Anyone who remembers learning how to ice skate can probably relate to Disney’s animated classic Bambi. In a memorable scene, the young deer slides and skids across a frozen pond, feet 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 an appropriate metaphor, but it’s also literal.
That’s because the 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 here.
“I knew nothing about Canada before we came here - nothing,” Nasser says of arriving in Paris with his family a year ago from the Syrian city of Homs, where they’d lived when they fled.
One day, soon after settling, he was among a group of fellow students when the conversation turned to the World Cup of Hockey. Canada was the host country and the favourite to win. Picking up the excitement, he decided he’d watch his first game.
In the last moments of a tense final, Team Canada broke the tie to win while Nasser watched the screen in his new home.
“I started yelling and cheering, saying, ‘We won! We won!’’ recalls Nasser, whose 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 says with a smile.
At school this semester, he was enrolled in a physical education fitness class, and asked his teacher, Peter Crosby, if he could make the switch to his hockey class even though he’d never so much as laced up a pair of skates. Mr. Crosby agreed.
“Hockey is an expensive sport, so 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 community happily stepped up to do what they could without being asked.”
Chemistry Teacher Mike Parsons gave him a pair of skates he wasn’t using. The local restaurant where Nasser worked connected with Todd Wood, team owner of the Paris Mounties, who donated equipment, as did Ken Johnston of the Brant OPP. Before long, Nasser 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 will recall that Bambi soon meets Thumper, a sure-footed rabbit who helps him learn to navigate the ice, and becomes his best friend.
For Nasser, who had witnessed the horrors of war-torn Syria, falling on the ice was nothing to be afraid of, and he has new teammates and friends to help him get his bearings.
He’s grateful for this opportunity, and to have so many people cheering him on as learns to play Canada’s game. He’s even more grateful to be in a country where he and his family “can keep going in our lives.”
“I don’t give up easily, so when I fall down, I get up again,” says Nasser in perfect English. “Whether it’s studying or working, it doesn’t matter – you have to apply yourself to get stronger and better.”