students  as junior members.  We were to bring a dime for membership dues, and we would get a small badge which we were to pin prominently on our shirts. My two sisters and I were embarrassed every year, because my father absolutely forbade my mother to let us donate ONE CENT to the Red Cross.  He apparently saw things during the War which put him off this organization.

When I was about six years old, my mother’s older brother and his wife were diagnosed with tuberculosis, and were sent to the Hamilton Sanitorium.  Mom and Dad agreed to take in two of her brother’s children while their parents  were being treated, and they lived with us – making seven children and two adults living in a three bedroom bungalow!  Dad finished the basement and made bedrooms for the overflow of kids, and they lived with us for over two years. This did not seem remarkable at the time – families helped each other, and nothing was expected from the government or charities.

“Helping other people is sometimes complicated.”

During our 20 years living and working in Bridgenorth, we became involved in Rotary, and learned a lesson about volunteering – families who lived in the country had pretty much the same attitude to “charity” as my family had – you helped your own people, quietly, with no fuss.

One year, our branch of Rotary made up 30 Christmas food hampers  to give to local  families in need.  The only problem was, we could not identify 30 families who could use these hampers, even after advertising where they could be picked up, no questions asked!  Eventually, the priest at a local Catholic church  made sure that the hampers were distributed, but the lesson stuck with me. Helping other people is sometimes complicated.

Because of my previous experience with charity and volunteering, the needs of Syrian refugees made me uneasy.  Would they be embarrassed to arrive here needing so much help?

My fears were quickly dispelled.  Our Syrian family were so open to meeting Canadian friends who would help them with anything and everything.  I would love to know what they were told when they signed up to come to Canada that made them so trusting.

Our family told us recently that they had had to decide between Australia and Canada to apply to for refugee immigration, and they chose Canada.  They told us this after they learned that we used to live in Australia.  I’m looking forward to the day when their English is good enough to explain why they ultimately chose Canada.

On Being a Volunteer

My husband and I had no real idea of what would be involved in being a volunteer support person.  I think we both thought that we would just drive newly-arrived refugees around to appointments that someone had made for them.  We were told that our family all had some English, so, in our minds, communication was not going to be a  problem.

The family we eventually were assigned had absolutely no English, and I had no idea what a barrier this would be.  I went on line, and looked up how to say Hello, Yes, No, and No Problem before they arrived, and this was the extent of my ability to communicate.

The wonderful staff at the NCC had to handle all communication between the volunteers and the family we adopted.  I can’t say enough about how hard they all worked to help us create some kind of rapport with our family. The rest of our volunteer group quickly downloaded the Google What’s App program onto their smart phones, and our family had smart phones as well, so for them, communication was possible, but limited.


Momma Mary and Fadi

Our family is Kurdish, and Kurdish is the language they speak at home.  However, there is no What’s App program to translate Kurdish – just Arabic.  Our Mother had six years of education in Syria, so she knows Arabic, but our Father has no ability to read or write in any language, so What’s App is not all that useful to him.

I understand that not all pairings between Syrian families and volunteer groups were successful, but it was not due to any failing on the part of the NCC.  I think that some volunteer groups were just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks needing attention when helping refugees adapt to and adopt Canada as their home.

We were blessed with a great group of volunteers, and a wonderful family.

Our family consists of Mum and Dad, and four children – two girls and two boys, ranging in age from four to 10. The children all seem to have inherited their sense of  drama  from their mother.  It took me awhile to learn to stay calm when Mum was insisting on emergency visits to the hospital for a sore throat.  On more than one occasion, I would arrive at their home to find a hospital wrist band for one of the kids or Mum.


And they all have a wonderful sense of humour, which it has taken a long time  for us to  “get” due to the communication problems.  I’m pretty sure that given similar circumstances, I would not be so ready to see the funny side of things.
Recently, the  kids’ school rang my husband and me to say that the older boy had fallen against a brick wall, and his ear was bleeding badly. We went and told his parents, and the four of us went up to the school to see what was what.  By the time we got there, the bleeding had stopped, but the child wanted to take the rest of the day off.

No, said his Father, you’re okay to stay at school.

Back out in the parking lot, Dad was laughing as he expressed his surprise that the school would even ring them with such a minor complaint.  “In Syria”, he said, “people lose their hands or arms or legs with less fuss”.

The biggest challenge has been communication with the family. The three eldest children have been in school for over a year, and their English is finally improving.  I think it has taken so long because there are  not enough resources in the public school system to handle the number of Syrian children who arrived in Peterborough at approximately the same time, and needed extra language help.  I don’t blame the Kawartha School Board. They were not aware of the number of children who would arrive last year. Even the Canadian Government did not seem to know that so many  of the 30,000 refugees would be children, according to a newspaper article I read.

“And for them, we were the only family they had here in Canada.”

When our one-year commitment was up, our family was concerned that all of their support group of Canadians “will say ByeBye”, as Mum put it.  And it’s true, some of our group had removed themselves from active participation even before the one year was up.  I think this is because they have young families of their own which need to be their first priority, or are trying to get their careers started and need to concentrate on that.

But my husband and I have certainly stayed involved, along with a core group of members who have the time to stay involved with the family. We no longer see this as a commitment which we must fulfill.  Our family are now our friends.  And for them, we were the only family they had here in Canada. The parents have taught their children to call us Poppa and Momma, which I imagine is what they would call their grandparents in Syria.

When my husband had a hip replacement surgery last summer, the entire family were concerned with his recovery, insisting on visiting him in the hospital, and ringing every couple of days to see if we needed anything.

My sister recently asked my husband and me if we would have taken on this challenge if we had known how much time and emotion would be required from us.  The answer is an emphatic NO, so isn’t it lucky that we didn’t know what was in store?  We would have missed out on so much joy, and the opportunity to meet new people – both Syrian refugees and volunteers who have become friends!


If you’re thinking you’ve missed out on the opportunities that Mary and Terry Ward have experienced — not so! 

Over the next few months, the New Canadians Centre at the corner of Aylmer and Romaine Streets in Peterborough (St. James United Church building), is expecting a family of five Syrians, as well as one individual from Syria and a family of three from Ethiopia, and is looking for volunteers to form support groups.
See also: Peterborough Newcomers Need YOU!

Support groups have made a huge difference to the families who have arrived so far and have even influenced their decision whether to settle in Peterborough or not.  The goal of the New Canadians Centre is to match every family with a support group – you can help reach that goal.

Since these new refugees are government-assisted, no fund-raising is required on the part of support groups and volunteers.  

Initial queries about volunteering should be directed to the Outreach Worker, Bhisham Ramoutar, at or visit the NCC’s website to find out how you can become involved in the Refugee Resettlement Support Program.

By Melodie McCullough

Categories: Feature

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