Syrian refugee is Woman of the Year

Rana Bshara, Multicultural Centre Woman of the Year, with her husband, Antuon, and their children, Soleil and Ghasson. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Multicultural Centre award goes to Rana Bshara


The Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre has awarded this year’s International Woman of the Year award to Rana Bshara. The award, which is in its 14th year and is given to women who have arrived in Canada within the previous 10 years, will be presented to Bshara as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations on Friday.

“I was very surprised when I heard that I had won,” said Bshara, who came to Canada from Syria with her family in August 2016.

“When you arrive someplace new, you don’t realize that you’re doing a great job until others say something. There’s so much new going on—you’re learning, trying to understand everything. I didn’t think that I had done anything to deserve the award. But then people around me said, ‘You deserve it.’”

Bshara, 33, began working at a francophone daycare in Welland two months after arriving here. She said that she doesn’t think that this award is really going to her as a person, instead considering herself a representative for all the women who made the decision to leave their homes with their families and come to Canada.

“It’s nice that it’s for women,” she said. “It highlights women’s role in society, and really shows how they can be recognized in Canadian society.”

Lori Webster, a program coordinator at the multicultural centre, gave a similar account.

“We look for women who have been successful in business or other work, and who have made cultural contributions to the community,” she said.

Webster explained that part of the award’s purpose is to inspire other women and to show them cases of great success.

“For newcomers, it can all feel like a very slow process, especially if there’s a language to learn,” said Webster. “Most of the women coming have professional qualifications in their home country, but they may not be recognized in Canada. So they have to be really patient to re-train all over again.”

Fonthill Sobeys staff gave the family a tour of the store soon after their arrival in summer 2016. VOICE FILE PHOTO

Bshara talked about how difficult the adjustment has been.

“I worked for an airline in Syria, so I had some English. But I had never actually studied it—all that I learned was from listening to others,” she said.

Her husband, Antoun, was a mechanical technician in the printing industry. Since arriving in Canada he has worked at the Fonthill Sobeys.

“My kids have adapted pretty well,” said Bshara. “I’m proud of them for picking up the language so quickly—now they are correcting us and our accents, saying, ‘Mom, you have to say it like this’”

The family has taken time to get used to the cultural differences, too.

“I had so many notes from my kids’ teachers. They said, ‘Soleil and Ghasson are great, but they just need to keep a space between them and their friends.’ Back home, they are always kissing and hugging their friends, but here you have to respect the space,” said Bshara.

Though she doesn’t yet feel like it’s home yet, Bshara said that after 18 months she has become much more comfortable.

“I still have that feeling of homesickness,” she said. “I don’t have any family here other than my sister-in-law, so when I have moments to think, I am sick thinking about my family not in safety. If I had a magic stick, I would like to have all of them here.”

Bshara said that she and her family have been overwhelmed by the positive support from the community, and that this had made the process considerably easier.

“We have been surrounded by so many good people. They’re always saying, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll do it for you.’ There are some times when you can feel some people aren’t nice, and maybe they’re discriminating because we’re new here or because we don’t speak English perfectly. But that’s just one or two percent of everyone. When it happens, I give myself a positive push. I say, ‘You’ve been here less than two years. You’re working hard, you’re well-adapted, your kids are doing well in school,” said Bshara.

Pelham resident and Voice contributor Larry Coté, who was a member of the committee that sponsored Bshara’s arrival, was also part of the “entourage” that met her at the airport.

“She’s just a remarkable person,” said Coté, adding that he wasn’t the least surprised that Bshara won the award.

Coté and his wife, Barbara, have remained in close contact with Bshara and her family since their arrival.

“They’re so hospitable—we just stop at their house and they seem to prepare us a three-course meal,” said Coté. “I’m worried that I offended them by saying, ‘You don’t have to cook for me!’”

Coté praised Bshara’s willingness to engage with her new country.

“She’s very eager to fit in. They’ve taken up skating, the kids are enrolled in soccer here, she’s taking English classes, and has a full-time job at the daycare.”

At Sobeys, Bshara’s husband works full-time in the produce section.

“I’ve talked to [store owner] Ron Kore about him, and he said that his work ethic is impressive,” said Coté. “They’ve been here eighteen months, and they both have jobs, own two cars, and just bought a house.”

Lori Webster highlighted Bshara’s job at the daycare, where she has worked since two months after her arrival, as well as her volunteer work at le Centre du Sante Communautaire in Welland.

“This award isn’t open only to refugees, though because of the work that we do a lot of the past winners have been refugees,” said Webster. “We had one woman win who was originally from Rwanda. The year that she won Roméo Dallaire was in St. Catharines to speak, and she got to meet him. That was a special one.”

The centre runs a variety of programs for residents—not just for newcomers.

“We have Employment Solutions or those looking for work, we have an emergency shelter, women’s entrepreneurship development, and ESL classes,” said Webster.

Bshara hopes to continue to volunteer more, even as she already works close to full-time.

“It’s not about just being in Canada,” she said. “I love to help people. Now that I have a car, I can give rides, and doing anything else that I can. I was telling my husband that I’d love to work one day in settlement services. I know what happens there—I know the steps and processes that have to happen.”

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