Persistence, determination and the desire for more.
By Jane Allison
It is the eyes that you notice first. Large and expressive, Salma Omar’s eyes draw you in with their soulful depth. This first impression is proven to be accurate as you speak with the wonderful woman to whom they belong.
Salma Omar is Syrian and arrived in Hamilton in January 2016. Along with two friends – Aviva Boxer and Cheryl Stepan – I was lucky enough to be ‘matched’ with Salma through Wesley Urban Ministries, which sponsored her immigration to Canada. Salma was one of 1,500 Syrian refugees who settled in Hamilton in that time period. Daljit Garry, Rita Balla and other amazing folks at Wesley welcomed Salma and have helped her navigate the sometimes rocky ground of living in a new community. We have loved supporting her navigation into a new country and a new life. We quickly discovered that Salma was not shy, and her modest demeanour belied a fierce, loving heart and a shining intelligence. Salma is currently working in the child care program for the YMCA.
Those eyes could tell stories. So let’s dive in.
Jane Allison: Why Canada?
Salma Omar: I love Canada from when I was a child. I like Canada. For the woman, it’s very good. I know a lot of people who come to Canada, Facebook friends. They say Canada is a dream, for everybody. Not easy to go. When I want to come here, when I make my papers to come here, everyone say ‘Canada is a dream, better try Germany. It’s so difficult to get to Canada.’ But I persist.
JA: You said for women, Canada is the ideal. Why is that?
SO: It is equal. I tell you, strong women in Canada. It reminds me to not stop, to keep going. When anything happen to me, it remind me, don’t stop. I figure out how to do another thing. The women I’ve met here show me I can do everything. When I see them be stronger, have power, I know I can’t stop, I can do my work.
JA: You are a very strong Muslim woman. And not a typical one.
SO: I am the oldest in the family. Everything for me when I come. My mother always want the best for me, encouraged me to be the first in everything. Always be special.
I cannot marry traditional way – where one family comes for arranged marriage. I cannot do that. I was always asked, how will you marry? And I say, I don’t want that, I want to study. I know I will be better if I study what I want, medical, biology.
I always felt that there was something beyond what I knew. I can’t explain this. I just knew. Everyone around me said, why don’t you marry, have kids, take it easy? Why you didn’t do that? I tell them, I don’t want that. I want to live my own life, I don’t stop.
JA: Painful times give you a special kind of knowledge.
SO: Exactly. Once I know it, I can’t go back. I promise you, I will travel. If I stayed in Syria, I wouldn’t find myself.[Salma began to study English, encouraged by her mentor Dr. Haissam Yazigi. He taught her an hour each day and helped her move to Lebanon to begin the immigration process.]
SO: I want to study that. I feel very happy. I want to study English; I feel that in my blood. He [Dr. Yazigi] give me a solution to what I was feeling. He wanted the best for me.[Salma spent three years in Lebanon, where she met Omar Matar, who is now her husband. Omar is with the armed forces and the next dream is for him to join his wife, here in Hamilton and forge their new life, together.]
JA: When you met Omar, you resisted the relationship at first. Why is that?
SO: I don’t want anyone at that time. We were friends. I tried to be far away from him because I know his heart was wide open. I know that if I was to marry, a lot of things would change for me, keep me from my dream. I don’t travel.
He told me, I want you. I told him no, I want to go to Canada. I love you but I want to do this. He is very patient, he knows me inside. I want to be strong, even though I have lots of good feelings inside. Now I feel very happy to have him.
JA: What was life like when you were first here in Canada?
SO: The difficult thing for me at first was not everyone understood me when I spoke. It is so hard! It is so hard to be vulnerable. I tell myself, I will see Omar soon. So go do the work, Salma, please don’t stop.
You know when you find your place? First, I want to be proud. Always. Why we live? We want to be better and better and better. Now I feel like I am challenged to be better.
JA: You and Omar have now begun the long and costly process to have him come to Canada.
SO: I wish he was with me now. I miss him a lot. I want to care about myself and my dreams. Omar encourages me to keep dreaming, live in Canada and he will come when he can. He knows that if I didn’t complete my life in Canada, I would have regret it all my life. Now, with Omar, we know what our future will look like. We are working towards that.
JA: Last question. Why Hamilton?
SO: When I was coming, they asked me what part of Canada I wanted. I said please put me next to the water, where I can speak English. And here I am. I love Hamilton. For the lake, for the people, for everything. I love it.