By Shanifa Nasser
Less than one year ago, Mher Minassian was in charge of an Armenian cemetery in Syria.
“I saw very bad things… I buried very young people, I buried innocent people.”
It’s a far cry from where he was on Thanksgiving weekend in Toronto.
Minassian was one of nearly 200 Syrian refugees who gathered for their first-ever Thanksgiving in a Toronto-area Armenian church on Sunday. While he had never celebrated the holiday before, for him and many others, starting a new life in Canada was at the top of the list of things to be grateful for.
The Thanksgiving lunch, held at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Scarborough, was hosted by Armenian Family Support Services, a non-profit organization that has sponsored nearly 300 Armenian-Syrian refugees since November 2015.
“We are thankful first that we are alive because we escaped from the war and second, thanks to the Canadian government. They brought us here,” Minassian told CBC News on Sunday.
It’s a sentiment many there repeated as they celebrated.
‘No war, no bombs’
Zovij Bartiajian has been in Canada for one year and two months.
“I’m so happy to come here because I live in peace. No war, no bombs… A lot of water, a lot of electricity,” Bartiajian said, celebrating her second Thanksgiving.
But while she says she has plenty to be thankful for, her family members back at home in Syria remain at the top of mind.
“Only my body is here. My heart and my brain are back home because our family is still there… They want to come here but it’s so difficult.”
Rita Odjaghian, chair of Armenian Family Support Services, said while the group holds a sponsorship privilege, its work goes far beyond that.
“We got into bringing the refugees but it doesn’t end there. What we do, we try to help them integrate in the society,” adding that the group helps refugees find employment, English classes and even teaches them to identify mental health challenges.
Many of the refugees at the Thanksgiving event have family members back home, Odjaghian said, making events like Sunday’s that much more important to hem.
“There is such a huge isolation in them so they feel being embraced by a larger family.”
The value of that isn’t lost on Bartiajian.
“Thanks for everything,” she said. “Thanks for the peace.”