Mayor's levee attracts crowd

By Susan Gamble, Brantford Expositor

A levee to welcome in the new year was a new tradition for several tables of Syrian refugee families welcomed by Mayor Chris Friel and a host of dignitaries on Saturday at the mayor's annual levee.

Several hundred people turned out to cheer for Canada's sesquicentennial year, glad-hand with local dignitaries and military personnel from the 56th regiment and eat cake and middle eastern foods.

"This is different than at home," said Omar Kaddah, 18, who came to Canada with his mom after the death of his father.

"We would sometimes have a New Year's Eve party with friends but that's it."

Now a Grade 12 student at Paris District High School, Kaddah is getting used to Canadian culture, working at the Grand Bayou restaurant in Paris and helping his mom learn English.

The best part of his new life in Canada?

"Everything! I played soccer when I first came and hope to play again. Although," he admitted, "I don't like the cold here."

At the same table was Kaddah's schoolmate, Naser Alhamwar, 20.

Although older, Alhamwar is also a Grade 12 student in Paris because he had left school in Syria in order to work.

Now his work involves maintaining grades that are in the 90s.

"It was hard at first but every day is getting easier. It's a new start for my family and it will be better."

The two young men were part of several tables of Syrians at the levee. They were warmly welcomed by the host mayor and his Brant County counterpart, Ron Eddy.

Imam Abu Noman Tarek from the Brantford Muslim Association thanked the entire community for its support of the refugees in 2016.

"In this room there are nine Syrian families, including their children, with us. It would not be possible without everyone's help.

"Regardless of faiths and differences, we all love others. Brantford welcomed them. I'm proud of this city and this country."

Local Muslims have been working with various groups who have sponsored the refugees in Brantford and Brant County, said Naser Hamed, vice president of the group.

"We work with all the groups to bridge the gaps in help. It's been a group effort and taken lots of communication to get where we are now."

The Syrian families, he said, are successfully settling in, with the heads of the three families who have been here longest already working full time.

In his remarks, MPP Dave Levac said the city has become a multilingual community with more than 90 languages used.

"My hope for you is peace, a heart full of love and a chance to work together to build a place where we can satisfy everyone," Levac said.

Sikh representative Jasmine Lall urged people to focus on the many positive occurrences of the year rather than the disasters.

Last year wasn't a banner one for Friel who has admitted to serious struggles with prostatitis, which has forced him to take time off work.

"It's been a rather difficult year but while I was doing a lot of sitting and reclining, I started to research and to write and I went back and looked at Brantford's history. We've had difficult times but, generally, we do very well."

Friel said 2017 will be an important one for Brantford, which celebrates its 140th year as a city, its 170th year as a village and the 100th anniversary of the iconic Bell Memorial.

"Standing here at Brant's Ford, the original spot where the community started, we know Brantford history has always been at this crossroads. We stand here looking at our future."

Friel said there has been huge gains made over the past 15 years and, today, the city has strong job numbers, a successful boundary change and the massive ongoing Laurier-Y project.

During an interview, Friel said one of the biggest accomplishments in 2016, along with finally landing a Go Bus system and the boundary adjustments, was the opening of international economic development markets.

Gizeh Packaging and Mitsui High-tec Inc. each broke ground on new plants on Fen Ridge Road last year, promising good jobs for the community.

"For the first time we have a lot of companies that can't find employees. There are good-paying jobs and, fortunately, many firms will take a young person on and train them."

Friel said in order to make Brantford the most noticed, most talked about community in Ontario during the next decade, there's more needed than wishful thinking.

"I love the idea of hope but what's really needed is for us to roll up our sleeves, have a good heart and a good mind and get to work."