The bombs started falling while Wadah Hendawi was at work.
He hurried home and asked his wife, Raghdaa, to gather some belongings while he put their daughter and three sons in the car. Wadah drove away quickly, watching in the rear-view mirror as bomb after bomb exploded behind them.
The Hendawi family fled to Lebanon, a safe distance from the bloody civil war that was tearing apart their Syrian homeland. For nearly four years, they attempted to rebuild their fractured lives.
They didn’t have much, but at least Wadah, Raghdaa and their sons Said, Mohamad and Ahmad, and daughter Shahed, had each other.
And they were safe.
Then, three-and-a-half years ago, thanks to many welcoming people who raised funds and secured furniture and clothing, the Hendawi family arrived in Shelburne, N.S., 8,176 kilometres from Aleppo, Syria.
The transition to a rural Nova Scotia community was at times difficult, as the family had to learn a new language and the children struggled to catch up on more than three years of missed school work.
Members of the resettlement committee, and the principal, teachers and counsellors at Shelburne Regional High School, worked closely together to ensure the three boys and Shahed were afforded every chance to learn English and integrate as seamlessly as possible into the community and school life.
The youths enthusiastically embraced those opportunities.
On June 27, Said, 20, Mohamad, 19, and Ahmad, 17, made history, receiving their Grade 12 diplomas at their school’s graduation ceremony. It was, by all accounts, the first time three siblings had graduated high school together in Shelburne.
'CAME A LONG WAY'
School counsellor Amanda Rankin had high praise for the three boys.
“Highly motivated, hard-working young men, they set goals for themselves when they started school in February 2016 and worked really hard with their teachers and tutors to achieve them,” said Rankin in an interview.
“They came a long way as students, and the teachers enjoyed helping them. They have a lot of energy and positivity that rub off on their friends, some of whom are international students."
During the past school year, the Shelburne high school hosted 35 international students from Turkey, Germany, China, Japan, South America and other countries.
Reflecting on her interaction with the boys, Rankin finds their positive outlook to be commendable, considering the tenuous circumstances and uncertainty they experienced prior to arriving in Canada.
“They are good-natured individuals who are appreciative of everything. When they ask for help, they approach with a great deal of respect and understanding. And they look after each other,” she said.
Principal Tara Goulden echoed Rankin’s sentiments.
“The brothers have done amazingly well. It was wonderful watching them cross the stage to receive their diplomas. I can only imagine the pride and joy their parents felt,” she said.
“Ahmad, Mohamad and Said were a big part of our school, and they’ll be missed."
Graduation night was momentous for Said and his brothers.
“We will always remember it. It was emotional for us to hear our names being called, one after each other, to receive our diplomas. I think our parents and sister were more excited than we were. Yes, for sure they are proud of us,” he added.
“We had two big parties, one for graduation and one for Canada Day. It’s hard to believe we have been in Canada nearly four years. It has gone by fast, and we are so happy to be here."
Said and his brothers want the school administration, teachers and community to know how much the Hendawi family appreciates them all.
“So many people helped us get closer to our goals, and we will work hard to achieve some success in our future,” he said. “We want to thank everyone for dealing with us. It must have been hard for them to teach us for the first two years because we didn’t know too many English words.”
Ahmad’s English words were sweet music to the ears of the attendees at the graduation ceremony. Mohamad said his younger brother delivered a message of appreciation to the teachers, thanking them for “all the tremendous help they provided and for making the lessons understandable.”
Singled out for praise was Carmen Anderson, a man the brothers call “an angel” who constantly worked a lot of extra time teaching the brothers. Anderson has taught for more than 35 years.
Evidenced by the favourable comments from community members, the Hendawi family is making a positive impact in the workplace as well.
In addition to other part-time jobs, Ahmad and Mohamad work in the kitchen at the popular Charlotte Lane restaurant. Co-worker Cora Beck said the brothers work hard and are pleasant.
“They are eager to learn and help, always smiling, cheerful and, of course, handsome,” said Beck.
Retired teacher Sandra Walsh, who participated on the resettlement committee, said the family has become part of the community fabric and is completely integrated into town life.
“If committee members met today and were asked to assess the situation with the Hendawi family, and decide if the process was worth the effort, everyone would say it absolutely was,” said Walsh.
“We are lucky to live in a society where we can leave our homes, go about our business, and when we return to our homes, they will still be there. This wasn’t the case for the Hendawi family.”
Going forward, Ahmad will study electrical and industrial construction at the Nova Scotia Community College in Shelburne, Mohamad is awaiting acceptance into Dalhousie’s nursing program, and Said works full time and is considering taking courses in barbering and hairdressing.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 1,340 Syrian refugees have settled in Nova Scotia during the past four years.