On December 8, 2021, a family of five Syrian refugees landed at Richardson International Airport in a pandemic: Manar, Khodor, and sons Mohammad (16), Yousef (15), and Abed Al Raouf (9). Waiting for them in Portage la Prairie was Khodor’s sister, Iftikar and her family along with members of the Berro Family Sponsorship Committee. This is the story of their journey to Canada as refugees.
Before the War
Before the war in Syria, they were a big family— parents, sisters, brothers, grandkids—who lived in one house. They felt safe in their life. Education was free, good, and centred around the Middle East (there was no knowledge of Canada). Even University tuition was free, though transportation, room and board, and books were not, and there was no such thing as a student loan. Khodor had registered for university but could not continue because of lack of money.
There was also inequality in Syrian society. Those who were the same kind of Muslim as President al-Assad were considered “higher” than the rest: non-Muslims (Christians, Jews, etc.) and the “wrong” kind of Muslim. These systemic barriers made it difficult to get ahead even with a good education.
When Khodor’s dad was diagnosed with cancer, as the eldest son, he had to find a job that would bring in a regular income to the family. He worked in the shipping and receiving department of a government warehouse that distributed items like blankets and other essentials. Life continued; Khodor got married and had children.
Displacement in Syria
The war did not begin in their area of the country, but when it intensified, they began a
journey of displacement in Syria. They climbed in the backs of vehicles normally used to transport animals. Wherever they went, war seemed to follow. They went to Damascus because they thought surely no one would bomb the capital. Within Damascus, all the displaced people would walk together since there were no rides to be found. This was a time of great sadness as Khodor buried many friends and his brother, Azurdeen, along the way. When the bombing of Damascus started, they were forced to leave Syria for Lebanon.
Mohammad, now 16, remembers vaguely the bombs and other sounds of war and thanks God they are still alive. Yousef, now 15, remembers being very scared by the sounds of the helicopters, missiles, guns, and bombs.
Hardship in Lebanon
The most difficult years were when they lived in Lebanon. The Syrian government had previously committed crimes in Lebanon, and the Lebanese people did not forget. Khodor and his family endured eight years of bullying and harassment. They moved four or five times to different refugee camps, where life was difficult.
“I had a motorbike and people would try to steal it,” says Mohammad. “They’d follow us home and try to take it. Even if I was stronger than the Lebanese boys, I would not fight back because I didn’t want my family to get in trouble as I knew we were unwelcome visitors in that land. I felt afraid, concerned, and worried all the time.”
“I knew all the streets where we lived in Lebanon, not because I wanted to but because I had to,” says Yousef. “I had to know which street to take that would get me out of any trouble that happened—I always had to have another route, a Plan B, in my mind.
The UN gave Lebanese landowners money to allow Syrians to build on their land. Khodor, his brother, and brother-in-law built a tiny house about six years into their external displacement. The house needed fixing regularly and they did the best they could with what they had. There were no ceilings and the rain sounded very loud on the tin roof. Eventually, they found canvas to make ceilings, which dulled the clatter of the rain. They weren’t allowed money, and the kids could not attend school. Every day was the same, sitting around with no routine, no work, no opportunities, no goals, “watching your life waste away.” It was soul-destroying. The Lebanese Army would do monthly “round-ups” of Syrians and put them in jail because they knew the UN would pay for the Syrians’ bail. Also, the Syrian government paid people to find Syrians who had worked as civil servants and return them to Syria. Why? No one knew. But they knew it was unsafe to go anywhere. They lived in fear every day; it was like living in an open-air jail.
Journey to Canadian Soil
Iftikar’s family arrived in Portage la Prairie in December 2016. Khodor says, “When my sister left for Canada, I was so happy for her and her children. It would be a new life, a new opportunity. I had heard some good things about Canada and I told her if Canada calls say yes.”
Iftikar’s family was one of two that the Portage and Area Refugee Coalition (PARC) sponsored with St. Mary’s la Prairie. The Chair of PARC, Auna-Marie Brown, was a force. She had a way of making things happen. Auna and her husband Bill quickly became Iftikar’s family’s Canadian grandparents. In 2019, Auna started a sponsorship for Iftikar’s older brother. Auna had not been feeling 100% for most of 2020 and we were physically separated for most of it by the pandemic. In December of 2020, Auna died suddenly and took a piece of our hearts with her. For the Syrians, it was a massive blow. It was hard not to be able to mourn as a community.
When Iftikar received word on December 7, 2021, that the Lebanese government was going to let her brother’s family leave Lebanon, she could not believe it. Although very happy, she would not allow herself to get too excited. We watched the plane online and there was much relief when it landed in Istanbul, Turkey. During our night, Khodor and his family boarded their next plane and as soon as I woke up, I checked their flight—they were over Poland—and updated the committee. All day we watched the plane icon fly across the Atlantic Ocean until it landed in Toronto. They were on Canadian soil. Cue the tears.
Khodor recalls, “When I came to Canada in December, I felt like I was re-born, like I was out of jail and free. I will never be able to thank the people in Portage enough. Auna has a special place in my heart always.”
Now, Iftikar is so happy to see them comfortable, eating well, happy, laughing. She turns to her nephews who are sitting at the table to tell them that their dad was always giving, that he is a kind man, and that it is wonderful to see him receiving something good for all his sacrifices. Yousef’s eyes brim with tears. “It is important for them to hear what a good man their father is,” says Iftikar.
During the 14 day Quarantine, they did activities inside the house that we had prepared. “Quarantine was difficult,” says Khodor, “but we knew it had to be done and it was only for 14 days, we knew there was an ending. We were safe. I would look out the window and everything was white. I spent a lot of time watching my neighbour clear his snow. I marveled at how strong he was, even though he was an older man. Everything is always so clean outside their house.” At first they spent the days sleeping and eating, adjusting to the new time zone and catching up on lost meals. And they had video chats with Iftikar. Before they arrived, I had labeled a lot of objects around the house. With Iftikar’s help, they practiced pronouncing these words and there is now Arabic beside the English. Binders of alphabet pages and vocabulary were left for each person and a bookshelf of children’s books. They rested, planned for the future, and the boys shoveled snow. Manar and Khodor learned how to use the appliances. The first night they were awake they heard a foreign sound. At first, they didn’t remember where they were and thought the war had found them again. But a call to Iftikar revealed that everything was fine, it was just the train a block away.
Then, after five negative COVID-19 tests and two weeks, quarantine was over!
“Welcome to Canada”
I asked them what life has been like since they’ve been out of quarantine. Manar said
that she is very happy and a little nervous because of the language. She’s excited to learn how to drive and is studying for her written knowledge test (Khodor already passed his). As a mom, she feels relief that her children are safe and knows that they will now have a good future if they work hard.
Khodor feels warm inside, food once more tastes good and he feels like a human again. He was stunned that a committee member’s 93-year-old mother came by their house just to say, ‘Welcome to Canada.’ “A couple in their 80s [Barb & John], came to the lake where we were skating just to spend time with us! Life is busy with school and lots of studying. I’m excited to learn English and I’m happy. I started volunteering at MCC and I like the work.”
Mohammad is no longer worried about everything. He likes learning English and is
excited to get a job as soon as he can. At school or out and about in Portage, he feels comfortable.
Yousef remembers, “As soon as I got on the first plane [in Beirut] I felt different. It was like a deep breath.” He has many goals that he wants to achieve. He likes learning English, can’t wait to learn how to drive, and maybe someday will become a mechanic. He feels safe here and at school.
Abed Al Raouf loves the snow, loves skating on the lake, and sliding. He enjoys school and says he has nice friends in his class.
As the Co-Sponsor of the Berro Family Sponsorship, I am so grateful for the opportunity to do this work with the other volunteers, for whom I am very thankful. Yes, it is a lot more work than I had originally signed up for, but I happily do it, for my “sister” Iftikar, for the new family, for Auna, and selfishly, for me. Seeing the whole extended family’s happiness has become a salve for the gaping wound that is the pandemic. Watching someone slide down a hill covered in snow for the first time with a massive smile on their face or laughing as they try ice skating for the first time is good for one’s mental health. I remember back to when Iftikar’s family first arrived and how they learned the language and I see the same thing happening again. It’s so fun watching people master a word or a phrase and I can almost see the new pathways forming in their brains as they struggle to find the words. I know the next time I visit, whatever they were struggling with will have been mastered and we’ll be on to the next challenge.
From Iftikar I have learned the meaning of the words resilience, kindness, and generosity. She is one of the strongest people I know. Whenever I feel like I can’t do something or I want to give up, I remember everything Iftikar’s accomplished in the short five years that she has been here, and I mentally buck myself up and get on with it.
At the end of my “interview” with the family, after our bellies were full of the delicious molokhia Manar had made because she knows it is one of my favourites, I asked them: if you only had one word to describe your journey what would it be? After glancing at each other, they agreed the word would be: shukran. Thank you. And to them I say right back, shukran. Thank you for taking the risk to come to a land you had not even heard of to start a new life. And thank you for taking me into your hearts. I could not have asked for a better chosen family.
—By Sheri Blaylock, Co-Sponsor of the Berro Family Sponsorship, with translations by Iftikar Al Houlani