The bright pink headscarf may keep hair from sweeping around her animated face, but nothing restrains those bright eyes from expressing her tenacity. Salma Hag Omar is a woman with a purpose, one that has brought her half-way around the world to a new beginning, alone but determined.
Omar arrived in Hamilton on Jan. 7, 2016. She is only 27 years old but she has a lifetime of experience guiding her.
“Before I am coming here a lot of people say, ‘You are alone, you are a girl, you will go to Canada alone? You are strong, you are very courage, you are crazy,’ but I am feeling easy, I am not feeling that,” says Omar. ” If I can’t arrive here, all my life I can’t feel comfortable. When I arrive here this started my life, I feel that. Now I will start, I don’t care what happened before.”
Born and raised in Syria, Omar grew up writing stories, dreaming of travel, and hoping to become a doctor to help people. She felt the expectation to marry, to connect her life to someone. At first she resisted, asserting her ambitions. But she finished university at 22 and within a year she succumbed to the pressure, accepting the proposal of an Egyptian man who promised her travel, and continued education in London.
Her family journeyed with her to Egypt for the week-long wedding preparations and ceremony and then returned to Syria, leaving her with her husband to begin their new lives. But two weeks later, her husband was away with his parents when he called to let her know there would be no travel or study for her: he was divorcing her.
She was bereft. She felt she had failed at marriage, deceived by a man who had no intention of following through on his promises. The betrayal was overwhelming, but the result was devastating. She found herself divorced in a culture that does not easily accept disparaged women. After one month in Egypt, she returned to Syria to reassemble herself and her life.
“I tried to begin, to start again from zero, but I can’t because everything around me -not help me – not people, my family help me some and my doctor help me – but maybe country not good from war, I can’t make a new job, a new study, I can’t.”
Her eyes light like fire when she insists, “But I did not give up my purpose.”
She left Syria again, this time for Lebanon to look for work, to go to school, to find herself. She went to the United Nations. They opened her file and helped to get the divorce documents she needed. She had interviews, many interviews.
She found friendship in Lebanon, friends who became like family. She says she felt like a girl again. She worked and studied at an affordable college. She saw thousands of Syrians flee their war-torn country. And she waited for the chance to complete her purpose. At the United Nations, they talked of the opportunity to go to the United States, to Australia or to Canada.
“I like Canada. When I am a child, my friend coming here,” recalls Omar. “She say a lot of things – women can work like man, open-minded, a lot of things.” Omar measured the fit of these things with her purpose. She chose Canada. And she waited.
One day she took a four-hour bus from Lebanon to submit documents to a government office. She asked a young man on the bus if she was travelling toward the destination on the papers. She translates their revealing exchange:
“Yeah, you can go there, but you come here alone?”
“Yeah, well it’s me … I come here alone.” She smiles at the recollection.
He followed her, and when she finished in the office she saw him outside. They talked, he asked questions, and took her number. They became friends – just friends, because she made it clear that if he wanted more she would end the relationship.
“Yeah, he patient, and he change my thought little, little, little…and after one year and a half he say ‘I want to marry you.’ I say, ‘No, I will travel because my story is this…”. He agrees, and accepts that moving on is what she needs to do, but it is evident from her telling that a pledge has been made.
Omar carries on in Lebanon, waiting and dreaming.
Her mother visits, sees her new life and worries for her, but accepts her ambition.
“I will not stop your future,” Omar remembers her mother’s words. “You can go, but take care of yourself and I am with you everywhere you go. My God send people to help you, my god protect you because you are alone, because you are far from me, and because, because … I wish to see you happy.”
These phrases are repeated to her almost daily as she talks with her mother.
Many Syrians are leaving Lebanon by boat for countries across the Mediterranean Sea. Some encouraged Omar to come with them, knowing her desire to emigrate, her sense of adventure, her desire to find a new life. They tell her waiting for immigration will take a lot of time, that the sea journey will make it faster. She declines.
“No, I am patient. I will travel with the UN and safe, because after I have a lot of dangerous before, and my mom, if I travel in this way, she will die.”
Then one day, a year after her last interview, came the call: “You will go to Canada tomorrow if you are ready.” She had to go to the office that night for eight o’clock. Her goodbyes we rushed and bittersweet.
By the next night she is at a hotel in Hamilton, awed by a new country that tells her she is welcome. She has papers, she can stay safely in Canada. She can even see a doctor, be healthy. She meets women at the hotel, they offer her support and friendship. It’s not long, she says, before “they are like my family.”
Wesley Urban Ministries is the key contact for all the government-sponsored refugees from Syria who come to Hamilton (about 800 so far), offering them support and settlement services, finding them sponsors and opportunities.
In an effort to use resources to achieve something different during this refugee crisis, Wesley is trying a new model of shared sponsorship. Omar is half-sponsored by the Canadian government, the other half by Wesley. Rita Balla is Omar’s caseworker for the next year.
“I admire Salma (Omar) for her bravery, to come to Canada on her own, and she has such an open heart and she doesn’t have fear,” says Balla. “She comes with a lot of goals that she wants to complete and she comes with a lot of strengths. That makes it very easy to work with her. She’s a very positive person and she doesn’t let her situation define her.”
Balla has quickly become a key support for Omar – and perhaps even vice-versa: “She motivates me, and makes my job meaningful because she’s very appreciative and she’s very driven,” says Balla. To see the two giggle together is to know they have connected.
In her first six weeks of Canadian experience, Omar has pushed forward with her goals. She lives in a small, simple room on the second floor of a John Street North house, and she explores – on foot and more recently by bus – the community around her, bundled against the cold that she has never before experienced. She says she has a plan.
“I will go to the school and beginning English, because I need that to be better. And then when I am better English I will work, a lot of work and I will complete my study. That’s the first thing,” lists Omar. “The other things that I will work about … my family, to feel comfortable, and be with Omar [the man she met in Lebanon] – to complete my life, I may be married and children.”
She has already moved from an initial program to study English as a second language at Mohawk College. She has met the imam at the local mosque and begun volunteering there to help other families to adjust. She is volunteering with Wesley for the same purpose.
“For me, I say, the two, Canada and Syria, are my country. Because I feel safe here and a lot of things I need I find here,” says Omar. “And I like Syria very much and I wish near time Syria be very good. I wish that.”
“When I am coming here, I feel this one step … I will get one step, one step, I will complete my purpose”.