In the summer of last year, ISIS militants conducted suicide bombings, raided homes and slaughtered hundreds in the city of Sweida, Syria. On Jan. 25, exactly six months after the attacks, Calgarians gathered at the cSPACE King Edward arts venue to celebrate Syrian resilience and challenge cultural stereotypes.

When news broke about the ISIS attacks in Sweida, Syrian musician Aya Mhana was in Calgary along with her husband and daughter.

“I felt hopeless,” Mhana says. “I couldn’t do anything.”

She confirms her family is safe but is discouraged by her country’s situation.

“We have a beautiful culture, and it’s a nice place to preserve … So why [are we] escaping from that beautiful country and trying to find a better place to live in?”

The event called The Journey to Resilience, aimed to showcase that heritage. The evening consisted of traditional dances, music and poetry, presenting an aspect of Syrian culture that is not commonly seen in the media.

Ghada AlatrashGhada Alatrash performs a reading from her book “Stripped to the Bone: Portraits of Syrian Women” at The Journey to Resilience fundraiser hosted by the University of Calgary’s faculty of social work. Photo by Andrea Wong
Yahya El-Lahib is a social work professor at the University of Calgary and is one of the event organizers. The night was partly influenced by his research on refugee settlement and challenged the stereotypes assumed about Syrian refugees.

“We see refugees in two extreme ways as victims and traumatized or as heroes who survived all these adversities,” El-Lahib says. “But that’s not the reality of every refugee.”

As a result, society’s understanding of refugees’ experiences also affects how settlement services are delivered. Seeing refugees through a lens of trauma, for example, will lead to an emphasis on trauma-oriented services.
To El-Lahib, art is an answer to changing these perceptions and capturing the experiences between two extremes.

Syrian musician, Aya Mahna plays the oud as she sings in Arabic. Mahna moved from Sweida to Calgary in 2016, with hopes to share her experiences through musicSyrian musician, Aya Mahna plays the oud as she sings in Arabic. Mahna moved from Sweida to Calgary in 2016, with hopes to share her experiences through music. Photo by Andrea Wong
“When I lived in Lebanon, we have civil war for years, decades,” he says. “Art is about life, and especially when there is a war situation, art becomes a form of resistance and a form of community engagement.”



Shifting perspectives through art is one part of the event’s theme of resilience. Mount Royal University professor, Ghada Alatrash, also co-organized the event to help people share their own stories.
“The other part of this event is also to support and celebrate the success stories of the Syrian refugees and newcomers in Calgary,” she says, adding that, “there’s some shattered hearts that have come into Canada, but there’s also so many stories of resilience.”

The event has raised over $7,000 to support several families who have survived the July 25, 2018 attacks. Alatrash and El-Lahib remain hopeful that it will help families move forward from the tragedy.

Editor: Aiesha Hinds |

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