Syrian refugee starts new life in Vancouver

April 21, 2015

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

On paper, Majd Agha looks like a perfectly adjusted immigrant: Young, English-speaking, pursuing a university education, steering his own ship financially, eager to give back to his adopted country.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it isn’t hard to detect an undercurrent of anxiety.

“Sometimes I just can’t focus,” said the 22-year-old refugee from Syria, fidgeting with a business card. “I’m getting home, for example, 4 p.m., I know (in Syria) it’s like 2 a.m. or something. I hear on the news, on Facebook … some explosion happened near (my parents’) house. I keep calling and sometimes they don’t answer because they’re sleeping, but I don’t know they’re sleeping. And it’s kind of terrifying. It’s giving me anxiety all the time.”

Agha, who arrived in Vancouver last July, is one of the first Syrians to come to B.C. as part of Canada’s commitment to resettle 11,300 refugees from that country by the end of 2017.

Agha grew up in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where his parents and one of his sisters still live. But four years ago, when civil war broke out, it became clear he would have to leave if he wanted to pursue an education.

Even though Damascus has been spared some of the heaviest fighting, it was still far from safe, Agha explained. Bombs would explode with no warning. One destroyed Agha’s neighbour’s house, five metres from where his parents live. Whenever Agha left the house, his parents would call every few minutes. Arbitrary arrests by government security forces and kidnappings by armed groups were common, he said. Sometimes people would reappear again after a few months, and sometimes they would not.

Agha went first to Russia, a country it was relatively easy for him to enter because of its friendly ties with Syria. But the language barrier proved too great for him to integrate into society and continue his studies. It was a similar story in Turkey.

Agha’s goal was always to get to Europe. He and a group of five others travelled to Thailand in the hope of being able to enter Europe from there. But they were detained by Thai authorities, who wanted to deport them to Lebanon, the country from which they’d arrived.

In a moment of desperation, Agha phoned the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, in the hope of being officially declared refugees and resettled. But the Thai authorities would not allow the U.N. access to Phuket airport to interview the group.

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