A Country Unlike What They Knew Before

How Hockey Helped Ease Three Young Refugees’ Transition

By Joe Paraskevas

Ismail Amam, 9, (left) and Ahmed al-Masri, 8, of the Ottawa East Novice ‘C’ Coyotes have their skates tied by their fathers at Sandy Hill Arena. Last winter, the boys and their families lived in war-torn Syria. Now, thanks to the game of hockey, they are beginning new lives in this country. Photo: Joe Paraskevas

Ismail Amam, 9, (left) and Ahmed al-Masri, 8, of the Ottawa East Novice ‘C’ Coyotes have their skates tied by their fathers at Sandy Hill Arena. Last winter, the boys and their families lived in war-torn Syria. Now, thanks to the game of hockey, they are beginning new lives in this country. Photo: Joe Paraskevas

On a fall Saturday morning at Sandy Hill Arena, the familiar elements of Canadiana are there.

The non-stop sequence of hockey game after game has begun. The rink is filled with the usual sounds: referees’ whistles, spectators’ cries, the rumble of a Zamboni, the cut of skates on ice, the slap of sticks on puck.

And yet, look closer. This place holds some surprises, as well.

In one dressing room, there is only the mutter of a few voices. Three young boys are already in their hockey gear, despite the fact game-time remains three-quarters of an hour away.

Their teammates on the Ottawa East Novice ‘C’ Coyotes have yet to arrive. Their fathers tie their skates, repeating a ritual played out in countless Canadian arenas.

This is where things get interesting.

The back-and-forth conversation is in Arabic.

Nine-year-old Ismail Amam and two brothers, Ahmed and Mohammed Almasri, eight and nine respectively, can’t wait to take the ice. Their hockey careers are but a month-and-a-half long.

Not only are the boys new to the game, they and their families are new to this country.
Eight months ago, the Almasris weren’t playing any sports. Because of the violence that had gripped Syria, they weren’t even going to school. They, their parents and their 12-year-old brother Hamada were about to flee the village of Daraa as refugees.

Ismail and his family left their home in the Syrian town of Idlib.

The families went to Lebanon, then Jordan and finally came to Canada. It was a journey fraught with concern about the unknown.

“We were very worried about how the kids would adapt to the weather, the schools, the culture,” said Easen Amam, Ismail’s father, through an interpreter. “All these worries have been alleviated.”

Much of the credit for the boys’ relatively easy transition to a country unlike what they knew before goes to hockey, Amam and Moammar Almasri admitted. The children met a Syrian-Canadian boy whose father happened to be past-president of the Ottawa East Minor Hockey Association. They decided they wanted to play the sport, too.

With donated equipment and a complete lack of fear or inhibition, they began attending practices. At first, they were hesitant, their coach, Karina Potvin, admitted. They would essentially run on skates. But the boys were “good listeners,” she added and they caught on.

“I was really shocked actually,” Potivin said. “They are excelling at what they’re doing. Eight months ago they were in Syria. Now, they’re playing hockey in the capital of Canada.”

She chuckled at the way the boys’ enthusiasm grew as the season approached.

Ahmed came to her and would say: “Coach, coach. Team, team,” Potvin remembered. She realized he was asking when the season opener would take place.

The trio’s success has won the hearts of team parents and hockey officials. But the newcomers have received practical support as well as praise.

“Some parents come to the rink (with their own children) and then go get them,” said Allan Martel, the official whose son introduced Ismail, Ahmed and Mohammed to the game. “This is what community and hockey parents are all about.”

Easen Amam and Moammar Almasri remain slightly in awe of their sons and their new pastime.
“It’s their favourite sport, right now,” Almasri said.

In the game that particular Saturday in Sandy Hill, the Coyotes win 3-1. Mohammed Almasri notches a goal.

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Filed in: Features, FP, Front Page

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