Separated by war, families reunite with community support

The sentiments of Remembrance Day linger in the air like wood smoke on a quiet fall day. Canadian veterans served with valour in WW1 and WW2, and many other wars since. Today, Canadians are still protecting innocent people from war and persecution, many of them ordinary civilians toiling right here in community. In the past five years, local residents have helped three families seeking refuge from war and violence to settle into lives of peace and safety here on the West Coast.

Now, word has just been received that the third family will be arriving in our community in mid December — to reunite with family from whom they were separated when the war broke out in Syria. “We got the green light last Friday from Ottawa,” says Terry Roberts.

It’s a labour of love says Roberts, co-chair along with John Smith, of the refugee sponsorship group assisting this third family. Roberts is an experienced hand at these matters. He chaired the Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group that helped to resettle the second family, a Syrian family of five, in Parksville in December 2017.

That family, dad Bader Al Faraj, mom Samar Al Hbayo and their three children ages 10, 5 and 2, arrived at Nanaimo airport just before Christmas 2017, speaking no English and experiencing snow for the first time. Since then, this young couple has worked hard — with unstinting help from local residents — to settle their children into school, learn English, obtain their driver’s licenses, find jobs, and cope with the vast differences between their former lives and life in Canada.

The Al Faraj family’s escape from war has been a success story, but a shadow loomed over them. The urgent need to flee meant that Bader and Samar were separated from their extended families, some of whom were in increasing danger as the war escalated. Samar, a friendly woman with a ready smile, and an impish sense of humour, kept in contact with the strands of her now far-flung family. Hearing about the dire situation that her brother and his family found themselves in, as previously reported, Samar was determined to bring them to Canada.

Hesham and Noor with their children, son Mustafa and daughter Fatima.

Soon, after ten long, harrowing years apart, Samar will be reunited with her brother Hesham, his wife Noor and their two young children.

It took “community” to make this happen

When the war in Syria exploded across our screens here in the West, many local residents came forward to ask what they could do to help the many victims of the war, often young families. Several hundred people attended a meeting at the Civic Centre in Qualicum Beach. It was decided then that the community would sponsor one or more refugee families to relocate to the safety of Canada.

By then, many Syrian families had made their way to neighbouring countries. Bader and Samar had fled with their children to Lebanon. In the jargon of immigration bureaucrats, they were “travel-ready,” having already applied to immigrate, and passed all of their medical and security screenings. The federal government had put a call out for citizens to form sponsorship groups to aid in this major resettlement effort. All that Bader and Samar’s family needed now was a group of community members to sponsor and guide them through their first year in Canada. Qualicum Beach and surrounding communities came through for them.

A committee was quickly formed and arranged for the Anglican Church of Canada, an accredited refugee sponsorship organization, to act as the oficial refugee settlement agent with the federal government.

The current priority is to find a home for Hesham’s family to rent. The HRSG’s budget is $1,800 per month. Anyone who may know of a house, a townhouse or an apartment with 2 or 3 bedrooms can contact Terry Roberts at 250.240.4330.

St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Qualicum Beach stepped up to act as the local hub, hosting fund-raising dinners and processing donations. Reverend Elizabeth Northcott describes St. Mark’s as an “enabling parish.” She says most of the work is done by the local refugee sponsorship committee(s), under the direction of the Vancouver Island Anglican Diocese.

It took six months for the Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group to prepare for the arrival of the family. Most of the initial work involved finding and setting up a home, and fund-raising.

This time was different. Samar’s brother Hesham and his family were still in Syria when Samar asked the community here for help to bring them to Canada. The Hesham Refugee Sponsorship Group (HRSG) had their first meeting in January 2019.

Hesham’s family was not “travel-ready.” This time, before Hesham and his family could even apply to come to Canada, they had to travel — through a war zone — to the border, enter Turkey and then obtain residency status there. “It took three tries to get into Turkey, and many thousands of dollars,” says Terry Roberts “to pay for… assistance, which Hesham still owes to his family back in Syria.”

The HRSG had their work cut out for them helping the family obtain the necessary approvals from the United Nations and from the government of Canada. Once in Turkey, at first the family worried they would be deported back to the war in Syria because they didn’t have temporary residency papers. It was an enormous relief for Hesham and Noor the day they obtained legal status to remain in Turkey. Many months more were spent navigating the myriad steps that would lead to the day they were approved to come to Canada. Health and security clearance followed, and the family looked forward with hope.

The federal government had provided some financial support for the first two families under the “blended” refugee assistance program, but this third sponsorship effort is a “private” sponsorship. A private sponsorship group must raise enough money on their own to support a refugee family for their first year in Canada. “Few of us had much experience fundraising,” says Roberts. “It was a steep learning curve.”

When COVID struck earlier this year, it derailed the HRSG’s planned fundraising events. Still, with the generous support of local residents, the group raised the $40,000 stipulated by the federal government. Terry Roberts says that many local seniors generously donated their $300 federal COVID supplement received in July, and “that alone brought in over $10,000.”

As the coronavirus slammed countries around the world, the immigration process slowed, and then stopped. Fortunately for Hesham, Noor and the children, Turkey was not as hard hit by the coronavirus as many European countries were. Once again though, the family had to wait, not knowing when or even if they might ever reunite with Samar and her family in Canada.  

Hesham with his children Mustafa and Fatima.

Then in early October, Canada announced it was once again allowing entry of refugee families that had already been approved. “Hesham knew before we did,” jokes Roberts. “He befriended a man in a line-up at the Canadian consolate in Ankara. The man told Hesham that he had just learned that his family would be heading to a small town in Alberta.” Roberts says Hesham told Samar about this, and asked why his family hadn’t received approval too. Word travelled fast and “within two days Hesham and his family were cleared to travel,” says Roberts. Actually, the HRSG had been informed that the family might be coming to Canada soon, and began to prepare a quarantine plan for the family.

The current priority is to find a home for Hesham’s family to rent. The HRSG’s budget is $1,800 per month. Anyone who may know of a house, a townhouse or an apartment with 2 or 3 bedrooms can contact Terry Roberts at 250.240.4330.

The first family that our community sponsored came not from Syria, but from a refugee camp in Thailand where they had spent 20 years after fleeing persecution in Burma (now Myanmar). The Johdee family, their five children and grandmother, arrived in July 2016. Carol Doering, chair of that first refugee sponsorship group said, “Our community opened their hearts and wallets to the family before they even arrived and the hours of time that were volunteered to help the family get settled is truly humbling. They had a huge task ahead of them when they arrived but, as a community working together, we’ve helped them to accomplish so very much. It’s hard to believe they have been living here for more than 4 years already! Whenever I see them out and about it makes me smile to see them as part of our community.”