Finding new life at the Winnipeg thrift shop

Deaf resettled refugee finds new community at Kildonan MCC Thrift Shop

A man in a high-visibility vest stand in front of a warehouse full of boxes

When Youssef Khater fled Syria with his family nearly two decades ago, he never expected he would find the kind of community he now has at the Kildonan MCC Thrift Shop in Winnipeg, Man.

Khater was born in Syria, one of eight children in his family. He is deaf, a trait he shares with his father and two of his siblings. Because of this, getting an education was nearly impossible for him and his deaf siblings. While Levantine Arabic Sign Language is used by approximately 30,000 people in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Khater says he and his family didn’t know it and developed their own set of gestures that worked for them in their context.

When Khater or his deaf siblings tried to attend school when they were kids, there was no support for the additional needs they required as deaf students. Additionally, other kids did not treat them kindly.

“I was deaf, there was no school that I could go to,” says Khater. “My brother, Anas, went for about a day or so, and the other kids were terrible and beat him, so we did not go to school.”

Eventually, as the war in Syria escalated, Khater followed Anas who’d left for the relative safety of Lebanon. He worked and lived there with his wife for eight years until the terrorist group ISIS caused more destabilization in Lebanon. But around that time, the Canadian government opened up refugee resettlement spots for Anas and his family, and then shortly after, Khater and his.

Moving to Winnipeg from Lebanon was a shock in more ways than one for Khater. The climate, the terrain, the culture and so many other things were all completely different. And that’s not even to mention the language barrier — Khater’s wife, Hazar Alsayfi, isn’t deaf, but only reads and speaks Arabic, and Khater himself only knew the sign language that his family used.

Manitoba Possible (formerly Society for Manitobans with Disabilities) was contacted to help Khater learn some basics of American Sign Language (ASL), but that proved to be a bigger challenge than he thought at first.

“We would have this meeting and they would start with the sign that I know now means ‘What’s your name?’ and I had no idea what they were asking. But my wife only spoke Arabic, so we had to translate from ASL to English to Arabic and back just to start getting the basics. It was very hard at first.” 

Because he was learning a new language from scratch, Khater wasn’t able to read the many English language signs that hang on the walls of the Kildonan Thrift shop highlighting the global relief, development and peace work supported by every purchase at an MCC Thrift shop. During his interview, he was shocked and thrilled to learn that his job directly contributes to helping people who’ve gone through the same experiences he has in countries like Syria, Lebanon and Ukraine.

“Wow. Wow, I had no idea. I only knew MCC was a thrift shop, I didn’t know that’s where the money was going. That’s amazing!”

The children* of a beneficiary receiving cash assistance in Daouk—an informal settlement in Beirut, Lebanon.

*Names withheld for security purposes.
The children* of a beneficiary receiving cash assistance in Daouk, an informal settlement in Beirut, Lebanon. Their family is facing many of the same concerns and dangers as Youssef Khater’s did in Lebanon. *Names withheld for security purposes. (MCC photo/Colin Friesen)

Over time, Khater started to get the hang of ASL. He joined a deaf darts league and says he doesn’t know what he was worse at, the darts or his signing. But the other league members were kind and patient, and it wasn’t long before he was hitting bullseyes and signing competently with his peers. His darts team even has a chance to play in a national darts tournament later this year.

He was starting to build connections in the community. He and his wife now had four children, and he was interested in finding a job.

He originally applied to volunteer at the thrift shop as a way to earn some experience that would bolster his resume, but the shop’s volunteer coordinator, Lindsay Dyck, says it was clear quickly that experience or not, Khater had all the qualities an employer would want to see.

“When Youssef started volunteering, even though we couldn’t communicate that easily, it was so clear what a kind, positive and hard-working attitude he has,” she says. “He had been volunteering for a few months when a paid position in our warehouse opened up and it felt like an obvious choice to consider him for that role.”

Matilda Reimer and Anna Funk sort and hang clothing at the Kildonan MCC Thrift Shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Matilda Reimer and Anna Funk sort and hang clothing at the Kildonan MCC Thrift Shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Khater was hired for the position of receiver in the shop's warehouse and has been thriving in the role ever since.

“Even though no one here is fluent in sign language, we’ve found ways to communicate well,” says Khater. “And other staff and volunteers are so wonderful, many of them have learned some signs, like to tell me we’re friends and it makes me feel so loved to see that.”