Paddling away from the past

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Canoe club offered free day of boating lessons to Syrian refugee children

It was a sunny and special day on Kirk Lake last Saturday, when several dozen Syrian refugee children took to the waters. They were offered a free day of boating lessons by the St. Albert Canoe and Kayak Club as a gesture of acceptance into the country and our culture.

It was also offered as a method of overcoming the ordeals of their recent past.

Zak Mahmoudi, the head coach of the club, hoped that the event would help them in some small way.

“I had this idea a few months ago. It was the first picture when I was looking at the news: the prime minister welcoming all the refugees at the airport. It was really touching for me just to see that,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘What can I do for them?’ Maybe offering them a canoe and kayak activity would be great.”

“The sense behind the whole thing is that we all know that these refugees fled their countries using boats and a lot of them died in the water. They have that trauma to be scared of the water. I thought introducing them to canoes and kayaks on flat water in a very small lake like Kirk Lake, in a safe environment, with an instructor … that could be great, just to break that trauma.”

He reached out to the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton to offer the opportunity. The response was overwhelmingly grateful. There were approximately 70 children all aged between 8 and 16 who took part in the special day while their parents were welcomed to watch from the shore too.

Mahmoudi was aided by a team of assistant coaches along with some of the athletes who receive their regular training at the club.

Giving the children access to the water would be a way of transforming their pain and sadness into pleasure and happiness, he continued. It would give the club’s regular students a chance to show their solidarity with the club’s special guests of the day and it would also offer the refugees a unique social situation that would likely have a positive ripple effect in the rest of their day-to-day lives too.

He said that he practically grew up in and around boats in his native Tunisia. He competed with his national team and coached there, and coached in several other countries. “My whole career is about the canoe and kayak,” he said.

When he moved to Canada five years ago, his love of boating never wavered and he immediately absorbed his adoptive country’s boating traditions too. He stated that canoeing and kayaking are traditional national sports that he wants to share with all Canadians, especially new ones such as these refugees.

“It’s part of everything that Canada stands for,” he said.

Among the activities that the participants enjoyed were basic boating procedures, lessons on different strokes and techniques, and water safety. They practiced in all kinds of watercrafts too, including canoes, kayaks, dragon boats, paddleboards, and the traditional Canadian war canoe, a type of racing canoe.

The club offers a similar program to groups that would otherwise not be able to afford lessons.

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Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.