Anyone who remembers learning how to skate on ice for the first time can probably relate to Disney’s animated classic Bambi. In a memorable scene, the young deer slides and skids across a frozen pond, hooves going in all directions, while he struggles to find his footing.
For many Syrian refugees starting new lives in Canadian communities, this scene could be a metaphor for the process of finding their own footing in an unfamiliar place.
For one young Syrian refugee, Nasser Alhamwai, it’s a metaphor and it’s also literal.
Alhamwai, a Paris District High School student, made it his mission to learn to play hockey. He wanted to learn because it’s the national winter sport of Canada and because it’s so deeply ingrained in the life and culture across the country.
“I knew nothing about Canada before we came here – nothing,” said Alhamwai who arrived in Paris, Ont., with his family from the Syrian city of Homs, where they lived before they fled.
With little to no knowledge on the sport of hockey, Alhamwai was among a group of fellow students when the conversation turned to the World Cup of Hockey last year. With Canada hosting the event and a favourite to win, he picked up on the excitement and decided to watch his first game.
In the final moments of a tense championship game, Team Canada broke the tie to win while Alhamwai watched on the screen from his new Canadian home.
“I started yelling and cheering, saying, ‘We won! We won!’’ recalled Alhamwai, who said his father looked at him quizzically and asked what he meant by we.
“I was Canadian in that moment, and it was the first time I felt that way,” he said with a smile.
At school this semester, Alhamwai was enrolled in a physical education fitness class, and asked his teacher, Peter Crosby, if he could make the switch to his hockey class. Despite never even lacing up a pair of skates, his teacher agreed.
“The first challenge was getting him equipment,” Crosby recalls. “But we didn’t have to approach anyone for help – people at Paris District High School and in the Paris, Ont., community happily stepped up to do what they could without being asked.”
Donations came from all across the community – Chemistry Teacher Mike Parsons gave Alhamwai a pair of skates, the local restaurant where he worked connected with Todd Wood, team owner of the Paris Mounties, who donated equipment, as did Ken Johnston of the Brant OPP. Before long, Alhamwai was outfitted in about $1,500 worth of donated clothing and equipment, and was ready to hit the ice for the first time.
Disney fans may recall that Bambi soon meets Thumper, a sure-footed rabbit who helps him learn to navigate the ice, and becomes his best friend.
For Alhamwai, who had witnessed the horrors of war-torn Syria, falling on the ice was nothing to be afraid of, and he has teammates and friends to help him get his bearings now.
He is grateful for this opportunity, and the people that continue to encourage him as he learns to play Canada’s game. Alhamwai is even more grateful to be in a country where he and his family “can keep going in our lives,” he said.
“I don’t give up easily, so when I fall down, I get up again,” he stated in perfect English. “Whether it’s studying or working, it doesn’t matter – you have to apply yourself to get stronger and better.”