Issue: 2017-02-01, PHOTO: courtesy of B. Martens
Hasan Arafat takes a break between classes at Yukon College
In much the same way as hospitality is a cornerstone of Islam, Yukoners have fostered a welcoming culture that Europe struggles to build. And perhaps that is why Hasan Arafat, the eldest son of Hussein and Fatima’s nine children, is so animated when he talks about their arrival at Whitehorse Airport in the middle of the night a year ago.
“We were amazed by our welcome. The attention to detail you give, thinking of everything to make sure we are comfortable and welcome, is something me and my family are so appreciative of,” he said through his friend, our translator, Tareef Ja’amour.
Hasan remembers waking on his first morning, overwhelmingly happy to be home in Canada.
Five years earlier the Syrian Army had destroyed their home in Hama and the family had fled to Lebanon, where they applied for refugee status through the United Nations.
Canada, the United States or Australia would accept such a large family. They applied to all three. “The whole family went to the interview at the UN.” Canada was the first to reply.
“Four or five months passed before we got the call.”
Surprised they were going to Montreal, Hasan laughs at his first impression. “I thought we’d landed in France.”
Through translators they learned they would move further west, or possibly north. “People kept telling us we didn’t want to come here – it’s too cold, there’s no people living there.”
But the Yukon Cares committee had invited them to settle in Whitehorse.
Hasan spoke about his father’s doubts. “I convinced him to come here with a passage from the Qur’an.”
Tareef loosely translated it to: “You don’t know what good may come from taking a risk.”
Our cultural sensitivity is noticeable Hasan says. “People understand we have other customs, and you work really hard to respect that.”
An example is that he and his family aren’t used to all our hugging and handshaking. “People ask,” says Hasan, whose family was consulted for cultural protocols to welcome our second Syrian family in the fall.
Now he is upgrading his education and learning English at the Yukon College in preparation to study pharmacy. He concentrates to force his hand write left to right, which is opposite to Arabic, as he writes out the names of his family.
At school, it’s impossible to overlook Hasan’s notoriety. “We’re famous now.” He shifts in his chair.
Aside from studying, he and Tareef explored more fishing lakes than they can remember. And they tried ice fishing.
“I’ve never been so cold.” Hasan shivers.
A sourdough now, Hasan’s ready to build a fire for the families of his uncles, one on his mother’s side, one on his father’s, who will arrive in the coming months.
If there’s one thing Hasan would like to tell people, it’s that media stereotypes of Arabs, Islam and Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism.
“There are good and bad people of every group, but the media only shows a minority of a minority. In reality, the sayings of our prophets and our books are of a religion of peace.”
A fundraiser is being held on Saturday, Feb. 4 to support bringing Hassan Arafat’s uncles to Whitehorse. The Yukon Cares Latin Dance Night fundraiser takes place at 8 p.m. at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre.