On the other side of the world, some 11,000 kilometres away from their childhood home in Syria, Sir Charles Tupper Tigers' senior Mohammed Suliman (right) found reason to embrace his Grade 11 brother Ahmad during a recent Vancouver Tier 1 rugby match against Point Grey. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Rugby

At Sir Charles Tupper, rugby’s welcoming scrum provides needed refuge for three Syrian youths building new lives in a new country

VANCOUVER — In the midst of a melee of mud and pelting rain, Mohammed Suliman still made sure he was the first to find his younger brother Ahmad on the rugby pitch.

Instantly, with arms extended, siblings who knew nothing of what their shared futures would bring as they arrived in Canada as refugees just two years ago, embraced in celebration.

Yes, a lot of it was about the try Ahmad Suliman had just scored as part of an eventual 31-21 win by East Vancouver’s Sir Charles Tupper Tigers over their crosstown rivals, the Point Grey Greyhounds.

Yet just as much, how could it not be about enjoying one of those moments in a new sport, in a new country, and most importantly, in a new life far from the unrest and upheaval which drove the brothers and their family from what had been home in faraway Syria?

Not much for sentimentality, but beaming with pride for his brother, Mohammed would later say: “He scores. I hit. And I’m always there to cover his back.”

Tupper’s Tyler Duldalao (3) is flanked by the Tigers’ three Syrian-born players (left to right) Mohammed Suliman, Ahmad Suliman and Nadim Alrefai. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The Suliman brothers, along with fellow Grade 11 Syrian refugee Nadim Alrefai, a bruiser in the forward pack at prop, have all not only adjusted to life in Canada, but to a sport which they did not know even existed until they arrived at Tupper for the 2017-18 school year.

“I asked ‘How can I know how to play (rugby)?’ says Mohammed, “and I was told that I really couldn’t unless I just went out and played it. It took me several games until I actually began to understand, but I still don’t understand everything. It can still get confusing.”

Tupper head coach Joe Lee, meanwhile, says nothing gets lost in the translation when it comes to understanding how the game has helped the trio find solid footing within its peer group and given them the confidence to set their own goals.

“These guys, they are loving the sport, and for all they have been through, I can see how it’s helped them,” says Lee of the affect rugby has had on them. “They’ve come into being regular teenagers, always on their cel phones.”

A powerful player at lock, Mohammed Suliman (with ball) has become a key part of the provincially-ranked Tupper Tigers senior varsity team despite the fact he’s only in his second season playing the sport. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Mohammed Suliman, now, 18, was only 13 when his family decided to leave a Syria which had become embroiled in war-torn unrest.

“There was a revolution and it became very dangerous to stay there,” he says. “My family decided to leave everything behind. Our house. The cars we had. We just left. I had a small bag of clothes and that is all I took. It’s sad, but you can’t cry over it. You have to move on.”

They would spend the next three years in neighbouring Jordan before getting a chance to begin a new life abroad.

The Suliman brothers and Alrefai have not only brought an added spirit of positivity to the Tupper pack, they have helped to deepen the cultural melting pot which is the Tigers’ roster.

“We went on a trip to Victoria and we talked about that,” says Lee. “I’d say right of the bat there are 10 (different ethnicities) but the beautiful part is that when we come together as a team, it’s just one. It might sound like a cliche, but it’s the truth.”

A Grade 11 with the Tupper senior boys rugby team, Syrian-born Ahmad Suliman has quick and dangerous feet, as well as a true feel for running the pitch. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

With that said, it’s great to simply talk to a coach about three of his players, all new to the game, and the strides each has taken.

“Mohammed is a guy who works in the trenches,” Lee says. “He’s not always the glory guy. Ahmad like to run with the ball in his hands. He likes to go through guys and you saw him today score a try with his footwork.

“And then there’s Boss Baby,” continues Lee of the Alrefai, who is both big in stature and personality. “He’s just a powerhouse, a front row guy with big shoulders who likes to push people around.”

The Tigers were ranked fifth in the most recent B.C. AA Top 10, and if things play out, they could be getting a big boost from the combined efforts of its three Syrian imports, both as the season progresses and the playoff beckon.

In his native Syria, Mohammed Suliman wanted a future as a footballer. With no soccer program at Tupper, he took up rugby and it’s now the centre of his campus life at the East Vancouver school. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Yet there is more to it than all of that.

The camaraderie of rugby has not only won the hearts of these three student-athletes who have journeyed long and far to find a new home, it’s helped steady them long enough to decide how they will begin to author their own next chapters.

Already, the the trio’s elder is looking ahead to his future.

“I signed up for a policing program with the VPD Cadets program a year after I got here,” Mohammed Suliman says. “I went for a year, but then I had to stop because I am working weekends to help the family out. 

“But after high school gets finished, I was thinking about getting into policing.”

It makes you want to take another look at that cover photo.

Two brothers, each playing the sport’s No. 4 and No. 5 positions, fittingly known as locks, embraced in a moment of pure joy. After a long journey, they are still together and more invested than ever in the true meaning of team.

What else could be more important?

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at howardtsumura@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “At Sir Charles Tupper, rugby’s welcoming scrum provides needed refuge for three Syrian youths building new lives in a new country

  1. That’s great to hear! I also have a Syrian girl on the team I coach on the Island, she’s a ferocious flanker! I was a member of her sponsorship committee too so it’s really special to coach her.

  2. Wow Howard, you have written some amazing pieces over the years but this my friend is truly, in my opinion, one of your greatest ever. What a great story. Thank you so much. This really proves why sport is so much more than a game.

  3. Fabulous story to read about because it kinda reminds me of my experience at Tupper a very long time ago, we had a array of players from various ethnic backgrounds and rugby was a great bonding experience for all the players at the school and have become lifelong friends through this sport. Also great to see Tupper rugby coming back! Great story!

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