When Sam Nammoura escaped Syria in 1993 and moved to Canada in 1997, he was focused on starting his security business. However, when he saw a photo in 2015 of a little boy’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey he co-created the Syrian Refugee Support Group in Calgary to help refugees.

Nammoura was born in Damascus, Syria and raised in a family of 13. Growing up, he says that Syria was very family-oriented and recalls how much he enjoyed the simplicity of life at the time.

Nammoura recalls some of his favourite memories from his childhood, including when he got to escape city life whilst visiting his dad’s farm in the summer. He remembers riding horses bareback there and loved “the feeling of just being free and running.”

Although Nammoura felt free as a child, his feelings changed when he realized that the Syrian school system wouldn’t allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

“Back in Syria at that time you [couldn’t] attend any schools or any sections you wanted, you have to go only by your grade. So if you get like 99.9% then they allow you to go to M.D. schools,” said Nammoura.

Unfortunately, Nammoura’s grades in high school only allowed him to attend the University of Damascus for electrical engineering. Accepting that he wasn’t allowed to become a doctor was difficult for Nammoura at the time, especially because he never particularly enjoyed studying engineering. Although engineering wasn’t his passion, he’s says that he’s thankful for the skills that he gained from his education.

This photo of a Turkish boy washed up on a beach led Sam Nammoura to start helping refugees. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

“It helped me tremendously in the way of thinking, decision making, and doing a lot of business that I do,” he says. “But it’d never been a passion for me.”

Although engineering was not his first choice, Nammoura was forced to work for the government because they had paid for his education. Nammoura was a government employee for five years before he tried to leave his position and work for himself.

“I want[ed] to resign but they did not let me leave. So, I felt like my whole life was taken away from me and somebody else is dictating everything,” said Nammoura. “It’s like a prison.”

Realizing that staying in Syria would mean that his life would be controlled by the government, he made the choice to seek refuge in the United States.

“When they refused my resignation first time, second time, third time, I had no choice but to do it that way.”

Luckily, Nammoura had acquired a temporary passport because he had planned on studying in Japan for two months. This passport allowed him to apply to the American Embassy and get a tourist Visa to go to the United States in early 1993. When Nammoura landed in the Chicago area he applied for political asylum in the hopes of staying in the United States.

“Since I was a little kid [I] was planning for this and dreaming of this and I wanted to be part of this society and this kind of culture,” said Nammoura, “So it felt […] like I achieved a goal.”

However, the process of getting permanent residency in the United States was going too slow. Nammoura then applied to Canada and was granted landed immigrant status in 1997.

“That was just like the sweetest thing ever. You know the feeling that you’re on solid ground. In the beginning, it was a little bit tough [and] it took me a few years to adjust to the lifestyle in Canada. But then after that it was just no way I would go back.”

Although it was difficult to adjust, Nammoura struggled less than most people because he had a business opportunity with an alarm company waiting for him when he moved to Calgary. Nammoura got the job through a family connection and worked there until 2001.

In 2001 he decided to create his own business called Armax Security. When the business took off in 2002, Nammoura began expanding throughout Alberta. “The business was doing very well [and] this is one of the main reasons why I felt like so, so connected [to Calgary] and I branched out from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton.”

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During this time Nammoura was also doing business for Armax Security throughout Canada and the United States. But in 2005 he decided to concentrate on the public relations and customer relationship aspects of his business.

“My job is mainly just to make sure the customer’s happy and pay the bills and do deposits and stuff like that. And I do all my stuff electronically now,” said Nammoura.

Nammoura was focused on his business until 2015 when he saw the horrific image of a three-year-old Syrian refugee’s body washed up on the shore of Turkey and felt compelled to help. 

“For me it was just like the graphic was so horrifying and so sad and I’ve been watching what’s going on in Syria like on a daily basis. But at that point where I felt like you know, I really, I can’t just sit and watch.”

When Nammoura saw that a vigil for Syrian refugees had been created in Calgary by human rights activist Saima Jamal, he contacted the people involved and ended up designing and printing large signs for the event. The event helped connect Nammoura with other people who were interested, or already helping Syrian refugees.

At the time however, people helping Syrian refugees didn’t have a place to communicate with one another. Nammoura saw that this needed to be changed and created a group on Facebook called ‘Syrian Refugees Support Group Calgary’.

“I started to, you know, see whomever active on Facebook just start add[ing] them and make them [an] admin immediately and then see whomever really participating, keep them [as] admin, and whomever was not participating just delete and add new admin,” said Nammoura.

Within a few weeks Nammoura had connected a dedicated group of people through a common platform and with the help of Jamal, the Syrian Refugee Support Group took off.

They found a warehouse and began accepting donations of clothing, furniture, and household items as soon as possible. He recalls how perfect the timing was because Syrian refugees were getting a lot of coverage in the news due to the political climate.

“It fit just naturally. It’s just like we were flooded with all kinds of support in terms of volunteers or responses or just people wanting to do something,” said Nammoura.

Although the group has experienced an outpouring of support, Nammoura still encounters people who think that refugees are dangerous and shouldn’t be helped.

“In the beginning some people tried to make you feel [that] by helping Syrian refugees you’re doing something bad.” said Nammoura. “So you have to overcome those feelings, like I’m just trying to help people who’ve been suffering for the last four, five years.”

Sam Nammoura stands in the Syrian Refugee Support Group’s warehouse on March 4 in Calgary. Photo by Grace Dirks.

Nammoura doesn’t let judgement stop him from helping refugees and Jamal says that his willingness to face adversity has earned him a lot of respect within the Syrian community. She says that Nammoura is called the Mayor of the Syrians in Calgary and his background and ability to communicate have helped the group succeed.

“The fact that he’s lived equal amount of times in Syria and equal amount of times in Canada he has such a good understanding of both cultures and also he’s a really big extrovert and he’s absolutely fearless,” said Jamal.

These characteristics have allowed Nammoura to ignore criticisms and work harder than ever to help refugees. Since its creation, the organization has helped more than 1,000 refugees adjust to Canadian life and has evolved to become more than a group that just collects donations.

“It moved from being a warehouse to a community center where we hear stories and we meet Calgarians who want to help,” said Nammoura.

Kimberley Tubrett, who has been volunteering with the group for a year is proud to be part of a community that welcomes all people.

“[People] can see now that we as Muslims and we as our group are not particular to one avenue, not particular to just refugees, that we’re welcoming, that we’re Calgarians and we just have a big heart,” said Tubrett.

Nammoura hopes that in 2017 the group can begin focusing on finding jobs for newcomers through word-of-mouth and start getting the youth engaged in social activities around the city.

“We’re trying really to get to the youth and the teenagers and the kids as much as possible involve[d] in the Canadian life and the Canadian experiences,” said Nammoura.

In fact, volunteer Roula Aboukhodoud says that’s the best part about being a volunteer with the Syrian Refugee Support Group.

“[It] gives me the biggest smile on my face because they’re outgoing and they want to help [newcomers] and they’re giving back,” said Aboukhodoud.

Nammoura says that he’s happy to have been able to help create a community where newcomers can feel welcome and accepted and he has no plans of slowing down.“Working in this project and providing help or guidance or services to people who just need it, it’s unbelievably- it’s a lifetime experience for me.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Sam Nammoura escaped Syria. He left his home country in 1993.

gdirks@cjournal.ca

The editor for this article is Lauretta John, ljohn@cjournal.ca