Syrian farming families get back to the land in Nova Scotia

Three farming families who came to Canada last year as refugees from Syria are getting back to the land on a farm in the Annapolis Valley.

Allison Maher, co-owner of Dempsey Corner Orchards in Aylesford, N.S., said she and her husband contacted the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia several months ago to ask if any of the refugees had farming experience.

Her business was initially interested in hiring one family, but they ended up hiring three.

Yahya Merdash uses shears to prune an apple tree in Aylesford, N.S. (Shaina Luck)

“One fellow, he was at our kitchen table, he said, ‘I can’t be in the city. I can’t be here. I had a big farm in Syria, I had 40 acres. Now I have a balcony. My body is sick. I can’t be just on a balcony,'” Maher said.

Four employees from three families began work on Friday pruning the apple orchard.

The families previously farmed on a cucumber and melon farm, a grape farm and an apple farm in Syria. However, there are significant differences in the plant varieties and farming techniques between Syria and Canada.

“Pruning apple trees in Syria where you have a lot of heat and a lot of sun is different than pruning apple trees in Nova Scotia, walking on snow,” Maher said.

Allison Maher, co-owner of Dempsey Corner Orchards, uses Google Translate to help her communicate with her employees. (CBC)

The new employees have extremely limited English, so Maher uses Google Translate and sign language to communicate.

Through her 12-year-old son Kusai Alghajar, Bushra Khlef, one of the new workers, explained that she has been working on a farm her entire life. She used to grow watermelons and cucumbers. She said the first day of pruning was “good,” although tiring.

Bushra Khlef examines an apple tree before pruning it. (CBC)

Maher hopes the new employees will be able to help ease the workload at Dempsey Corner Orchards.

“Farming has become a four letter word in our culture,” she said.

“Nobody wants to say they work on a farm. I mean, we’ve gone from 21 farms down to five on our street in the last 15 years alone. Part of the problem is you can’t get farm employees. And these people are pleased as punch to be outside and back to something they can relate to.”

Maher says the community in Aylesford worked with her family to secure two houses and a car to set up the families to live in the area, contributing out of the belief that it was the right thing to do.

“What if it was me, and I was there, and all my family was uprooted, and all I know how to do is farm and I’m stuck in a city,” she said.

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