Families. It’s almost all we talk about these days. Missing their hugs and having meals together, making do with social media and online video chats and, some, mourning. Everyone urges family members to stay safe, to stay healthy, to stay in touch. People long to visit with loved ones again. In life before COVID-19, few imagined the widespread effect of such a pandemic.
Back in March 2011, few would have imagined the utter destruction of Syria, and the terrible toll it has taken, and is still taking, in lives and on families.
While we strive to keep the virus from resurging as we “open up” our economy, local residents are working hard to help reunite a family displaced and scattered by war. In addition to these dedicated volunteers, some local seniors have pledged to donate their federal OAS emergency COVID-19 supplement coming in early July to help re-unite this Syrian family.
Qualicum Beach has already demonstrated its compassion, generosity and ability to provide a safe haven for families fleeing war and persecution.
As conditions in Syria rapidly and unexpectedly destabilized, Bader Al Faraj and his wife Samar Hbayo fled to neighbouring Lebanon where they lived for several years under challenging circumstances. The children were often ill. Most of the money Bader was able to earn that didn’t go to food was used to pay doctor bills.
Thanks to the unstinting efforts of the Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group (QRSG), the family arrived on Vancouver Island just before Christmas 2017. The family was graciously welcomed into their new home by the citizens of Parksville, where they settled right in. Bader soon got his drivers license and it wasn’t long after that he began working in Qualicum Beach. Meanwhile, Samar enrolled in English language (ESL) classes which she attended while their three young children were in school.
Samar’s biggest job when she first arrived was to help her family, now safe from war, navigate the many unfamiliar requirements of life in Canada. Soon though, Samar’s thoughts turned to her own siblings, scattered around and beyond Syria, also hoping to find a life without war.
When the war began, Samar’s brother Hesham Alhbeo owned his own transport trucking business with which he supported his wife Noor and their two young children. Life quickly turned grim, then surreal. First, their home was bombed. Then ISIS took Hesham’s transport truck and threw him in jail where he was tortured. Fearing he would be killed, his family and friends raised money to get him out of jail. It worked. Hesham was freed, but he and Noor knew they had to leave Syria. They paid a series of drivers to take them and their children to the border region between Syria and Turkey. It was winter when they arrived in the makeshift camp. The family lived in a tent, burning their clothing and even their shoes to keep warm.
It was then, that Samar began to organize a local sponsorship group in collaboration with St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Qualicum Beach to bring Hesham, Noor and their young children to Vancouver Island.
Life in a refugee camp is precarious but Hesham and Noor are making headway. Canadian authorities advised the family that they first had to register as refugees at a government office in Turkey. It took three attempts, and hundreds of U.S. dollars before the family was successfully smuggled into Turkey. An exhausting trip by truck took the family to the Turkish city of Antalya.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping Syria and Turkey, even as the remaining Syrian citizens attempt to survive amidst the bombs and sanctions of superpowers and dictators that still rain down on them.
Safer, but still living under tenuous conditions, Hesham and Noor managed to secure the necessary residency papers from Turkey. John Smith, Chair of the Hesham Refugee Sponsorship 2020 group (HRSG) says, “the circumstance for refugees in Turkey has become worse because of the pandemic. The family struggles on a daily basis to find food and to remain safe and healthy.” Despite this, the family passed their medical screening tests, and has now been recognized by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada.
“The good news,” says Smith, “is we have recent assurances that although the process is on hold pending loosening of travel restrictions [due to COVID-19], it is otherwise proceeding as planned.”
Meanwhile, Samar is using WhatsApp to teach her brother and his family to speak English in anticipation of their reunification here on Vancouver Island.
John Smith says that the Hesham Refugee Sponsorship Group had been planning a number of fund-raising events to raise the remaining money needed for the Hesham’s family living expenses for the first year, but those plans had to be delayed because of COVID-19. As a result, HRSG is still just “$15,000 short of the funds required to support the family.”
Smith says, “If you are among the fortunate for whom this [COVID-19] crisis has meant savings rather than added expense and are considering donating your OAS supplement to a worthy cause…”
You can Donate to Hesham Fund here.
Or, send a cheque payable to “St. Mark’s Anglican Church” at St. Mark’s Church, 138 Hoylake Rd W., Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 1K3 (mark the bottom left corner or back of cheque “Hesham Fund”.
Note: Saturday, June 20, 2020 is World Refugee Day.