Mental illness, disabilities add to struggle for some Syrian families

March 13, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

When Canada committed to accepting 25,000 refugees from Syria, the majority were selected by the United Nations on the basis of vulnerability: the most desperate people who needed a permanent home immediately.

Some will learn English, find work and their children will find their footing in the school system. Others, however, may never learn English, may never work and face significant challenges stemming from physical or mental disabilities and trauma. Whether communities have the resources in place to support some of the world’s most vulnerable people remains an open question, even in Metro Vancouver.

One such family is about to move from the Surrey hotel where they have stayed since they arrived in Canada a month ago to a house.

The father, Mohamad el Rafaie, has been physically disabled since birth. His arms and hands did not fully develop. His wife, Shamia el Rafaie, is a full-time caregiver to their older daughter Heba, 7, who was born blind. They have one other daughter, Lema, who is 4.

Heba has found the move from Jordan, where the family lived for four years after fleeing the Syrian city of Daraa, particularly traumatic. She wants to be carried all the time, her father said through a translator, and cries often. When they leave the hotel, which is not often, the parents push the two girls in a double stroller.

As her father chats with a visitor, Heba dances around in circles, singing Arabic words that mean “If it’s God’s will.” At one point she dances toward the voice of a translator, an Egyptian-Canadian family friend, and allows the woman to hold her for the first time.

In Syria and Jordan, the family relied on the support of el Rafaie’s mother and other extended family, he explained, as he has never been able to work. The extended family is still in Jordan.

Asked how much rent he will pay for the house the family is about to move into, el Rafaie said he doesn’t know. A settlement worker from the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. is in charge of the arrangements and el Rafaie said he must take what he is offered. The family will receive about $1,400 a month from the federal government, half of which is designated as a shelter allowance.

One floor up, the el Ebrahim family faces a similar set of circumstances. The family matriarch, Amona Ali, is 104 years old. Her son, Hagy, 63, was a clerk at an electricity company in Syria and said through a translator that given his inability to speak English, it is unlikely he will be able to work in Canada. His wife, Shakha and daughter, Fatima, are full-time caregivers to not only Ali, but also two of the couple’s five children, both adults who are mentally ill and unable to care for themselves. Their other two children, both boys, are 17 and 14.

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