Syrian refugees embrace new ‘mother country’

July 14, 2016

By Matthew Hoekstra – Peace Arch News |

Bilal Masalmeh opens a side door to an apartment building behind Semiahmoo Shopping Centre.

Gesturing to a reporter and translator, he heads down a hallway and into his modest two-bedroom apartment.

It’s dark inside – the lights are out and curtains drawn – but lively, as his three children climb living room couches with two friends.

Masalmeh is wearing a Vancouver Canucks T-shirt, and although he can’t speak English, he gives a thumbs up when someone says “Canada.”

Just two years ago Masalmeh and his family were in a much different place, caught in a war zone in his home country of Syria. Now they’re refugees, living in South Surrey and ready for a fresh start.

“Canada for me now is my mother,” Masalmeh, 37, says through an Arabic interpreter.

“I won’t leave it. Even if the war finished in Syria, I won’t go back.”

Forced out

For Masalmeh and his family, life in Syria was good before the war. They lived in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria just 13 kilometres from the border of Jordan.

He had a clerical job with the government. It was safe, and they were happy.

But in 2011 angry protests erupted in Daraa after the arrests of at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school.

Demonstrations were met with violence from security forces, but anti-government protests nonetheless continued across Syria. A great civil uprising had begun – one that would lead to the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The conflict in Syria has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, according to the Canadian government, which has resettled 28,755 Syrian refugees since last fall.

According to government figures, nearly 4.6 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Thousands more have fled to Europe.

Efforts to bring some of those refugees to Canada have been aided by community and faith groups, which have sought to privately sponsor refugees to add to Canada’s commitment of sponsoring 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Masalmeh and his family of five got their tickets to Canada after applying through the United Nations. They were living in Jordan – their home for two years after fleeing violence in Syria.

“Life was very, very tough,” he said Tuesday afternoon through interpreter Youssef Khattab. “We couldn’t stand to stay in the camps. Life was miserable.”

The family left the refugee camps behind to find their own home in Jordan. Aid came to them in the form of vouchers, which were a mixed blessing – shopkeepers would double prices for refugees.

Masalmeh tried working as a driver but refugees were forbidden to work, and police would catch up to him.

“The help we were getting from the United Nations while we were there, it was very little. It was not enough to make a living, that is why I took the risk and tried to do some jobs on the side to make a living.”

Once in Canada this spring, the family stayed one day in Toronto before officials moved them into the Sandman hotel in Richmond. They stayed there for a month, alongside 30 other Syrian refugee families.

On April 1, the family arrived at their new home – a ground-floor apartment in South Surrey.

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