Syrian refugees to compete alongside Indigenous athletes at World Indigenous Nations Games
Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A group of Syrian refugees living in Edmonton are joining the celebrations at the World Indigenous Nations Games in and around the city this week. The 12 friends have formed a soccer team to compete, and they're being welcomed by organizers and athletes.

Even though they are not Indigenous, Bashar Aldyab believes there are many commonalities between them and local Indigenous people. The Syrian culture is rich in tradition — tradition is upheld by Indigenous people — and they want to keep theirs alive for generations to come.

"We like to share our tradition with these people," said Aldyab. "I respect their traditions. The Indigenous people — because I feel we are also Indigenous people. We are really interested in sharing with the world to see this."

World Indigenous Nations Games founder Chief Wilton Littlechild welcomed the Syrians' participation in the games.

"Sometimes we're not involved in the welcoming of new citizens to Canada, so through the medium of traditional games and sport we extend our hand to the Syrian delegation to say to them, 'You're welcome to Treaty 6 territory' and hopefully we can share more experiences like this going forward," said Littlechild.

Aldyab arrived in Canada from war-torn Syria under refugee status 10 months ago. The 29-year-old said he had endured horrific torture after being jailed under the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Aldyab said he was accused of being a traitor, and he witnessed many friends die in his home city of Damascus.

When he was finally able to travel to Alberta last fall to study at the University of Alberta, it was a dream come true.

"I'm happy, so happy," said Aldyab. "I still can't believe that I'm in Canada. It's the most beautiful country in the world. The people here are so lovely, so friendly, so kind."

He hasn't yet had the opportunity to meet many Indigenous people, but he has heard about the issues facing natives in Canada.

"There's racism. They had the residential schools — that destroyed them. I understand their feelings. We have the same. Maybe they didn't have a full-out war, but I think we have a lot in common," said Aldyab.

Some of the Syrian athletes attended the WIN Games opening in Maskwacis on Monday evening. It was their first time visiting a reservation and experiencing First Nations culture.

"It's really remarkable," said Ahmed Alhariri, 20, also a Syrian refugee.

"I think we should all go there [to the reservation] to know more about their traditions and culture, to talk with them and tell them what we have been through. We will have fun."

The group made new friendships at the event, including meeting Maskwacis native Mason Buffalo, who expressed his support.

"For me I'm grateful, especially being a Nehiyaw person to be welcoming to other people," he said.

"When you hear about a lot of people that are complaining [about refugees] you have to remember that they are on our [Indigenous] land too. So a lot of these people also are refugees and they forget about that. We welcome refugees, we have big hearts and we welcome them with open arms."

After competing in the soccer events, Aldyab and Alhariri hope to invite their new friends to their home in Edmonton.

"We are so welcoming in our home. When we cook food, we don't like to eat alone. It's something in our tradition [that] when we eat, we would like to have as much people as possible at the table," said Alhariri.

The group will participate in soccer throughout the week, with the first game happening on Wednesday evening in Enoch Cree Nation.

The games run until Sunday.

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Source: CBC News / Brandi Morin

Photo: Friends (from left-right) Abdullah Altamer, Bashar Aldyab, Sharif Bakouny and Ahmed Alhariri stand with First Nations traditional dancer Mason Buffalo at the opening of the World Indigenous Nations Games in Maskwacis, Alta. (Brandi Morin)