The story of a Syrian refugee family
In the minds of many Canadians, the Syrian refugee crisis is a recent issue.
The driving force behind the world becoming aware of the wave of refugees flooding into Eastern Europe was the powerful image of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who had drowned and washed up onto a beach in Turkey in early September 2015.
But the issue started much earlier before this happened.
Since Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, things had gotten a lot worse for Syrians. The most recent rebellion that began in 2011 left roughly 11 million Syrians displaced, desperately seeking asylum in neighboring countries—many of whom have shut their borders—and Western countries. Accusations of chemical weapon use, mass murder and terror have been flung at Assad, and many of the refugees brave enough to tell their stories are confirming the horrors that are taking place in Syria.
“[In 2011] Assad’s regime started arresting young people my age,” said Majid Tahhouf in Arabic to our translator. Tahhouf, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee, arrived in Calgary with his wife and two children early this spring in March.
“I wasn’t able to provide for myself or for my family, we couldn’t go to work, we couldn’t go anywhere, if we went out they would arrest us. I had to stay home all the time. So I decided to leave.”
Tahhouf fled by himself to the closest bordering country, Lebanon. He arrived there as some of the earliest refugees were entering the country and got a job to pay for a small apartment. By the end of 2011 his wife, Yasmin Alhijazi, fled Syria to join him. She was afraid to make the trip to Lebanon because she feared being treated poorly in a new country since at the time she was only engaged to Tahhouf, with a baby on the way.
More and more Syrians fled from the murder, torture, and rape in their own country into Lebanon. Tahhouf had trouble finding work and soon he, his wife and their newborn son called Wadi Khaled– a refugee camp near the Syrian and Lebanese border– their home. They spent the winter of 2012 to 2013 living in a tent in Wadi Khaled. The number of people entering Lebanon increased dramatically in 2013, rising from around 130,000 people to one million by mid 2014 according to the UN Refugee Agency.
“There was a lot of mistreatment towards the Syrian people in Lebanon. From the Lebanese government and from the people,” said Tahhouf.
The UN didn’t have the proper resources to support the vast number of people streaming in. In late 2014 the UN appealed for $8.4 billion to provide help for 18 million Syrian people that were affected by the civil war, yet the UN wasn’t able to acquire even half of that amount.
Tahhouf has lost a lot of his friends and family over the past couple of years due to the conflict. Our translator tried to express the pain Tahhouf still feels. Living in the refugee camp he remembered seeing children sleeping in the cold without anything to keep them warm and without anything for them to eat. They struggled to live in tents, which were barely enough shelter in the cold winters, and would often blow away or catch on fire in the hot summers.
“No matter how much I'm going to tell you about the suffering over there. It's very bad, I’m not going to be able to describe how painful it is to be in the refugee camps,” said Tahhouf.
In 2014 Tahhouf and Alhijazi were expecting their second child. Tahhouf had gotten very sick from a tumor in his neck, creating a dire situation for the couple. Cancer had spread from his throat to his nose and he couldn’t pay to get proper treatment. There weren’t enough resources for the many sick people inside the refugee camps who were in desperate need of medical attention. The UN was able to cover 75 per cent of the expenses for a surgery to remove his tumor, which still left him with a $1000 medical bill. As he became sicker, his wife delivered their daughter in Tripoli, but with no help to get the medication he needed to treat the cancer and no money to support his growing family, he again needed a way out of the country.
The UN asked the family if they would consider migrating and suggested Canada.
“They put us in the Canadian embassy,” said Tahhouf. “The Canadian embassy arranged for the travel, they were very kind and very helpful.”
But it had taken a year for the Canadian embassy to arrange everything needed for his family to be able to move out of Lebanon. It was a very long year of waiting, going from interview to interview with the UN and the Canadian embassy and still no guarantee of being able to afford his next chemo treatment.On March 29, 2015 they left Lebanon to Germany and from there they flew to Calgary. In Calgary they were put in another camp with Syrian and Iraqi families. He suffered again in the camp in Calgary because of his need for cancer treatment and his specific dietary needs. But soon they were given a chance to choose a house where they could live as a family.
“At least when I took this house I felt so comfortable. I had a place to sleep and to look after myself and my family. The government helped me big time. And all the support was coming,” said Tahhouf.
Our translator, Sam Nammoura, first met Tahhouf and his family in the spring of 2015 when they arrived. Nammoura helped him settle into Calgary and is dedicated to doing as much as he can and being the voice for people like Tahhouf here in Calgary.
Nammoura has seen millions of his countrymen and women fleeing injustice, a life of fear and the threat of death. And he sees a million opportunities to help. He fled Syria himself, back in 1992 under tumultuous circumstances. He was thrilled to settle in Canada in 1997 and has been here ever since.
Nammoura got involved helping refugees shortly after the image of the Syrian boy’s body on the Turkish beach circulated through the media. Although he hasn’t been involved for a long time, Nammoura has already helped three Syrian refugee families get settled in their new homes. He helps refugee families in a wide variety of ways.
“What I do is, I would say, everything that they need. Give them a ride, to translate or interpret something for them, buy them things if they need—not from my own pocket, from the people—if they need anything,” Nammoura said. “A lot of them don’t even know how to shop. So you have to take them to the shop, how to manage, how to run the place...whatever the transition is the first month or two or three until they feel like they can move on on their own.”Nammoura is just one among many trying to help, and the problem is bigger than just one person, he said.
“I could not understand why the whole world is watching. Why all of a sudden Syria is not important? Why is a dictator killing hundreds of thousands?" Nammoura said that he realizes that there are a lot of reasons that people might not be paying attention, but he can't understand the lack of outrage he sees when the evidence of the horror facing the Syrian people is all over the internet.
"And now, when you see millions of refugees feeling, reaching the shores of Europe and people start to go ‘hold on, what’s going on there?’ It's been going on for four and a half-years," he said.
“Once I read, killing one person is a crime, but killing a million is statistics. And that’s what happened... Over time it’s ‘oh yeah, so, 150 dead today, 200 today, 350 today.’ It’s just numbers, right?”
This piece is part of a larger multimedia project examining the Syrian refugee crisis. Check it out here: http://syriarefugeeprojec.wix.com/flightfromfear
Thumbnail photo by Tyler Klinkhammer.
- By Masha Scheele and Tyler Klinkhammer