I learned that “the butt of your paddle” doesn’t mean the same thing in Arabic. It means something unmentionable.

Who knew? I also learned that Syrians are a joyful, strong-willed, community-minded culture. And they’re a fun bunch of people to go canoeing with.

My friend, Andy Baxter, and I had the honour to be asked to help London, Ontario’s Nova Craft Canoe Company and the Cross Cultural Learner Centre to take more than 40 Syrian refugees canoeing for the first time. What an amazing experience. Andy and I taught them a bit of Canadian culture, and they taught us a lot about the new Canadians making Canada their new home.

The group seemed nervous getting off the bus—but not as nervous as Andy and me. They were still strangers to us, speaking a foreign language. Hand gestures and a lot of smiling got us through. Some were worried about flipping out of the canoe. Andy and I were also worried about some of them flipping out of the canoe. More arrived than expected and the instructors were beginning to get worried if there were enough of us to keep them all safe.

Syrian Refugee CanoeKevin Callan

After a brief instruction, given in both English and Arabic, the group gathered down by the canoes to find paddling partners. Of course, we all assumed that they would ease themselves into the process of boarding and paddling, keeping to the shoreline most of the time.

That’s not what happened.

They took over quickly and off they went straight across the pond. We should have known better. After all, they knew their group dynamics better than us. Free-spirited friends were placed together, families were put as a group, the majority of stern paddlers were female and children were often given the bow. And boy, they had no fear. By the end of the session, the entire group was paddling, using draws and cross-draws like pros.

The biggest part of the day was the laughter. They laughed a lot. They were also very thankful to us for taking them out. It seems they love how friendly Canadians are. I felt the same about these new Canadians. I’d share my campsite with them any day.

Watch the Video Here: