New Canadians Embrace Winter by Joining the Skinny Ski Movement

by George Johnson

He hails from a country of sphinxes, not snowmen.

“The first time to ski? Wonderful. Awesome,’’ enthuses Wael Ghanem.

“I can’t tell you. So much fun.

“We never had this opportunity in our country, of course. Football (soccer) is the big sport in Egypt and I also enjoyed playing volleyball. But to be able to do this, to come here three years ago, try skiing and like it – no, love it – is a dream come true.”

On this February day, the weather in the 5.2 million metropolis of Alexandria, Egypt, close to Ghanem’s home province and 8,500 kilometres away from his current residence, is a temperate 18 degrees and sunny.

Conditions are, understandably, a tad different in Fredericton, N.B.: Zero and snow showers.

Not that you’ll hear the 46-year-old Ghanem complaining.

Wael, wife Ellen Margarethe and their three children – 15-year-old Souzan, 14-year-old Mariam and 10-year-old Mohamad Mustafa – immigrated to the Canadian Maritimes when he was 43 years old.

Arriving to work for the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, he was offered the opportunity to help acclimatize others freshly arrived in the country by assisting Wostawea Cross-Country Ski Club’s Learn to Ski program, targeted at people – like himself – to become involved in the sport and help smooth their transition to life in a foreign land.

All it took was one Saturday afternoon, along with a few pratfalls. He was hooked.

“After that program,’’ says Wael, “I went out and bought my own skiing (equipment).”

The Ghanem family are now entrenched in Canada’s cross-country skiing culture and are full members of the club.

Wostewea also has a grant this year from Nordiq Canada to run a female-focused camp with other newcomers and their racing team members to develop and enhance confidence on snow.

The appetite and need for such initiatives are growing across the country, with several clubs invested in assisting Canadian arrivals to hopefully be bitten by the cross-country bug.

The four-weekend Learn-to-Ski program offered by Wostawea – an 840-person, opt-in/opt-out, 100 per cent volunteer-based club – is now in its third season.

Wostawea is being assisted in the venture by the structure and expertise of Fredericton’s Multicultural Association. Funding for the program is being shared by the club’s Trails For Life fundraising initiative, along with assistance from the Government of New Brunswick.

Gear and instruction for participants is free. The newcomers provide the enthusiasm.

“We initially undertook to raise $150,000 through Trails for Life and one of the reasons was community outreach,’’ explains one of Wostawea’s Outreach Coordinators, Barb Ramsay. “The first thing we wanted to connect with was our vibrant, multicultural association. We held some information sessions and had an overwhelming response, close to 105 individuals who said they were keen to embrace winter and learn to ski.

“From that group, we actually started out in the first year with a number in the low 40s, year two similar and this year we’re close to 50. That’s about our capacity in terms of coaching and support team.”

Over one dozen countries are currently represented, including Peru, China, Ukraine, Columbia, Syria, Austria and Germany.

The transition to snow is wildly out of personal comfort zones for many. Which is, in a way, the point.

“People who choose to come to a new country are a rare breed, anyway,’’ points out another of the project’s Outreach Coordinators, Mary Murdoch.

“They’re already taking a leap of faith. They are perhaps more willing than the average person to try out, to embrace something new. They’re so keen, it’s crazy. Like all sports, you have some people with a little more athletic ability. You have to contain the enthusiasm.

“We want them to develop a sense of belonging. In so many cases they’re coming to start a better life. When we reached out, we framed the invitation as: ‘We are a community, 800 strong and we want to welcome you.”

Parham Momtahan is another of the immigrants who felt so welcomed once he arrived in Ottawa. Born in Iran, he and his family moved to the United Kingdom at age 10. He arrived in Canada in the 1980s.

“Mine’s actually a simple story,’’ says Momtahan, now spending time to help set up trails in local neighbourhoods, broadening the reach, and the accessibility, of the sport. “I got here in my 20s. After attending university in the United Kingdon, I found I was getting what I now know to be cabin-fever during the wintertime in my second year. A friend of mine, a keen skier, knew I liked to run so he asked me: ‘Why not try cross-country skiing?’

“I’d tried alpine skiing (in Iran) when I was a kid, but I’d never skied cross-country before.

“My friend took me to Gatineau Park, probably the most challenging place to ski in Ottawa. We went up to the cabin and then made our way down. I must’ve fallen 50 times during that five-kilometre trip.

“But something about the whole cross-country skiing environment, the whole people-on-skis movement, really appealed to me and I decided pretty quickly I had to learn how to do this better.”

Years later, in search of ways to give back to a sport he’d fully embraced, Momtahan began to volunteer at his home club, Nakkertok. Two years back he set up a program to assist a group of newly arrived Syrian refugees in learn-to-ski.

“Now I’m a little bit on the other side of it – being someone who helps new Canadians get on skis,’’ Momtahan says. “You see people putting in the effort they do in something so unfamiliar to them, and it just makes you want to smile and help.

“The social side of skiing is very important, very good for integrating people into communities. My situation’s different. There are some challenges involved because you get a range of where people are at. To see the smiles on their faces means everything.

“They and their sponsors – I can’t tell you how many times they have thanked me, telling me it was the best thing they’d done that winter. So, it is very gratifying.”

Gratification, of course, is a two-way street.

The Ghanem family, an ideal model for what clubs such as Wostawea are endeavouring to deliver, can surely enlighten you.

“Skiing is something that’s become a part of our lives,’’ says Wael. “My wife and my (two) oldest kids also ski.

“It’s a family thing. Something we can do together for the rest of our lives. We’re so lucky to have gotten involved with the club. My kids love to skate, too. I tried it. But no more. The ice was too hard when I fell. The Snow is softer. Even when you fall down, it’s fun.”