Syrian family finds peace and hope in Vancouver
September 10, 2015
By Andrea Woo, Globe and Mail
Samer Aldhmad struggles to find the words to talk about the image that has galvanized the world’s attention on the long-building humanitarian crisis in his home country of Syria.
A father of five children under the age of 10, Mr. Aldhmad is acutely aware of the similarities between his family – recently settled in British Columbia – and that of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler whose image has become an emblem of the refugee crisis.
“It is too sad to see that,” he said through an interpreter in an interview in Vancouver on Thursday. “It wasn’t a journey, it wasn’t a trip. They were just trying to escape, to find a safer solution. People are fleeing from death, to death.”
As he spoke, two of his toddlers clung to him, their arms around his neck. His wife and other children stood by his side.
On Thursday, they were among a number of refugee and immigrant families – from Eritrea, Liberia, Iraq and elsewhere – invited to visit the East Vancouver construction site for a refugee and immigrant newcomers centre intended to help families like theirs when it opens next spring.
In Syria, Mr. Aldhmad and his family had no electricity, no potable water and no easy access to food. There were bombs going off “day and night,” said Mr. Aldhmad’s wife, Hanan Alawwad.
They fled the war-ravaged country four years ago, arriving at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon.
Ms. Alawwad described living conditions there as “horrible” and “terribly unsafe.” Shelter took the form of flimsy tarps that would blow away in thunderstorms. Half-buried electric cables were a constant danger. “A lot of people died because of that,” Ms. Alawwad said. The family could not afford to send their children to school there.
The family arrived in Metro Vancouver as government-assisted refugees in December. Mr. Aldhmad said much of their first four months in Canada were spent in hospital, where his son, Ayman, was treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The other children initially exhibited some signs of post-traumatic stress.
“Before, even if they hear an airplane coming, they get [terrified],” Mr. Aldhmad said. “But now they are more stable.”
The new $24.5-million Immigrant Services Society of B.C. Welcome House will accommodate up to 130 beds and help address the immediate needs of newcomers. This includes streamlined access to a health clinic, trauma counselling, banking, child minding and other settlement orientation services.
Chris Friesen, director of the society’s settlement services, called the building the first of its kind, saying it will be “a new international model for the integration of refugees in the world.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who also visited the site on Thursday, said he and other big city mayors in Canada are calling on the federal government to establish a permanent national baseline of 20,000 government-assisted refugees accepted annually by 2020.
Mr. Robertson said he will ask his council next week to support a motion saying as much. Earlier in the week, he convened at City Hall a forum on the Syrian refugee crisis that was attended by more than 400 people.
Majd Agha, a 22-year-old government-assisted refugee from Syria, said he is appreciative of all the Canadian government has done to help him. He arrived in B.C. in June, 2014, and is currently taking classes at Langara College.
“But I must say,” he said on Thursday, “As a Syrian, and as a future Canadian citizen … Canada can do more.”
The same day, U.S. President Barack Obama directed his administration to prepare to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016. Since 2013, Canada has resettled 2,500 Syrian refugees and has plans to accept another 8,800 by 2017.