People and Places

“I was crying frantically. I was crazy — and I didn’t stop until I had my children in my arms.” A Syrian family’s harrowing journey to Ottawa

Hope reveals itself in the strangest of ways. For one Syrian family, it appeared inside a Best Buy store, embodied in a blue-and-black button pinned to the coat of a woman searching for a deal on a washer and dryer.

It was December 2015: the Liberals had won the federal election and pledged to bring more than 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. In Ottawa, hundreds of people — moved by the image of a little boy washed ashore on a beach — were mobilizing to help.

Alaa Swar was doing her part by picking up an extra shift that evening at Best Buy in order to earn money to support relatives overseas who had fled Syria and were living in Lebanon. When the University of Ottawa student laid eyes on a button emblazoned with the words Refugee 613, she asked a simple question that would change the destiny of her family.

“I asked if she was with Refugee 613, and then I asked if she could help me. I was desperate,” recalls Alaa. Desperate because she and her mother, Rim Joumaa, were buckling under the weight of expectations. Desperate because her uncle, Feras Joumaa, was facing an increasingly precarious situation overseas and she had no means of getting him out. And desperate because her calls and emails to Refugee 613 had gone unanswered.

For years, Feras and his wife, Fayzeh Shahrour, had lived in Al-Mleiha, a countryside suburb of Damascus dotted with pockets of woodland separating the city from the desert. The Syrian Arab News Agency says it was once a popular spot for picnics. Fayzeh calls it a “beautiful oasis.”

But a Google search for recent images doesn’t turn up idyllic scenes. Instead, it shows cratered buildings and deserted streets. That’s because Al-Mleiha was also a rebel stronghold and one of the areas most intensely bombed by government forces.

Through a translator, Feras and Fayzeh explain that in 2013, the sound of shelling grew louder, the smell of chemical attacks became constant. Then one night, the war that had previously lingered on the periphery of their lives announced itself at their doorstep with a blast.

The rocket-propelled grenade hit the second floor of their apartment building, shattering the window beside the bed where the couple’s then nine-year-old son Noor was sleeping. Fayzeh, who was next door visiting a friend at the time, remembers running through the rubble in her pyjamas, screaming the names of her children and husband as other bombs fell.

“I was crying frantically. I was crazy — and I didn’t stop until I had my children in my arms.” Fayzeh recalls picking out shards of glass from Noor’s hair as he clung to her. He didn’t cry, just bit his lip. His six-year-old sister Souad trembled for hours.

For the next 18 months, the Joumaas lived as transients. They sought safety in the apartments of relatives and friends, but the war chased them from home to home. Each place of refuge was targeted by snipers or shelled, forcing the family into the streets. Feras abandoned his job as a delivery driver after rebels commandeered his truck. Fearing government soldiers would accuse him of siding with terrorists and kill him, the family fled to Lebanon.

While it was hard to leave family and friends behind, many were leaving Syria: two of Feras’ sisters, Rama and Lamis, had already also escaped to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Rim — the eldest sister — was the only family member living outside Syria and thus the only person her brothers and sisters could turn to. The previous year, Rim had borrowed cash from family and friends to help two other brothers and a sister escape to Europe. She paid $2,500 Euros per person for smugglers to get them to Turkey — in the back of a truck used to transport sheep — and across the Mediterranean Sea in a crowded orange raft.

But by Christmas 2015, Rim — a single mom of three kids — was running out of resources. She was already using her teenage son’s monthly child benefit cheque to help pay for a one-room apartment in Lebanon. Fifteen people — the families of Feras, Rama, and Lamis — squeezed into that apartment. Because they were considered illegal residents in Lebanon, the adults couldn’t legally work, so the older children found jobs. Noor became his family’s breadwinner by selling vegetables from dawn to dusk. One day, while he was crossing a busy street in Beirut, a motorcycle crashed into him, injuring his shoulder. He was taken to the hospital but released shortly after because his family could not afford the medical bills.

Meanwhile, Feras, trapped between boredom and futility, could only place repeated calls to his sister Rim, in Ottawa, to plead for more help — for a way out.

Without good news to give, Alaa says, her mother started to ignore their calls as a means of coping.

“Every time they called, they would need something. They would ask my mom to get them out, but she couldn’t do anything. She was so stressed,” Alaa says.

Rim approached a bank for a loan but couldn’t get approved for a line of credit large enough to cover the fees needed to sponsor a family of four to Canada. To help, Alaa planned to divert her student loans — and took extra shifts at Best Buy.

This was the burden she was shouldering when Alaa’s eyes fixated on the woman’s button. That woman, it turned out, was an immigration lawyer. She listened to Alaa’s story. She didn’t end up buying an appliance, but she took down Alaa’s cellphone number. The lawyer knew of several groups searching for refugees to sponsor.

Within a few months, all three of Rim’s siblings were matched to private sponsorship groups in Ottawa.

Group effort: Members of the sponsorship group DOORS to Canada shown with the Joumaa family. From left: Eric Bernier, Thomas Bernier, Amanda Potts, Andre Bernier, Feras Joumaa, Fayzeh Shahrour, Katherine Addleman, Souad Joumaa, Teena Bedard, Noor Joumaa, and Martina Dobson. Photo: Remi Theriault
Group effort: Members of the sponsorship group DOORS to Canada shown with the Joumaa family. From left: Eric Bernier, Thomas Bernier, Amanda Potts, Andre Bernier, Feras Joumaa, Fayzeh Shahrour, Katherine Addleman, Souad Joumaa, Teena Bedard, Noor Joumaa, and Martina Dobson. Photo: Remi Theriault

One of those groups is DOORS (Downtown Ottawa Organization for Refugee Settlement) to Canada, a neighbourhood network of 15 families in Centretown that was formed as parents walked their children to the bus stop.

Amanda Potts marvels at how quickly the group came together. She mentioned the idea of sponsorship to another Elgin Street Public School parent; someone else overheard and asked to join. Emails went out, invitations to join were sent. Potts says some sponsors gave money, others offered time, but all of them wanted to help a family with children.

“We wanted our children to understand how privileged they are and how to do good in the world,” Potts says.

That opportunity came nearly one year after that fortuitous encounter at the Best Buy. On November 22, 2016, a group of 20 people with DOORS, including parents and children, greeted Feras, Fayzeh, Noor, and Souad at the Ottawa International Airport. When Feras saw the group waiting at the bottom of the escalators — bearing welcome signs and extra winter coats — he began to cry.

“I was happy. I think, I love Canada,” recalls Feras.

The Joumaa family: Souad, Feras, Fayzeh, and Noor. Photo: Remi Theriault
The Joumaa family: (left) Souad, Feras, Fayzeh, and Noor. Photo: Remi Theriault

Since moving to Ottawa, the family has skated at city hall, kayaked across Dow’s Lake, and toured Parliament Hill. They’ve embraced their new home and its customs. They hung a Canadian flag on their screen door and asked their sponsors for a Christmas tree to decorate.

But their journey hasn’t been without setbacks. Feras has found it challenging to learn English. In Syria, he worked as a truck driver, delivering pastries while using his charm to make new sales. Now he is frustrated that his limited English not only impedes his ability to earn a living but also smothers his personality, denying him the ability to express himself fully.

Although Fayzeh is flourishing in her ESL classes, some frustrations can’t be fixed in the classroom. While her husband has been reunited with his family, hers is still broken. She longs for her parents and siblings, who live in Turkey. Her sponsors, concerned that she is depressed, constantly reach out through visits and texts.

“They’re so nice,” says Fayzeh with a wide smile. “I wish I could repay their kindness.”

This kindness has given the Joumaa family a stability they have not experienced in years. Noor is rediscovering a lost childhood, taking swimming lessons and playing soccer while adjusting to his first year of high school. His sister Souad, now in Grade 6, has proven herself a natural on ice skates and is making friends.

Meanwhile, Feras has found a job at a restaurant, baking meat and cheese pies. Sometimes he gets to take customer orders — in English. It’s a minimum-wage job, but Feras hopes it will lead to better things.

“I want a bright future for my children. Maybe they will become an engineer. Or a doctor. Maybe a dentist.” These are his Canadian dreams. They will be difficult to realize, but the seeds have been planted and the roots are taking hold.