‘It was a challenge, but I knew I could do it’: Amherst’s Latif went from refugee to citizen to high school graduate
AMHERST — When Aya Latif came to Canada at age 11, she had no friends and spoke no English.
Fleeing the ongoing civil war that has devastated their hometown of Homs, Syria, the Latif family was on the run for several years before settling in a refugee camp in Lebanon and finally having the opportunity to come to Canada.
Now 17 (she will be 18 in September), Aya has lots of friends, speaks fluent English and is now a high school graduate.
“It was a great feeling because I had no idea this was going to happen. As I was about to graduate, it all came back to me, how I got to Canada and how I dreamed of finishing school,” said said Latif days after graduating from Amherst Regional High School on June 29. “Being able to do this because of everything that’s happened. I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long.”
The journey has not been easy for Latif. Due to the war in Syria, Latif’s school experience was only short as her father, mother and brother had to flee their home. Other than a few tidbits of education, Latif hadn’t spent much time in a classroom until she arrived in Amherst, where she was enrolled in the 6th grade at Spring Street Academy.
Latif, who works at Walmart in Amherst, said learning English was very difficult. At first she would say yes or no when asked a question. She made friends and found that they would go out of their way to welcome her and help her learn to speak the language.
“It was a challenge, but I knew I could do it. When I arrived I didn’t want to learn the language, I was too scared to try,” she said. “My friends went out of their way to help. The friends I made on the first day are still my friends. They asked me to come to their house, even though I didn’t speak English. I wanted to be able to sit down with them and talk, so I had to learn to speak English.
Latif said Amherst treated the family as one of their own from the start. She said there was an incident when an older man told her to take off her headscarf and be “Canadian”. She told the man that the headscarf was part of her religion and that she loved her religion.
Fortunately, such incidents are rare. Instead, friends and community members went above and beyond to help.
She remembers when she went to get her driver’s license, a friend’s mother told her: “Take my car. It shows how people wanted to help.
“I had good people behind me all along,” she said.
Aya and her family came to Amherst through a partnership that included the Rotary Club of Amherst, Atlantic Baptist Churches Convention, First Baptist Amherst, Trinity-St. Stephen’s United Church and Holy Family Parish.
Paul Calder, Amherst Rotarian and retired RCMP officer, watched Aya grow.
He still remembers Aya first arriving in Amherst with both fear and excitement.
“I remember when the family arrived they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic. Most of us were just there trying to communicate as best we could, but there was this little girl who was going a million miles an hour from room to room,” Calder said. . “I’m so happy and so proud of her. She visited us a month or two ago and told me she got her driver’s license, Canadian citizenship, finishing high school and that she was going to NSCC in September. It just blew my mind. I kept thinking about this little girl.
For Calder, Aya’s experience shows that the Syrian refugee project has been a success for Rotary, which was recognized several years ago by Rotary International. The Amherst club was the first to bring a Syrian family to Canada.
Besides her friends, Latif said her teachers at Spring Street Academy, EB Chandler Junior High, and ARHS were supportive and helped her catch up until she graduated. .
She will then continue her studies at the Amherst campus of the Nova Scotia Community College, where she will study to become a continuing care assistant. She hopes to eventually become a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
From his experiences living in the midst of the Syrian civil war and seeing how nurses, doctors and others were there to help people at their worst, Latif is driven to help others.
“I saw people getting hurt and I saw nurses and doctors helping as best they could. I want to help people like they did,” she said.
While finishing high school and going to university seemed like an impossible dream six years ago, when she and her family arrived in Canada in the middle of winter, she feels like proof that everything is possible.
“Nothing is impossible,” she said. “It would have been easy for me to give up. People said I would never learn the language, but I learned it in a year. Anything is possible in the world as long as you work hard for it.
She also celebrates obtaining her Canadian citizenship. She applied for citizenship several years ago, but the process was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s great, I love it. Canada is my country now,” she said. “Nobody can say that Canada is not my country because it is.”
There are times when Latif misses Syria and the family members she left behind in Lebanon. She hopes to return to the Middle East for some time to see her sisters. The family has been trying to get them into Canada since they arrived in 2016.
As a Canadian citizen, she would have no problem traveling to Lebanon, but no one else in the family has yet obtained their citizenship, so it would be difficult to go there and she would not want to see her sisters. unless her mother is with her.
“One of my dreams is to do my best to get them here,” Latif said. “It’s something I want more than anything else.”