Lena Alhamad has accomplished what few Syrian women have.
This fall, a proud and delighted Alhamad earned her driver’s licence, two days after her husband Hussam Al Hassan succeeded in getting his licence.
As is the Muslim custom, a married woman retains her own name when matters pertain to her only. But as a family unit, the husband’s name takes precedence.
With a wide smile, Alhamad explains, in ever-improving English, that she likes everything about her new home – the people and the environment.
Sponsored by Shuswap Rotary, Alhamad came to Salmon Arm in February 2016 with her husband and sons Barkat, who is now eight, Moammar six, and Rimas, who is now three-and-a-half.
Fifteen-month-old Linda was born in Salmon Arm and is named after former Shuswap Rotary Club member Linda Wilson, who was instrumental in helping the Al Hassan family settle into the community. Wilson, who has since relocated to Victoria, became so close to the family that she is known as “Nana” to the Al Hassan children.
Being able to drive has given Alhamad the freedom to get herself and her children out and about within the community.
Going beyond city boundaries will be left until next spring when the snow is gone and roads are dry, says Sherry Gilroy, one of several Shuswap Rotary members who helped Alhamad learn to drive.
“It took quite a while to go beyond 10 kilometres in a parking lot,” laughs Gilroy, noting Alhamad’s initial mantra was “brake slow, gas go.”
Alhamad laughs too, as she recounts how nervous she was the first time she drove down Okanagan Avenue from the parking lot of the Community Church.
“We went too fast,” she says with wide eyes and a huge grin.
But a year after studying both the book and fulfilling practical requirements, Alhamad is proud of her driving skills and grateful to her ‘driving teachers’ that included Elaine Hansen, Leah Shaw and Indira Greenhough.
Eager to be self-sufficient members of the community, the couple continues to hone their English skills four days a week and Alhamad has also earned her FoodsSafe certificate.
Al Hassan works part-time with School District #83 and, proud of his wife’s excellent cooking, sees an ethnic restaurant in the couple’s future.
Gilroy says anyone who has tasted food prepared by Alhamad is eager for more. Some folks who know the family well have already, on occasion, called her to ask if she could prepare a “take-out” dinner for them.
And in an effort to give back to the community that has welcomed her, Alhamad donated a meal to Shuswap Rotary’s annual auction and will soon do the same for another local non-profit’s fundraising campaign.
Taking her cooking to the rest of the community is a longer-term dream. At this point, perfecting their English is the top priority for Alhamad and Al Hassan.
A look of relief crosses Alhamad’s face as she talks about living in a safe, welcoming community and how her older boys love soccer. A hockey fan, Barkat enjoys watching the game on TV and on testing his skills on PlayStation.
Gilroy says it is a far cry from the early days when Barkat and Moammar would look for a place to hide in response to loud sounds.
Alhamad’s joy at living in freedom and security is tempered by her experiences in her native Syria and fear for family members who remain in the war-torn country.
Alhamad was living in Aleppo with her mother-in-law while her husband worked in Lebanon when the brutal fight began between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.
The situation was so dangerous that Alhamad lost her newborn son Hager. He died two days after being born because it was too dangerous to make the trip to the hospital for help. Hager would be four-and-a-half now.
She left Syria with Barkat and Moammar in 2013, joining Al Hassan in Lebanon. Her mother-in-law remains in her Aleppo home. Alhamad continues to grieve over her sister, who also lost a son, and two of her brothers who are missing. Another brother, his wife and four children are in a refugee camp in Turkey. It is Alhamad’s hope that they will one day come to Canada.