Journalist refugee launches Canada’s first Syrian newspaper

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Journalist refugee launches Canada’s first Syrian newspaper

Kameel Nasrawi, a former journalist from Damascus, started the monthly publication in August to “spread hope.”

There are wedding photos placed in quiet corners of the living room — a beaming young woman with black curls in a white dress hangs off the arm of a happy, clean shaven, suited man.

A Christmas tree, just touching the ceiling, adorned with multicoloured orbs, sits on the edge of a giant window overlooking a lightly snow-dusted, grassless front yard in suburban Etobicoke.

Tucked away, somewhere in the tidy room, are two laptops.

This is the office of Canada’s first Syrian and Arab community newspaper, “The Migrant.”

The monthly publication’s editor in chief is Kameel Nasrawi, a refugee from Syria, who came to Canada with his wife of more than 10 years and two young children in January 2016. The family was inspired to make the move after a pledge by the Liberal government to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees through sponsorships.

With the help of Nasrawi’s younger brother, already settled in Toronto, and St. Benedict’s Parish, the family came here with four bags, weighing 20 kilograms each. Their house (and newsroom) is their first home in Canada, a short walk away from the parish that helped to find it for them.

Nasrawi, 46, was a journalist in Damascus, and an award-winning screenplay writer. As a refugee, the language barrier and culture shock prevented him from continuing his work.

As he took English language lessons, he quickly noted how every ethnic community in Canada had its own newspaper, in its own language. “It made me wonder why we didn’t have our own Syrian newspaper,” he said.

  • fter doing much research and making some small capital investments, the monthly publication began last August. It has put out three editions to date, the first entirely in Arabic; the second and third in both English and Arabic.

Nasrawi’s editorial policy is simple: “I try to focus on the success stories of Arabs in Canada to inspire others to achieve their own successes,” he said. “Every community has its own problems — its own problems, its own dreams. Nobody was writing about ours.”

In the pages of “The Migrant,” readers will find interviews with some familiar faces in the Syrian community, such as father-and-son chocolatiers Assam and Tareq Hadhad, whose factory in Nova Scotia was touted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a September 2016 United Nations speech. Or Jim Estill, the CEO of an appliance factory, who sponsored 58 Syrian families in 2015.

Others may be less familiar, such as the owners of Canada’s first Syrian soap factory — Aleppo Savon — in Montreal; or the organizers of the play “Thanks Canada,” about the experience of being a Syrian newcomer, put on last month in Montreal.

The newspaper is distributed across Mississauga, Toronto, Etobicoke and Scarborough, in Arab community centres and restaurants. It has a growing following on Facebook, with the interview with the Hadhad family reaching more than 114,000 people.

“The reaction shocked me,” said Nasrawi. “People told me to keep going.”

The Migrant is a community newspaper that highlights stories about successful Syrian and Arab people in Canada, as well as offering information for newcomers in the region.  (RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR)  

Two pages of each newspaper are devoted to information about citizenship and newcomer-specific programs to assist the community’s integration and success, said Nasrawi. “Because of the language barrier, newcomers don’t have the chance to know about these programs,” he said. “And the programs don’t have the tools to reach them.”

Absent from the newspaper are any coverage about the politics of the region, or news from home. “Only Canadian community news,” said Nasrawi. “We just want to share our skills and stories with the society in Canada. To show we can start from scratch and succeed, and support ourselves.”

Nasrawi, with the aid of his wife, Arij, and some volunteer writers from different Arab countries, creates community-specific content. Articles include an interview with a divorced woman about her personal experiences navigating the Canadian system alone (“An issue in our community here,” Nasrawi said), an article about sex education, and another about entrepreneurship.

Like his newspaper, Nasrawi won’t talk about the politics of the country he was forced to leave behind. He won’t talk about the critical illness that his 9-year-old daughter faced before coming to Canada and being treated at Sick Kids hospital the day after their arrival. He won’t talk about the list of “survivor jobs” he’s undertaken in the time that he’s settled here.

“I just want to spread hope,” he said. With two sisters still in Syria, along with his wife’s parents, he hopes the newspaper will “add value to the meaning of my life here.” In the new year, “The Migrant” will be published twice a month.

Fittingly, the logo of his newspaper is a bird — an animal beloved by the Arab community, one that travels from country to country, a symbol of hope and home.

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