Disabled refugees to Metro Vancouver spend hours sitting on floor, immobile

June 23, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

All day, almost every day, they pass the hours sitting on a white carpet on the laminate floor of a North Burnaby apartment, unable to move.

They are two sisters from Syria, Hoda and Maha Al-Sidawi, who are 24 and 23 respectively. Since about age 10, they have suffered from a neurological condition that makes their muscles extremely weak.

The fighting in their native Syria made it worse. It was terrifying, Maha said, to hear the bombs falling outside their home near Damascus, knowing she would not be able to flee without help.

“Because of the fear and the war, (they) started deteriorating more,” said their mother, Fayza Al-Sidawi, through a translator.

They decided to flee the escalating violence in March 2013. Family members pushed and pulled the two sisters through the desert sand in their wheelchairs for the better part of a day until a passing driver took pity on them. They crossed the border into Jordan sitting on a weapons cache on top of a car, Fayza recalled.

After three years shuffling between refugee camps and the houses of strangers in Jordan, the family was admitted to Canada as refugees. But not all the family.

Hoda and Maha’s older sister and her two children were considered by immigration officials to be a separate family and remain in a refugee camp in Jordan. Maha becomes visibly upset speaking about the hardships they face.

The Al-Sidawi family of six arrived in Vancouver in January and moved into their apartment in May. They had a safe place to call home, but with their arrival in Canada came a new set of challenges.

The apartment they were placed in is not accessible, which means it is almost impossible for the women to get into the bathroom. Because there is a bathtub, it is hard for their mother and older sister to give them showers, so this only happens once every two or three weeks. On one occasion they went to the house of a friend with a mobility impairment in order to shower.

Abbotsford-based occupational therapist Jeff Mah, who works with about a dozen Syrian refugee clients, says modifications can be made to most homes to make them accessible.

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