One family’s journey from Syria to Surrey

December 1, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

The Sua’Ifan family are among 2,700 Syrian refugees who started their lives over in B.C. in the past year. Tara Carman and Mark Yuen have documented their journey.

The hotel is hot and crowded. It smells of too many people crammed into too little space.

Bassam Sua’Ifan waits at the door, smiles and reaches out to shake the hand of a reporter of the opposite sex, unusual for a Syrian man. He is about five foot five and wears grey slacks and a blue-checkered dress shirt. He and his wife, Yousra Al Qablawi, escort guests into the hotel room and insist they sit down. Their teenage daughters bring bananas on plates and offer something to drink. The guests politely decline, but this is not acceptable. Large glasses of sugary juice appear.

It is a grey February day and the hotel is in a particularly grey corner of north Surrey.

The room is full of children. Some belong to Bassam and Yousra (they have seven), and others have wandered in from other hotel rooms. They do not yell or scream or run around, but cling hesitantly to parents or furniture. Four-year-old Mohammad Nour, Bassam and Yousra’s son, shies away from a photographer’s camera. He is afraid it conceals a weapon, his older sisters explain through a translator.

The family, who arrived in Vancouver on Jan. 7, 2016, has been in this hotel for just over a month. They are split between two rooms because there are so many of them. The kids need to be able to go out, Bassam explains. They have nothing to do and are frustrated at being cooped up.

There are no parks or playgrounds nearby where they can blow off steam. Their outings are mostly to Surrey Memorial Hospital, where the youngest member of the family is currently in treatment.

Baby Karam, three months old, was born premature in Jordan just two months before the family’s departure. The trip to Canada was hard on him and he was hospitalized for a lung infection, first at B.C. Children’s, then at Surrey Memorial. His mother, Yousra, is by his bedside almost constantly.

Bassam is a smoker, like many of his countrymen. He is trying to quit so he doesn’t make the baby’s condition worse, so is coping with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal in addition to the stresses of being in a new and foreign place. If he quits, many others will follow his example, he says.

Daily trips to the hospital provide a much-needed change of scenery for the Sua’Ifan children, who are going stir crazy in the hotel.

“It’s so boring,” says 15-year-old Mariana, the family’s oldest child, a petite teen with a soft, high voice and a shy smile.

They want nothing more than to go to their new home, wherever that may be.

War on their doorstep

The last place the family called home was Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria about 15 kilometres from the Jordanian border. They lived “very well”, says Bassam, who worked as a fruit and vegetable merchant. Their close-knit extended family helped care for the children and tend a large garden where they grew much of their own food.

They were in the process of building a larger house to accommodate their rapidly growing family when the Syrian civil war broke out on their doorstep in 2012. Bombings and assassinations became regular occurrences. Death, which was relatively rare when Bassam was growing up, became commonplace.

Children were becoming accustomed to the sight of dead bodies, Bassam explains, which made him concerned for the mental wellbeing of his own children.

“A child, if he is seeing all of that, he will for sure not be normal,” he says through a translator. “We were obliged to move, to run away from this situation. It was very, very dangerous. We thought it was going to be, like, one month, two months and we will return.”

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