OLDS — One of the most remarkable stories to come out of the 2021 École Olds High School graduation ceremony is that of 18-year-old Jan Sheikh Ebraheem.
In 2017, he and his family fled the war in Syria arriving in Olds two years later, sponsored by the First Baptist Church.
They knew very little English. Jan had picked up some of the language while working for some doctors when they were refugees in Lebanon, but school was still a big challenge.
Four years later, he graduated from École Olds High School on June 25 after getting 90s on some essays.
He now plans to take science at Red Deer Polytechnic University (formerly known as Red Deer College), then study medicine at the University of Alberta or UBC in Vancouver, with a goal to become a surgeon.
Jan says he was inspired to become a surgeon by what he experienced during the war in Syria.
“We struggled a lot for seven years in the war,” he said during an interview.
“We left Syria because of bombs. My school many times is bombed and it was so hard to me as a kid to see blood. Actually, I lost many friends.
“We had to move many times because of bombs and guns and stuff, so it was a very dangerous time for us. We had to actually move to somewhere more safe and (where) we had more opportunity to do stuff more.
“I want to be a general surgeon because I had a dream when I was back in Syria. I saw so many people actually getting hurt and I couldn’t do anything.
“My dream now is to become a surgeon so I can give a hand to the people who are actually bleeding and to work in a hospital.”
Jan, his dad Youssef, mom Heveen and two brothers: Roni, 17 and Mervan, 12, evacuated to Lebanon.
But that didn’t turn out to be much of a safe haven either.
Jan said the family had very little money and the Lebanese weren’t very welcoming because they were overwhelmed with a flood of Syrian refugees.
“The life in Lebanon, its way different than Syria. Everything is expensive and there’s not much work for a Syrian because they prefer Lebanese to get that work,” he said.
“I was out of school because they didn’t accept me in school because I’m a Syrian.”
But luckily, Jan eventually did manage to find some work and thereby support the family.
“I worked as a secretary with an American group. They’re doctors. They kind of came and they belonged to the church, they helped the refugees,” he said.
The family arrived in Olds on Oct. 7, 2019.
It was a shock in a couple of ways.
The family had lived in Aleppo, a city of about 1.8 million people. They were now in a town in rural Alberta with population of 9,184, according to the 2016 census.
Then there was the colder weather.
Jan said the coldest it ever got in Syria was about –2 Celcius. In Olds, they quickly encountered –14.
"I kind of was a surprise for us," he said. "In the beginning I was kind of scared to go outside because like, it just was my first experience to have snow. I feel like it’s -14; if I go outside, I would be frozen. But everything gets better with time.”
With help from fellow churchgoers, he learned to make snowballs and snowmen and generally make the best of winter.
Members of the church also helped the family obtain clothing, a home and basically supported them until they could adjust to their new life.
The family studied English so the parents could work and the kids could go to school.
Both parents soon found work and the kids were enrolled in school.
Jan said before fleeing Syria, his dad had been a biology teacher for 21 years and his mom had been an elementary school teacher.
He said his mom may study to become a teacher again but he’s not sure if his dad wants to go back to school again to resume his career.
Jan said he’s come to love Canada.
“It’s great. I mean, now I have a chance to succeed with my dreams. I have a chance to support my family and we have a safe life, I guess – more than my country provided us,” he said.
He plans to finance his education via student loans and a part-time job.