Ahmad Al-Helwani wanted to say thank you to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for making it possible to come to Canada and he had that opportunity while spending the country’s 150th birthday in the nation’s capital.
The 12-year old Syrian refugee and his family – his mother, father, sister and brother – left Damascus in 2014 to escape the war. They spent two years in Cairo, Egypt before being selected to come to Canada when the federal government eased immigration quotas to admit more Syrian refugees.
He was in Ottawa from June 28-July 2 after he was nominated by the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth and was chosen to take in the Canadian Day celebrations at Parliament Hill, and to take part in WE Day Canada festivities on July 2.
For Ahmad, it was both an exciting and overwhelming experience.
“It was a lot of fun, “ he says of the trip. “We had a bus tour and were given a history of Ottawa and we learned quite a lot about the city. We went to the Natural History Museum, which was really interesting and a lot of fun. We also visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But one of the biggest thrills for me was seeing the Parliament Buildings. They were so big and beautiful.”
However, Ahmad wasn’t in the city simply to take in festivities as a tourist. The WE group he was travelling with, which paired new Canadian youth with Canadian peers, was also introduced on stage during the Canada Day activities on Parliament Hill – an experience that still leaves the gregarious teen struggling to put the experience into words.
“It was a beautiful stage and so big,” he said. “We were told there were about 5,000 people on the grounds at that time. We were called out one by one, and we got to wave to everyone. They cheered very loudly.”
“I do tease my little brother and sisters that I am famous now,” he teased. “But really that’s just a joke.”
Ahmad said what he was able to take away from his ultimate Canada Day adventure was a greater sense of what it is to be Canadian, and to embrace this country more fully as his family’s new home.
“I loved Ottawa, but it was so big and I didn’t really know many people,” he said. “It made me (appreciate) Halifax and the community I have found here with my family, and the friends I have made. But I still love that I have seen that city and the government buildings, and especially that I got a chance to say thank you to the Prime Minister.”
Ahmad said he was extremely grateful to the YMCA for giving him the opportunity to participate in the trip, which he views as an extension of the great lengths the organization has gone to in order to help him and his family settle in Halifax.
“I am very grateful to the YMCA,” he said. “Without them I would not know how to speak English so well, or have so many friends. They have now allowed me to take this wonderful trip and I will try to pay them back by continuing to volunteer and help others the way they helped me.”