Community & Current Events

How Canadians are making a difference in the Syrian refugee crisis

By: Robin Stevenson

Illustration by Andrew Bannecker Author: Canadian Living Credits: Illustration by Andrew Bannecker

Community & Current Events

How Canadians are making a difference in the Syrian refugee crisis

By: Robin Stevenson
Tareq Hadhad was anxious but excited as he boarded a plane for the longest flight of his life. Bringing nothing but a plastic bag of clothes and small personal items, the 23-year-old Syrian joined dozens of other refugees travelling from Beirut to Toronto in search of safety and security. His parents, Issameddine and Shahnaz, and his younger siblings, Batoul, Ahmed and Taghrid, were to follow, but they weren't sure when. Upon arrival in Toronto, Tareq learned he would fly to Halifax, where his sponsors would meet him. "What is Halifax?" Tareq recalls asking before he used a phone to Google it.

Escaping conflict
Tareq's story is a familiar one in a country with a long tradition of welcoming newcomers from all over the world. In the past decade, more than 100,000 refugees have arrived in Canada. And like so many of those before him, Tareq saw his resettlement as an opportunity to build a better life, far from the horrors of war.

Flashback to 2013, when Tareq and his family huddled together in the basement of their apartment building as bombs rained down on their Damascus suburb—just one of many attacks during Syria's ongoing civil war. Believing death was imminent, Tareq's father told him, "We imagine you as a great doctor. You should remember the most beautiful moments we have lived together. We love you and your siblings." The Hadhads survived the siege, but another close call a few months later prompted them to flee Syria.

For the next two years, the family lived in neighbouring Lebanon, spending the first few months in refugee camps. "It was like counting down to death," Tareq says of the experience that was marked by a lack of food and clean water and worsened by cold weather and disease outbreaks.

In early 2014, the family moved into an overcrowded rental apartment. Desperate to finish his medical exams at the University of Damascus, Tareq continued to cross the border until it became too dangerous. The university had no email communication, so he took his chances one last time to drive in for his transcripts, wondering if that would be the last time he set foot in his homeland.

Arriving to a new life
When Tareq finally arrived at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Dec. 19, 2015, he was greeted by a dozen members of his sponsorship group, Syria-Antigonish Families Embrace (SAFE). He realized he had a new home. "They were holding flowers and a sign in Arabic and English," says Tareq. "That moment touched my heart."

It was a moment the members of SAFE had been waiting for since the group formed last May, when 18 people came together with the goal of raising $27,000 to bring a Syrian family of five to Antigonish, a town about 160 kilometres northeast of Halifax. Donations came in slow and steady until a heartbreaking September event changed everything. The image of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, a toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while his family fled Syria, sparked international outcry over the crisis that had created more than 4.7 million United Nations-registered Syrian refugees. Within a few days of the drowning, SAFE had grown to almost 100 members and had collected thousands of dollars in donations. "The existence of SAFE gave the community a place to channel their desire to make a difference," says cofounder Tanya Felix.

It didn't stop there. Countless organizations, from the Girl Guides to schools to faith groups, held fundraisers, while many individuals donated clothes, furnishings and more. Antigonish's St. Francis Xavier University began a $100,000 fundraising campaign, Stfx for SAFE, in support of future sponsorships. In five short months, SAFE surpassed its fundraising goal by $50,000, enough to welcome not only the Hadhads but also three other families. Says Felix: "There is community spirit and pride behind this initiative."

Meanwhile in Hamilton
That same spirit is alive in Hamilton, where Trieu Nguyen was also moved by the photo of the toddler. For the father of two, however, the disturbing image had a deeper significance: Trieu was the same age as Alan when his own parents fled Vietnam to escape a communist regime. "They, too, made choices for their children," he says.

His parents had two options: continue living a life laced with fear and suspicion at the hands of Vietnam's Communist government or take their chances on the South China Sea. So, in March 1981, the couple headed to the coast with their three children and crowded into a boat with 50 others, all hoping to reach Singapore. Shortly after departing, Trieu's brother fell ill, and the vessel ran out of gas. The Nguyens feared they'd drown or be attacked by pirates. After spending five days adrift, they were rescued by a German merchant ship and sent to a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Five months later, a sponsorship by Hamilton's Ryerson United Church brought the Nguyens to Canada. The family was among the more than 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who, between 1979 and 1981, were flown to safety by the Canadian government's Refugee Task Force and individual sponsors.

Knowing that his life in Canada is the result of his parents' courage, as well as the generosity of strangers, Trieu and his wife, Brooke Biggs, wanted to help another refugee family in need. The couple joined a local group, partnered with St. James Anglican Church, to sponsor a Syrian family with 11 children, aged two to 20, who are now settling into life in Hamilton, just a few blocks from where the Nguyens once lived. "It is a big responsibility, both socially and financially," says Trieu of the resettlement, which cost roughly $64,000. "But it's been an incredible experience."

A happy reunion
That outreach is even more paramount when a refugee leaves family behind. For Tareq, being away from his parents and siblings during the first two weeks in Canada was difficult. When the Hadhad family was finally reunited at the airport, Tareq hugged each sibling, then his father, saving the last—and longest—hug for his mother.

Despite the strangeness of living in a new country, Tareq says his parents and siblings have expressed how happy they are. "They have told me, ‘Home is where you find safety and can feel yourself free.'" So far, language is the most significant barrier for the family (Tareq is the only one who speaks English). Arriving during a snowy East Coast winter was also a challenge—but the kids embraced it, sledding, snowshoeing and attending local hockey games with their new neighbours.

The prospect of more Syrian families making Antigonish home (SAFE is in the process of sponsoring a fourth family, and another group, Tri-HEART, welcomed a family of six earlier this year) is also a reminder of how far sponsorship efforts, and the families, have come. "Immigrants are part of the Canadian story," says Felix. "The stories from these families' journeys and arrivals in Canada will become part of the fabric and history of our country."

Tareq and his family are eager to become part of that fabric. His siblings are in school, and his parents, who owned a chocolate factory in Damascus, dream of opening a sweets shop. The greatest joy of being in the town, says Tareq, has been the knowledge that Canadians have the passion to help Syrian refugees. "Everyone here wants to play a part. There is kindness." Now enrolled in a class to improve his English, Tareq hopes to attend university to complete his medical degree. "I am here to study, work and contribute to building the country that opened its arms to receive us."

Read up on 4 ways that you can help Syrian refugees.

This story was originally part of "Welcome Home" in the May 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
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How Canadians are making a difference in the Syrian refugee crisis

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