Amal Alkhalaf and her children (Dalya, 8; Ansam, 13; Ibrahim, 10) escaped ISIS-controlled territory in Syria in 2014
The journey of one Syrian mother, her three children—and the complete strangers who made it their mission to bring them to Canada.
By Michael Friscolanti, in Beirut, Lebanon and Peterborough, Ontario
The first martyr came by motorcycle, weaving through a concrete maze of narrow roads and low-rise apartments. His final destination—his supposed gateway to paradise—was a residential market district brimming with civilians. When the bike exploded, ripping through coffee shops and clothing racks, a second suicide bomber unleashed an encore.
Even before Islamic State claimed responsibility, the motive was obvious. The target—Bourj el-Barajneh, one of Beirut’s congested southern suburbs—is Hezbollah turf, a largely Shia district in Lebanon. Across the border in war-torn Syria, Hezbollah is fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces, battling mostly Sunni insurgents, ISIS included. The market massacre (47 dead) was yet another volley.
The very next night, Nov. 13, Islamic State terrorists struck again—in downtown Paris. If Canadians had even heard about the carnage in Beirut, it was quickly forgotten.
Three weeks later, a woman is standing in the same street market. A Sunni Muslim, she is wearing a checkered hijab, green and black, and holding tightly to the hand of her eight-year-old daughter. All around them, there is little evidence left of the damage. The charred debris that littered the intersection was promptly shovelled away, and a fresh coat of paint covers the cement facade that endured the brunt of the attacks. Afternoon shoppers criss-cross the road as if nothing happened here, walking underneath dangling webs of wires that zigzag from balcony to balcony.
“I have not been outside since the explosion,” the woman says, speaking Arabic. “If you didn’t call me to meet you, I wouldn’t have come outside. It is too scary.”
Her name is Amal Alkhalaf, and although she doesn’t realize it yet, that name alone means so much to so many. On the other side of the world—in Peterborough, Ont., a city that could not be further away from the armed checkpoints that surround Bourj el-Barajneh—a group of strangers has made it their mission to sponsor her family and bring them to Canada, despite never seeing her face or hearing her voice. All they know is her name, and that she and her three kids, living somewhere in Lebanon, are among the many millions of Syrian refugees who fled for their lives.
The people in Peterborough have no idea that this woman and her children, two girls and a boy, escaped ISIS territory 14 months ago, only to have Islamic State’s violence follow them to Lebanon. They don’t know that the kids have not been to school in nearly two years. “I worry about them constantly,” says Kristy Hiltz, a veterinarian who spearheaded the sponsorship group. “I really hope they know that somebody out there is already very attached to them.”
In countless ways, Syria’s humanitarian crisis has brought out the very best in Canadians, even before Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept to power on a campaign promise to welcome 25,000 refugees in record time. A single, sickening image—a three-year-old boy dead on a beach, when British Columbia could have been home—became a nationwide rallying cry. Hundreds of private sponsorship groups mobilized in a matter of days, each one determined to rescue the next Alan Kurdi.
This is the story of one of those groups—a collection of 14 everyday Canadians motivated by the same, simple goal as all the groups: to do what’s right. To do something.
This is a story about a Facebook post, and the wide cast of characters who answered the challenge. A story about teachers and scientists and a Jewish dance instructor who didn’t hesitate to donate time and money. A story about professors. A cop. A blues musician. An engineer. A decorated soldier. A Vietnamese boat person determined to pay forward the generosity that saved her own family.
This is a story about a city (population 79,000) that has a long, quiet history of welcoming refugees. A city where the newly elected MP was herself a refugee—but a city that also made global headlines after someone, post-Paris, firebombed its only mosque.
More than anything, though, this is a story about a woman with a name, a resilient but frightened single mother who has no idea her Canadian sponsors even exist—until this December afternoon, when Maclean’s tracks her down in Beirut’s notorious southern suburbs. Amal Alkhalaf only knows that she and her children have been accepted for resettlement, nothing more. She has certainly never heard of a place called Peterborough.
David McNab has a nickname for his wife of 23 years: the freight train of enthusiasm. When Kristy Hiltz puts her mind to something, in other words, don’t even think about standing in her tracks. The moniker fits Dave just as well. “We tend to look at things in terms of: ‘How can we help?’ ” he says. “Or at least we try to.”
Their own marriage is proof of the couple’s devotion to seeing things through. Dave met Kristy during a Jamaican vacation, and they embarked on a long-distance love when both returned to their homes (Kristy to Peterborough; Dave to his Ontario Provincial Police posting in Haileybury, five hours north). Although Const. McNab did secure a transfer to Bancroft (only 100 km from his fiancée), another 18 months would pass—including seven as husband and wife—before the couple lived under the same roof. Dave has been stationed in Peterborough ever since.
Ninety minutes northeast of Toronto, Peterborough is known as “the Electric City” because it was the first in Canada to use electric streetlights (1884). The community’s official name dates back to Peter Robinson, a politician who oversaw the region’s first major immigration wave in 1825: the arrival of 2,000 Irish-Catholic farmers. Today, the population remains overwhelmingly white (fewer than four per cent are visible minorities) and increasingly elderly. Add in the surrounding townships, and nearly one in five is a senior.
Ask the locals what they treasure most—besides the Petes, the junior hockey team that has produced a long list of NHLers—and two answers top the list: the city’s small-town feel, and the kindness of neighbours. One recent survey asked residents to rank what they love about Peterborough. “We are a caring community” was the No. 1 response.[brightcove id=’4699077620001′ width=’780′ height=’525′]
‘I worry about them constantly’
Dave and Kristy raised their three kids in the rural countryside of Millbrook, a neighbouring township where the children displayed their own caring side in the early 2000s. Members of a group called “Kids 4 Turtles” lobbied local politicians to erect traffic signs on country roads, warning drivers to watch out for the little reptiles crossing the street. Mom, the freight train of enthusiasm, later helped launch the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, where, to this day, injured turtles are rehabilitated and released. Dave caught some grief from fellow officers (“F–k, Dave. Turtles?” one sergeant razzed him) but not anymore. “I still get texts from people saying: ‘Hey, I saved a turtle,’ ” he laughs.
Like so many around the world, Kristy was repulsed when she first saw the photo: a lifeless little boy, face down on the shore of a Turkish resort. Alan Kurdi resembled anyone’s precious toddler, dressed in blue shorts and a red T-shirt. “It was too much,” says the 51-year-old. “I don’t know how else to say it.”
In an instant, one photo awakened the world to a refugee crisis that had been unfolding in plain sight for four years. In Canada—where the federal election campaign was in full throttle—horror turned to outrage after a report that the boy’s aunt, a hairdresser in Port Coquitlam, B.C., had applied to sponsor the family of Alan’s uncle, with the hope of one day sponsoring Alan’s family, too. After Ottawa rejected his brother’s application, Alan’s father hatched a far more dangerous plan: piling his family into a motorboat bound for the Greek island of Kos. Along with Alan, the Mediterranean Sea swallowed his five-year-old brother, Galib, and their mother, Rehana.
On Sept. 4, the Friday before Labour Day weekend, Kristy posted Alan’s photo on her Facebook feed. “This child and his family should be alive in Canada today,” she wrote. “Canada, and the rest of the world, needs to step up to help refugees, or their blood is on our hands.”
Like so many, Kristy Hiltz was horrified: ‘This child and his family should be alive in Canada’
If statistics told the entire story, Ottawa was not exactly ignoring the plight of Syrian refugees. Last January, eight months before Alan died, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives announced a plan to resettle 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next three years (after already welcoming 1,300 under a previous promise). But in the eyes of many Canadians, that was hardly enough.
From coast to coast, frontline organizations that assist immigrants and refugees couldn’t answer the ringing telephones fast enough. Among those flooded with voicemails was the New Canadians Centre (NCC), a Peterborough settlement agency that offers everything from language training to job counselling. “People were asking: ‘What are you guys doing? What can we do?’ ” says Tamara Hoogerdyk of the NCC. “So we thought, ‘Well, we have to take the lead on this.’ ”
Staff scrambled to organize a sponsorship workshop on Sept. 10, one week after the image hit the Internet. More than 70 people showed up, including Kristy Hiltz. “I went to hear what they had to say. And I thought: ‘We can do this. We can totally do this.’ ”
A crisis negotiator, Dave was deployed out of town at the time. Kristy dialled his cell. “She was very excited,” he remembers. “The idea, to me, seemed terrific, although intimidating. But the more I talked to Kristy, the more it just made sense.” Dave himself is an immigrant, coming from Scotland as a toddler.
The following day, Sept. 11, Kristy posted another Facebook message to her 300-plus friends. “Dave and I want to co-sponsor a refugee, individual or family,” she wrote. “We are looking for people who would be willing to co-sponsor with us.” The plan was for each volunteer to donate money (at least $500 per person, or $1,000 per couple) and one year of time and energy.
For a brief moment, Kristy felt extremely vulnerable. What if nobody responded?
Myra Hirschberg was born and raised in New York City, the granddaughter of eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. From a young age, she understood—“breathed in,” as she puts it—the importance of helping those less fortunate. “It is an inherent part of the Jewish religion: to share what you have with others,” she says. “It’s true of every religion I’m familiar with, including Islam.”[brightcove id=’4699133889001′ width=’780′ height=’525′]
‘There is actually something we can do that is going to make a difference’
Her true passion is dancing—contra-dancing, in particular. It’s sort of like square dancing, except it’s done in lines. Now in her 60s, Myra has travelled all over North America to teach others the steps. It’s how she met her Canadian husband, Tom Calwell, an aerospace engineer. “We were at a dance week in West Virginia,” she recalls.
The couple retired to Peterborough, where Kristy Hiltz is their veterinarian. “The plight of refugees was all over the news, and I had been spending days feeling completely helpless to do anything concrete,” Myra says. “When Kristy posted that message it was like: ‘There is actually something we can do that is going to make a difference in somebody’s life.’ ” Her husband was immediately on board. “I was feeling as a country we were getting a really bad rep,” Tom says, “and I wanted to do anything positive.”[brightcove id=’4699082015001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘Their names and ages—that’s all we know’
Lise Fines didn’t hesitate, either. A Grade 7 teacher at St. Paul’s Elementary School, she and her husband, Rick, first met Kristy more than a decade ago, when she performed two surgeries, free of charge, on their ailing dog. “We always think: ‘Who do we want our three-year-old daughter to become, and how is she going to learn that?’ ” says Lise, 46. “I wanted her to see that this is what we can do if someone needs our help.” She and Rick, a blues and folk musician, sat down to hammer out a payment plan. “I imagine myself there and how hopeless it would feel,” says Rick, 53.
Two days later, Lise was chopping away in her kitchen beside a close friend, Stephanie Melles, an ecology professor at Ryerson University. Melles’s research specialty is ecoinformatics (an emerging field that integrates stats and engineering into the study of ecosystems), but on that Sunday afternoon, the task at hand was a bit less complicated: prepping slow-cooker meals for the freezer, from Mongolian beef to green chili pork. As Lise and Stephanie sliced and measured, the conversation turned to Syrian refugees. Like Lise, Stephanie has a three-year-old, and the photo of Alan hit close to home. “It almost looked like he was sleeping,” she says.
Some of her Ryerson colleagues were already working to sponsor Syrians, but because Stephanie commutes to Toronto, she wouldn’t have been much help to a family resettling near campus. Lise had a better idea: she put her in touch with Kristy. “Steph jumped on it right away,” says her husband, Trevor Middel, a fisheries biologist.
THE GROUP TAKES SHAPE
Top row: Dance teacher Myra Hirschberg, French teacher Paulette Quinn, and nurse practitioner and retired Canadian Forces major Lee-Anne Quinn. Middle row: Retired engineer Tom Calwell, grade 7 teacher Carla Gorman, and fisheries biologist Trevor Middel. Bottom row: Grade 7 teacher Lise Fines, musician Rick Fines, and ecology professor Stephanie Melles.
The group was quickly taking shape: Kristy and Dave (the vet and the cop). Myra and Tom (the dancer and the engineer). Rick and Lise (the musician and the teacher). Trevor and Stephanie (the biologist and the prof).
Lise—herself a freight train of enthusiasm—recruited another co-sponsor with no previous connection to Kristy or Dave: Paulette Quinn, the French teacher at St. Paul’s. One of eight brothers and sisters, the 59-year-old is always fundraising for one school cause or another. “Sometimes all you can do is send some money somewhere,” she says. “But this was really getting involved in bringing a family over and looking after that family.”
One of Paulette’s younger sisters, Lee-Anne Quinn, lives right across the street, and every night after supper they head out for a walk. During one September stroll, she told Lee-Anne about the group, knowing full well her sibling would jump to join. “That’s just the kind of person Lee-Anne is,” Paulette says.
Not that Lee-Anne would ever say so. “She’s very discrete,” Paulette says, putting it mildly.
When asked about herself, Lee-Anne is accurate but brief. A nurse practitioner, she served 23 years in the Canadian Forces, including four tours (in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan). Maj. Quinn’s family had no doubt she would join the military; even as a young girl, she was ultra-organized, ensuring the others folded their clothes and made their beds. Her Kandahar deployment (2007-08) was an eight-month whirlwind at the multinational hospital, where she helped treat a constant influx of battlefield casualties. More than once, she held the hand of a Canadian soldier as he took his final breaths. “It’s actually a privilege to be in that position,” she says.
Some days, Lee-Anne would set up a clinic in a desolate patch of the country, where local women and children had never seen a medical professional before. “I don’t live in ignorance,” she says. “I know there are some desperate corners of our world out there, and when you see it, you really get a sense of appreciation for what Canada has to offer.”
Maj. Quinn retired in 2008, never thinking twice about where her next posting would be: back home. “When the sponsorship project was presented to me I thought: ‘Wow, being retired military, I can still make a difference for people who live so far away,’ ” she says. “It’s quite humbling, actually.”
Lee-Anne neglects to mention how she volunteered to serve three stints as the only health-care provider in a remote First Nations community, where her work with children—including building an outdoor rink, and convincing the NHL Players Association to fly in sticks, pucks and skates—earned her the Nightingale Award as Ontario’s top nurse. Her Order of Military Merit, the Canadian Forces’ equivalent to the Order of Canada? She doesn’t bring that up, either. Paulette does.
“That is not important today,” Lee-Anne says. “What’s important today is getting a family to safety.”
From the outside, there is nothing unique about the brick house with the arched front door. It blends right in with all the other homes on this residential road near downtown Peterborough.
A nun answers the doorbell, wearing black pants and a violet sweater. “Welcome,” she says. It is not the first time—nor the last—Sister Ruth Hennessey has uttered that reassuring word to someone standing on her front porch.
All these years later, Sister Ruth still marvels at how she ended up here, living in a bedroom upstairs while so many refugees come and go on the two floors below. A teacher for nearly four decades, she is part of the local Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation that started opening its motherhouse to refugees in the 1990s. Demand soon trumped capacity. “One summer I was asked to find a house,” she says. “This one was in a good neighbourhood and it had a basement apartment.”
They called the property Casa Maria. The nuns went on to buy two other homes, providing temporary accommodation to more than 150 refugee families since 1994. “I have such faith in these people that come to us,” says Sister Ruth, now in her late 70s. “They are good people—wonderful people.”
She has chronicled each one, their photos filling numerous albums spread out on the dining room table. Among the smiling faces is a 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan—Maryam Monsef—who came to Casa Maria, with her mother and two sisters, in the spring of 1996. They lived in the basement apartment. “She didn’t speak a word of English,” Sister Ruth recalls, flipping through the photographs. “They had nothing when they arrived here.” How things would change.
Peterborough’s newly elected Liberal MP, Maryam Monsef, arrived in Canada as a refugee
When Kristy Hiltz posted her Facebook challenge, Monsef, now 30, was running as the local Liberal candidate in the federal election. Her eventual victory made her the first Afghan-born MP, and her cabinet post (minister of democratic institutions) marked another historic first. “Maryam would always say: ‘I’m going to make you proud of me,’ ” Sister Ruth recalls. “And I would say: ‘I’ve always been proud of you.’ ”
Most of the refugees who funnel through Casa Maria are not sponsored; they manage to get to Canada on their own, then file asylum claims. A few times a year, however, Casa Maria does apply to sponsor a specific refugee living overseas. “The process is very, very slow,” Sister Ruth says. “But once this little boy’s picture was shown across the world, people came alive and wanted to do something.”
She knew exactly where to point all those motivated people: Aspa Bouzinelos. Years from now, when Peterborough has a thriving community of Syrian-Canadians, Aspa will be a major reason why.[brightcove id=’4699149279001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘We have to be there for them, walk with them’
A longtime member of Casa Maria’s advisory board (and a Greek immigrant who teaches English as a second language), Aspa had just taken the reins of another volunteer position: the Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) rep at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peterborough. Numbering nearly 100 across Canada, a SAH is an organization approved by Ottawa as a trusted partner in refugee resettlement. Ranging from the Salvation Army to the Mennonite Central Committee, SAHs can either sponsor refugees directly or allow groups to apply under their umbrella. Simply put, it is infinitely easier for a new group to work with a SAH; processing times are much faster, and approval rates much higher.
“People started phoning and asking if they could meet,” Aspa says. The calls still haven’t stopped; at last count, the diocese is working with 35 sponsorship groups in the Peterborough area. “I manage,” Aspa smiles. “I go home at night and respond to all the emails.” When she sat down with Kristy’s group for the first time, on Sunday, Sept. 20, it was the fourth group she’d met that day.[brightcove id=’4699133888001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘It just really struck a chord with me’
They gathered in the living room at Casa Maria: Kristy, Dave, Myra, Tom, Stephanie and Lise. Sister Ruth poured coffee for the guests as Aspa explained the basics.
Although most groups sponsor a friend or relative of someone already in Canada, there is another stream—the “blended visa office-referred,” or BVOR—in which Ottawa matches groups with vulnerable families recommended for resettlement by the United Nations refugee agency. Under that program, Ottawa covers six months of income support (up to $13,500) while the group pays the other six months (hence the term “blended”). But there is one major downside to the program: cases are extremely rare. By the time Kristy’s group convened at Casa Maria, only 29 Syrian refugees had arrived under the BVOR stream since the beginning of 2014.
Nevertheless, everyone at the meeting was optimistic that somehow, some way, they’d be matched with a family who needed their help. It happened before, after all. One of the group’s own members—Phung Tran, sitting with the others that Sunday—was living proof.
There was no Internet back then. No Twitter. No medium for a single photo to spread across the globe in a matter of minutes. But when those black-and-white images hit front pages in 1979—tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees, fleeing Communism on flimsy, overcrowded boats—the reaction was equally visceral: Canadians needed to help.
Prime minister Joe Clark responded with a now-historic pledge, vowing to open Canada’s doors to 50,000 boat people over the next 18 months (a target later boosted to 60,000). More than half would end up being privately sponsored—including 11 who landed in the small town of Sussex, N.B., their resettlement paid for by the parishioners of St. Paul’s United Church. “We had to raise $12,000,” recalls Daniel Keith, the church’s clerk of the session at the time. “Amongst the congregation, everyone just ponied up.” The newcomers included a young family airlifted out of a Malaysian refugee camp: Loc and Chu Tran, and their 18-month-old daughter, Phung.
Daniel’s daughter, Mary, first met the Trans in the church nursery. Mary was pregnant with her second daughter, as was Chu. “Chu looked across the room at me and I saw her hand slide down her stomach,” says Mary, now 65. “I thought to myself: ‘She is pregnant.’ I can still remember that moment, and I often think about how that gesture bridged the whole cultural divide.” It also marked the beginning of a lifelong bond between the Trans and the Keiths. They are family now, not friends.
A teacher back in South Vietnam, Phung’s father quickly found work at a refrigeration company, then at a poultry plant. In between shifts, he took English classes—in Saint John, 70 km away. (Parishioners volunteered to drive him back and forth.) When he and Chu were busy at work, Loc would often ask if Daniel and his wife, Ann, could babysit. They never refused. “My mother was a very kind person, but she didn’t let people into her life easily,” Mary says. “She did completely in this case. She just loved those children dearly.”
Phung and her baby sister, Lea, spent so much time at the Keith home that they came to consider Ann and Daniel their “Canadian grandparents.” Mary still has photos of the Tran girls playing with her daughters, Frances and Eliza.
“They enriched our lives so much,” she says, her voice cracking. “Helping this family was probably the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
After nearly four years in New Brunswick, Loc and Chu made the difficult decision to move their family to Toronto, 1,500 km away. Though grateful to everyone at St. Paul’s, especially the Keiths, they felt Ontario offered the best future. “It was sad for us,” says Daniel, now 94. “Loc was just like a brother to me.”
Despite the distance, the families never lost touch. The Keiths followed from afar as Loc and Chu, both employed at a duck farm, reaped the benefits of their hard work. They bought a home in suburban Newmarket, put their kids through post-secondary school, and saved enough for a comfortable retirement. “In some ways, I think they’re still in shock,” Phung, now 38, says of her parents. “They have a little house here on Pigeon Lake, just outside of Peterborough. And their kids have houses now.”
A graduate of Trent University, Phung is a biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, where she works on species-at-risk legislation. She met her husband, fellow biologist Brad Steinberg, while conducting field research at Algonquin Park. They have a son, Jack. When their daughter was born two years ago, they named her Annie—in honour of Phung’s “Canadian grandmother.”
Sadly, Ann was in a nursing home by then, suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. “It brought tears to my eyes,” Daniel says, remembering the first time he heard the baby’s name. “I tried to tell my wife, but I don’t know if she could take it in.”
Ann Keith died on Dec. 2, 2014, shortly after her 66th wedding anniversary. A few months later, Phung received a letter in the mail—with a cheque from Ann’s estate. Ann had inherited some money late in life, and before Alzheimer’s clouded her mind, she crafted a will that ensured all her loved ones, the Trans included, received a share.
Phung was so surprised that she phoned Mary in New Brunswick to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. “I didn’t know if I deserved it,” she says. “I was stunned.” It’s what Mom wanted, Mary assured her. “It confirmed that she felt we were her grandkids, too,” Phung says.[brightcove id=’4699082013001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘It’s part of my life. It’s part of my story.’
She and Brad invested some of Ann’s money in the kids’ RESPs, but weren’t quite sure what to do with the rest. Then Phung read Kristy’s Facebook post. “When the photo of Alan Kurdi was all over the place, it was pretty tough for me,” she says. “There is always that sense of guilt: ‘Why did I make it when so many others didn’t?’ ” Phung and Brad knew exactly what to do, pledging $1,000—and their time and energy—toward Kristy’s group.
“This was a way for Phung to sort of pay it forward,” Brad says. “Someone 35 years ago—strangers—brought her family over, and for us to be able to do the same thing was pretty important.” A perfect tribute to Ann’s memory.
For Phung, joining the group also provided something else: the motivation to learn more about her own story. She was too young to remember her family’s harrowing boat ride to Malaysia, and her parents have shared few details. “We had to make the decisions we had to make,” was the extent of their answer, whenever she asked. “This whole experience has given me that push, that opportunity, to talk about these things and ask my parents questions without feeling awkward or out of place,” she says. “It’s meant so much to me.”
Carla Gorman has known Aspa for years. Sister Ruth, too. Teachers tend to cross paths, especially in smaller centres like Peterborough. “The picture of that little boy, it broke my heart,” Carla says. “I was talking to Aspa and I said: ‘You know what? I really want to help somehow, I want to join a group.’ And Aspa said: ‘Well, Lise has one.’ ”
Which was perfect for Carla. Lise teaches one Grade 7 class at St. Paul’s; Carla teaches the other. The group was now up to 13.
It also had a name: Salaam Peterborough—Families Helping Families.
Sept. 25, exactly two weeks after Kristy’s post, was a huge day. Sponsorship agreement holders were put on notice that Ottawa was about to post 50 new Syrian cases to the BVOR stream. Basic summaries of each case (genders, ages, etc.) would be shared, via email; SAHs could then claim a particular file, like a general manager on draft day.
Aspa wasn’t overly optimistic. Syrian refugees were suddenly in high demand, and she knew each case would be scooped up. Her hunch proved correct; only 15 files were posted that Friday, and none went to her diocese. The following Monday, Sept. 28, another email arrived in her inbox. “Dear Sponsors,” it read. “Please find information on 10 more Syrian BVOR cases.” The attached list included: BVOR 417: a mother and three children, ages 12, 10 and 8. BVOR 418: a husband, wife and three children, ages 7, 6 and 3. BVOR 420: another husband, wife and three children, ages 19, 16 and 14.
Aspa replied right away, saying she had a group willing to accept any of those three. She typed so frantically she misspelled her name at the end of the email (Asoa).
“I responded in 4 minutes!” she wrote Lise at 12:16 p.m. “Let’s see what happens.”
Another four minutes after that, Aspa received the reply that eluded her on Friday. “Hi Aspa. BVOR 417 is on hold for your SAH.” Just 17 days after Kristy turned to Facebook in search of fellow sponsors, the group she created had been matched with its family: a single mom and three kids living in Lebanon.
While serving in Afghanistan, Lee-Anne Quinn treated children in remote villages
It was lunch hour at school when Lise, sitting at her desk, received the confirmation email. She pumped her fist in the air—“Yes!”—and sprinted out of the classroom, her Grade 7s trailing behind. “I scooted as fast as I could to find Carla and tell her the news,” Lise says. “We hugged and jumped for joy, and then we went down the hall to find Paulette. It was just a really exciting moment for us.”
One student asked if they’d won the lottery. “Something like that,” Mrs. Fines replied.
The confirmation email did not include the names (or faith) of the four family members, but it did provide some additional details about BVOR 417. The mother, a Syrian, was described as a 41-year-old homemaker with no education. Her husband—wherever he was, dead or alive—appeared to be Iraqi because all three kids were listed as Iraqi citizens (although the youngest daughter was born in Syria, suggesting the family had moved back to the mother’s home country after living in Iraq.) Under the category “Urgency” was one word, in capital letters: HIGH.
When Myra Hirschberg read those details, she had two immediate thoughts. “One was: ‘This woman doesn’t speak English, she has three kids, she is a single parent, and it’s going to be a major job for her to get on her feet when she gets here,’ ” she says. “Thought two was: ‘She must be an amazingly strong person to have managed on her own to survive what she survived with three kids.’ I don’t think I could have made it as far.”[brightcove id=’4699149236001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘I think she’s pretty brave’
By this point, the nation was immersed in two diversions: the tail end of the election campaign, and Toronto Blue Jays playoff baseball. But with a family now secured, the group focused on its fundraising efforts. They needed $13,500 to match Ottawa’s contribution, and the members’ personal pledges put them about halfway there.
A mix of social media and word-of-mouth would raise the rest—and then some. “Generosity begets generosity,” says Trevor, Stephanie’s husband. “It helps when people see we are just everyday Canadians reaching out to help this family.”
Friends and relatives handed over cash. A Yoga instructor organized special classes, donating 100 per cent of the proceeds. A local painter auctioned off three pieces of art. Kristy’s vet clinic set up $10 nail trims, with every penny going toward Salaam Peterborough (the very first customer gave $100 instead). Dentists offered their services free of charge. Doctors, too. Carla organized an auction at her house, where St. Paul’s staff bid on each other’s services (yard duty, for instance). She raised $1,400. “This has kind of renewed my faith in humanity,” she says.
“People desperately, desperately want to help; they just need the right outlet to contribute,” says Brad, Phung’s husband. “It’s been heartwarming to see the community rally behind us.” And not only behind them. In addition to the 35 groups working with Aspa, two dozen others are in the process of bringing Syrian refugees to the Peterborough region. By the end of 2016, the city expects to be home to 350, maybe more.
“I am not surprised at all,” says Serout Omar, who owns a pizza parlour in town. “Peterborough is full of great people, I’m telling you.” He would know. Twenty years ago, a church group sponsored his family of Iraqi Kurds, who lived 10 years in a Syrian refugee camp after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. “This is my home,” says Serout, 36. “I would never move.”
When he read about Kristy’s group in a local newspaper, Serout immediately reached out on Facebook to offer help, including translating for the family once they arrive. His generosity allowed the members to check one more box on their very large to-do list.
Every sponsorship group must create a detailed settlement plan that meets the approval of their SAH. Where will the family live? Who will pick them up at the airport? Landline or cellphone? Salaam Peterborough crafted an Excel spreadsheet, with each line listing a different duty. Apartment rental. School enrolment. Social insurance numbers. Neighbourhood tour. They were ready, or at least as ready as they could be.
On Nov. 12, Aspa received another update in her inbox: the woman and her kids had been interviewed by visa officers in Beirut, and all Ottawa needed was final confirmation that Kristy’s group would be the sponsor.
“Please go ahead and confirm,” Lise wrote back to Aspa. “Yay!!!!!!!! I am so excited!”
The group still didn’t know any names. They also had no idea that the anonymous family was huddled inside their Beirut apartment at that very moment, steps from a busy market where two ISIS bombers went to die.[brightcove id=’4699149235001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘I’ve seen firsthand the desperation that these people live in’
When Shazim Khan first noticed the sirens blinking in the distance, he assumed it was a car crash. As he steered closer, he saw the fire hoses pointed at his Peterborough mosque. “It was devastating,” he recalls. “Someone threw some kind of accelerant through the window, but we don’t know who it was.”
The Nov. 14 arson made international headlines: a Canadian mosque—Masjid Al-Salaam, literally the “Peace Mosque”—had been firebombed, an apparent hate crime triggered by Islamic State’s rampage in Paris the night before. Smoke engulfed the main floor, plastering walls with soot and ash. Some of the mosque’s 100 worshippers had been mingling inside only an hour earlier, celebrating the birth of a baby. “This is the only mosque in Peterborough,” says Khan, originally from Guyana, who has served as imam for eight years. “We thought it would be a huge setback for the community, but it actually turned out to be the opposite.”
A local man with no link to the mosque launched an online crowd-funding campaign to cover the repair bill, and within 30 hours, donations topped $110,000. Among the many who rushed to give were members of Salaam Peterborough. “I think the person or people who attacked the mosque unwittingly gave a huge boost to the movement to welcome Syrian refugees—because so many in the community became so eager to prove that those people were not representative of us,” says Myra, the dance instructor. “I hope they are reading this and notice that.”
Imam Shazim Khan says sponsoring refugees is God’s work
Still, the apparent trigger behind the mosque arson—the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130—raised legitimate questions about the new government’s refugee plan, specifically the timing. Reports out of France said one of the ISIS attackers might have been a Syrian who snuck into Europe amid the flood of migrants. Was Canada doing enough to conduct security checks on these potential newcomers? And why the rush? Why do all 25,000 need to arrive by the end of 2015?
Liberal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale assured Canadians that every last Syrian would be properly screened before arriving, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself would later concede that the horror in Paris played a role in his decision to slow down the original pledge. (Instead of bringing in 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015, the new plan is to fly them all here by the end of February.)[brightcove id=’4699077609001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
‘The mosque means a lot to this community’
A career police officer, Dave McNab is anything but naive. He has witnessed his fair share of depravity, and he admits the bloodshed in Paris sparked some soul-searching. “I don’t think anybody in this group isn’t scared about the terrorist attacks, but ultimately you have to do what is right,” he says. “I don’t think you could look at a picture of a needy child and not know what the right thing is.” (Says Trevor: “This is a mother and three children, and I really don’t think they’re any danger to our society.”)
Dave is standing at his kitchen counter, chopping lamb for tonight’s kebabs. Kristy is beside him, prepping a pan of baklava. It is Nov. 22, another Sunday, and the rest of the group members are on their way over for a meeting/celebration. Aspa is coming, too, bringing along the final bits of paperwork. Once signed, the sponsorship will become official. “We’re doing a Middle Eastern theme,” Kristy says. “I’m so excited.”
The members arrive at the front door, one by one. As the living room fills and the volume grows, the scene looks like any random cocktail party. A newcomer would have no idea that some of these people didn’t know each other two months ago. “It’s been amazing,” Phung says. “You couldn’t have asked for a better of group of people.”
Lise and Rick arrive with some homemade hummus. “I feel like I’ve been thinking about her and the kids every day since Sept. 28,” Lise says, when asked about the family. “I wonder: ‘Are they hungry? Are they cold? Are they scared? Do they know we’re here? Do they know that we’re thinking about them and that we’re waiting for them?’ ”
Kristy invited another special guest tonight: Shazim Khan. It’s been a week since the mosque was firebombed, and the repair work has barely begun. (Mosque officials would later announce that their insurance policy covered the reconstruction, and that every penny raised by the crowd-funding campaign was donated to local charities.) “We are different,” the imam tells the group, the living room hushed. He is wearing a white Islamic robe and a black skull cap. “We have different religious beliefs, we practise differently, but I think we share a lot of common values. We all care for one another, and this is what makes us human beings.”
“Our Prophet said: ‘One who helps an orphan or a widow is like a person who stands in prayer and never finishes,’ ” Khan continues. “I want to say how grateful we are that we have people in our community who are willing to share in this very noble task.”
Group members sign the final paperwork with Aspa Bouzinelos (left) and Sister Ruth Hennessey (right)
When the time comes to sign the papers, Aspa puts the documents on the coffee table. Some group members hold up their smartphones and press record. Kristy and Lise do the honours, scribbling their signatures on multiple pages. Neither can contain her smile.
Among the documents—finally—is the mystery woman’s name: Amal Alkhalaf, age 41.
The eldest daughter is Ansam, who had just turned 13.
Ibrahim is the boy, age 10.
The youngest, eight years old, is Dalya. Her ninth birthday is a few weeks away.
Long before the world knew the name Alan Kurdi, scores of Syrian migrants followed the same watery path from Turkey to Greece, gambling their very lives for asylum in Europe. Thousands more have set out since. (On Jan. 4, the Mediterranean claimed another 36 victims, including three children.) Yet despite the dominant images—refugees wearing life jackets, crammed into rubber boats—the vast majority of displaced Syrians are not trying to reach Britain or Germany or Sweden. They are in purgatory, spread out among Syria’s immediate neighbours. Across the southern border in Jordan, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has registered close to 800,000. To the north, 2.2 million live in Turkey. And to the west, Lebanon has absorbed 1.1 million, if not more.
The crisis may be most glaring in Lebanon, an already fractured state that’s barely twice the size of Prince Edward Island. Before the war next door, the population was about four million; it is now above five million—all while the Lebanese government continues to spiral into disarray. Sectarian squabbling has left the country without a president for nearly 600 days, and basic civic services have ground to a halt. Drive anywhere, and it won’t be long before you’ll see a mound of garbage bags tossed on a roadside.
Tragically, the same is true about Syrian refugees. They are literally everywhere here: sleeping on street corners, inside overcrowded motel rooms, and underneath plastic tarps that fill hundreds of rural, ramshackle camps. But unlike Jordan, for example—where one camp, Zaatari, is home to nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees—there is no such central hub in Lebanon. In fact, fewer than 20 per cent of the refugees here live in a camp.
Maclean’s travelled to Lebanon in the hope, however slim, of finding Amal Alkhalaf and her children. Other than their names (and their Canadian file number: BVOR 417), the Peterborough group had no other leads to share. No city. No phone number. Not even a photograph. The whole assignment had the feel of Saving Private Ryan.
For nearly a week, nothing panned out. Sources working for various aid agencies queried their databases but came up empty. One said he actually found dozens of Amal Alkhalafs in his system, way too many to narrow down. If nothing else, the Hail Mary hunt reinforced just how lucky this woman is: Maclean’s was scouring the country for a Syrian refugee already selected to come to Canada, while crossing paths with thousands more who will never receive such a gift.
In the end, it was Michelle Cameron, Canada’s ambassador to Lebanon, who pulled the right strings. Maclean’s reached out to the embassy, explaining the basics of this article and asking whether someone could contact Amal on our behalf. On Dec. 2, the answer arrived. “We found her,” Cameron said. She had a cell number.
Amal was willing to meet, but physically reaching her was hardly routine. Maclean’s needed permission from Hezbollah’s central press office just to pass through the military checkpoints that surround Bourj el-Barajneh, and the magazine was specifically instructed not to film or photograph outside. Only three weeks had passed since the ISIS suicide attacks, and residents remained leery of unfamiliar faces. (Though a largely Shia municipality, Bourj el-Barajneh is home to some Sunnis, including a growing number of Syrian refugees, because rent is relatively cheap.)
As planned, Amal is waiting on the corner, Dalya by her side. The little girl is wearing jeans and a sweater, green and red. Mother and daughter don’t linger long, turning down an alleyway that leads back to their latest home: a decrepit, two-room apartment.
The older kids, Ansam and Ibrahim, are inside the first-floor unit, though not alone. One of Amal’s sisters-in-law also lives here—with her four children. At night, all nine squish together on the living-room carpet, sleeping in a windowless space that resembles a cave. The apartment’s other room is a small kitchen with cracked, crumbling walls. Its only saving grace is the running water.
After two Islamic State suicide bombers struck her Beirut neighbourhood on Nov. 12, Amal and the children stopped going outside
“It was so scary,” Amal says, recalling the thunder of the twin explosions. “But thank God my children weren’t in the street at that time.” She has not let them outside since.
A petite woman, barely five feet tall, Amal sits down on the living room floor, her back leaning against the front door. Dalya is still close by. Ibrahim is beside them, wearing a thin brown jacket and bare feet. Ansam’s hijab is navy blue. Though only 13, Ansam is mature beyond her years, a second mom to the other two. “I would love to study,” she says, holding back tears. “My only dream is to study.”
Originally from the Syrian city of Raqqa, Amal married an Iraqi, and their first two children were born in her husband’s home country. During the second Gulf War, however, the family crossed back to Syria, where Dalya was born in 2006. They eventually settled in Homs—a city that would soon be under siege.
North of Damascus, Homs endured some of the heaviest fighting in the early months of the Syrian uprising, as Assad’s forces tried, but failed, to quell anti-government protests in the city. In August 2011, Amal’s husband left home, supposedly in search of food. He never came back. “I don’t know anything about what happened to him,” she says. “I don’t know where he is.”
After a week, Amal says she had no choice but to flee, taking the kids to the eastern city of al-Bukamal, where some of her relatives lived. For a while, the kids were able to attend school, including some English classes, but it wasn’t long before ISIS took control of the city. Yet again, the family was pinned into a combat zone. “I don’t like the kids to talk about it,” Amal says. “I am trying to get them to forget what happened there.”
She was not allowed to venture outside without a veil over her face and a male relative at her side. Night after night, the children were jolted awake by the sound of fighter jets screaming overhead. “My kids would wake up even if it was only raining,” Amal says. “Everything was terrible. ISIS was all around us.” By September 2014, the foursome was on the run again, inside a bus bound for the Lebanese border. The kids haven’t seen a classroom for nearly two years.
Their mom has never been to school. Not for one day. Described as a “homemaker” in her Canadian paperwork, Amal earns zero income in Lebanon, and her family survives largely on the kindness of others, including some siblings who live nearby. Until recently, she and the kids lived with one of her sisters, but they were evicted after failing to pay the monthly rent (250,000 Lebanese dollars, or about US$170). “I try my best every day to not let the children go to bed without food,” Amal says. “But sometimes . . . ”
The old cellphone she has was a gift from a friend, a hand-me-down. The screen was already shattered when she got it. Her lifeline to the outside world (especially the UNHCR), Amal pays US$10 a month to keep it on.
Although millions of Syrians have registered with the UN refugee agency, only a meagre fraction will be resettled in the West. When countries like Canada do decide to offer up space, the UNHCR recommends the most vulnerable, desperate cases: Refugees with severe health problems. Torture victims. Poor, single mothers like Amal Alkhalaf.
It was way back in December 2014—nine months before Alan Kurdi drowned, and when Stephen Harper was still prime minister—when she received the cellphone call that would change their lives. It was the embassy, informing her that Canada was considering them for resettlement. “I can’t describe how happy I was,” she says. “But at the same time I was sad because I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. One year? Two years? God knows.”
Eleven months, it turned out. The embassy called back in early November 2015 (only a couple of weeks before the suicide bombings) to invite her for an interview. “The children talk about Canada a lot,” Amal says. “ ‘Are we going to have our own house? Is there no war? Are we going to have an established life?’ That is their dream.” Asked where she’d like to live, Amal is quick to respond. “I will stay at the Canadian border,” she says. “The most important thing is that I reach Canada. If they told me now to go the airport, I would grab my children and go to the airport.”
Until today, Amal has no idea that private citizens are working so hard on her behalf. She has never heard of the “blended” sponsorship program, and Peterborough may as well be Mars. When Maclean’s explains where she’s going and how she’ll get there, Amal seems overwhelmed, as if it can’t possibly be true. “I want to thank them one and two and three and four and five times, as much as I can,” she smiles, placing a hand over her heart. “They are going to take me out of this swamp and I will see the world again, and they will offer education for my kids.”
If Maclean’s found this woman, the Peterborough group asked the reporter to pass along two things: an envelope containing some money, and a small token of their friendship and commitment—four miniature pins depicting the Canadian flag, one for each of them. Amal unwraps the tissue paper and picks up one of the red and white flags, turning it in her fingertips. “This is like a trophy for me,” she says, looking up. “It is an honour to get the flag. I don’t know how I can express my thanks. I don’t know how I can express my feelings.”
The children lean in to see the gifts. “I am going to put this in my heart,” Amal continues. “I am proud.”
Before saying goodbye, the woman asks Maclean’s to deliver something of hers to the group: her cell number. “I hope God gives me the time to meet them,” she says.
Six days later, Dec. 9, the Peterborough sponsors have a meeting scheduled, the perfect chance for a first phone call with Amal. They ask Serout, their new volunteer translator, to contact her in advance and ask if 7 p.m. works. Of course, she says. It will be 2 a.m. in Beirut, but she’s happy to huddle in her kitchen while everyone else is asleep.
By now, Salaam Peterborough has another co-sponsor, its fourteenth. An environmental sciences professor at Trent University, Tom Whillans dropped in at the New Canadians Centre the other day, hoping to find information about a group he could join. “It’s an extremely important issue,” he says. “And it’s not just about donating money to a cause. The personal contact is really, really important.” He’s known Rick and Lise casually for many years (Tom helps run a music festival Rick plays in) and when he noticed their names on a list, he knew where to go.
Tom knocked on their door. When they weren’t home, he came back another time. “That is the Peterborough we know,” says Lise, herself a Trent graduate. “That may sound sappy, but there are so many people like that in this community.”
‘Who is doing this for me?’ Amal asked the group members
As 7 o’clock approaches, they gather in Rick and Lise’s kitchen. Most of the group is here, huddled around the same island where Lise and Stephanie prepped all those slow-cooker recipes three months ago. Rick is holding Claire, the couple’s three-year-old. Serout is sitting on a stool in the middle of the pack, his cell on speakerphone.
“Allo,” Amal answers.
For weeks, these men and women have thought of little else than this person on the other end of the phone. To suddenly hear her voice is almost a relief. Kristy takes a deep breath, holding back tears. Like Lise and Carla, Myra can’t stop smiling. Phung places a hand over her mouth. “Hello from Canada,” they say in unison, followed by “Marhaba,” Arabic for hello.
“Marhaba,” Amal answers. Everyone laughs.
Speaking through Serout, Amal thanks the strangers for their money and their kindness. But even with the language barrier, the group can sense her desperation. She doesn’t sound anywhere near as optimistic as she did just a few days ago, when Maclean’s met her in Lebanon. “My situation is really bad,” she says, beginning to cry. Serout tries to reassure her. “Be patient, be strong,” he says. “Everything is going to be OK.”
“Inshallah,” she says. God willing.
Amal is especially worried about her family’s medical tests, the final step before boarding an airplane. It’s been more than a month since her interview with a Canadian visa officer, yet she’s heard nothing about a doctor’s appointment. “You don’t know how I live here,” she tells the group. “It’s like a grave.”
Serout asks Amal if she needs the sponsors to prepare anything specific for her arrival. “Nothing, nothing,” she says. “I only want to get out of here. I want my kids to see a new life and I want them to forget this sad life they have been in. Just one hour here is too long.”
Near the end of the call, Amal asks a question: “Who is doing this for me?”
A collection of families, Serout replies, explaining how the sponsorship group will cover her family’s first year of expenses in Canada. “They don’t care if you are a Muslim or not a Muslim,” he says.
“At last, we are humanity,” Amal answers. “There is no black or white.”
As wonderful as it is to finally hear Amal’s voice, the phone call is unexpectedly deflating. The group assumed all the hurdles had been cleared, including the medicals. Listening to her break down only sharpens their resolve to get the family to Canada.
The next morning, Dec. 10, Lise fires off an email to Aspa’s main contact in Immigration, asking about the medicals, but hears nothing back. Later that evening, Justin Trudeau is at Pearson International Airport, welcoming the first planeload of Syrian refugees to touch down. “I was awake in the middle of the night, so I got up,” Lise says. “Carla had mentioned to me that there is some kind of website where you can check the status of your application, and sure enough, up pops this notice that says the government has been waiting for Amal to take her medical since Oct. 7.”
She messages Serout, who phones Amal again. Somehow, the Oct. 7 notice never reached her. A few phone calls later, and the exams are booked. “If we hadn’t been able to talk to her, we wouldn’t have had a clue that any of this was going on,” Lise says. “She would still be sitting there.”[brightcove id=’4686690979001′ width=’700′ height=’525′]
The news arrives on Christmas afternoon, via Serout. Amal and the children have been told to be at Beirut’s airport on Dec. 28, bright and early—three months to the day after being matched with the people from Peterborough. “Get ready for your Christmas gift,” Lise writes to the others on Facebook. “They are coming on the 29th!!!!!!!!”
When the 28th arrives, Amal and the kids board a flight to Jordan, their first ever ride on an airplane. (“I was really, really scared,” she would later say.) From there, the plan is to take a chartered jet directly to Pearson, but it’s delayed. By the time they finally board, they’re 15 hours behind schedule—pushing back their arrival by one day, to Dec. 30.
In Peterborough, meanwhile, the sponsors have heard nothing official from Ottawa. If Amal wasn’t communicating with Serout, the group would have no clue the flight was delayed. Thanks to Aspa, Lise has a number for an airport employee who does know one thing: after landing, Syrian refugees are being bused to a nearby hotel. The pickup crew, 90 minutes away, takes a calculated gamble: better to wait at that hotel than in Peterborough, assuming Amal will show up at some point.
Members of the sponsorship group meet the children for the first time at an airport hotel
They steer into the parking lot just before 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 30, split between two passenger vans: Stephanie, Lise, Paulette, Lee-Anne, Serout and Tom (the Trent prof, not the retired engineer). A friend of Dave’s, who owns a shuttle company, offered the vans (and the two drivers) as a donation.
Dave and Kristy are not here tonight. They had booked a Christmas trip long ago, and couldn’t cancel. Although her emotions are mixed, Kristy is thrilled beyond words that her Facebook post has led to this moment. “I love that we are such a team,” she says.
“I think we’ll look back in 10 or 15 years, and this will be a very positive chapter in Canada’s story,” her husband adds.
The group members mingle in the hotel lobby, watching as a busload of refugees, utterly exhausted, walk through the front entrance. “Welcome to Canada,” Lee-Anne says, hugging one woman. The retired major is holding a small Canadian flag. Her sister has a bouquet of flowers, red and white.
As 6 p.m. approaches, another bus pulls up. Serout sees them first. “They’re here!” he yells.
“They’re here!” Paulette repeats, rushing outside.
“Oh my gosh,” says Stephanie, following Lise and Lee-Anne to the door.
Amal flashes a wide smile as Paulette wraps her arms around her shoulders, then reaches for the children, one by one. Lee-Anne is right behind her, Amal’s next hug. She is wearing the same checkered hijab as she did that day in Bourj el-Barajneh—just 27 days ago.
After two days of travel, the family finally arrives in Peterborough, excited but exhausted
“Are you Dalya?” Stephanie asks, smiling at the little girl. She turned nine on Dec. 20. In between hugs, Lise tries not to cry. Jingle Bell Rock is playing on the loudspeakers.
Tom and Serout collect the family’s suitcases from under the bus as everyone heads to the lobby. Ottawa has also provided care packages, giving each child a new winter jacket, boots, gloves and a toque. Serout rips off the tag of Dalya’s pink coat and helps her put it on. Beside her, Ibrahim waves Lee-Anne’s Canadian flag. Pinned to Ansam’s jacket is the Maple Leaf the group sent to her in Lebanon, via Maclean’s.
“It is like a dream,” Amal says, now holding the bouquet of flowers. “I am so happy just to be here safe.”
‘I didn’t feel like a stranger at all. I felt at home. It’s like I knew these people a long time ago.’
The three children climb into the back row of one of the vans while Serout and Amal take the two middle seats. A few minutes later, the caravan is merging onto Highway 401, heading east amid a sea of headlights. “Are we going to live here forever?” Dalya asks.
“Yes,” Serout answers.
Nineteen years ago, a young Maryam Monsef made a similar nighttime drive to Peterborough. She didn’t speak English, and she had yet to meet Sister Ruth. Today, Monsef is a federal cabinet minister. “That makes me feel like my kids have a good future,” Amal says, looking at the heavy traffic out her window. “I can see it and I can feel it. The most important thing for me is that everybody is a human being and everybody gets respected and treated the same way. It doesn’t matter what religion or colour you are.”
It was heartbreaking, Amal says, to leave her relatives—including the sister-in-law and kids who shared her apartment—but she hopes to one day help them get here, too. “From what I’ve seen so far, Canada is going to be even better than my imagination,” she continues. “I’m not asking for much. I just want my kids to be safe, to go to school, to have food. That is all I need.”
In the other van, Lee-Anne passes around some Christmas chocolates. In between bites, she tells the others that what they just accomplished is as gratifying as anything she did in Afghanistan. “It is absolutely equivalent, without a doubt,” she says. “If we can sit here in this vehicle, in this country, and save somebody’s life, that is just as good as me being three oceans away saving somebody’s life.”
In the front seat, professor Tom says Amal’s family has just won the equivalent of a lottery. “You also feel like it’s a lottery for us—that we were lucky enough to be born here,” he says. “We didn’t do anything to earn that.”
Lee-Anne tucks Ibrahim into bed as Dalya watches. In Lebanon, the family slept on a floor.
It is almost 9:30 p.m. when the vans steer into the driveway. The children are fast asleep, oblivious to the Christmas lights hanging from some of the houses. Amal is wearing a pair of ballet-style flats, no match for the snow she steps in as she exits the vehicle. Phung, standing in the dark driveway, gives her a hug. When the kids emerge, drowsy and dazed, she squeezes them, too. She can’t help but wonder what her own mother was thinking all those decades ago.
The group managed to secure a granny flat for the family, a temporary home until they find something more permanent. It could not be more inviting. The fridge is overflowing. A cake on the kitchen table says: “Welcome to Canada.” Pieces of children’s artwork are hanging everywhere. “We are so glad you are here,” one says. “You are loved,” reads another.
“There is lots and lots of food,” Lise says.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” says Amal, still smiling.
“We are just very glad that you are here,” Lise replies.
The children are so tired that they’re falling asleep sitting up, their jackets still zipped. Phung leads Ibrahim to the bedroom and puts him under the covers, while Paulette and Lee-Anne show Amal how to use the pull-out couch. The others start lacing up their shoes, knowing the family needs some space.
“I didn’t realize this was going to happen,” Amal says, thanking them one more time. “This is more than enough.”
Until their first morning in Canada, the children had never touched snow
The next morning is New Year’s Eve. When Serout stops by for a visit, arriving a few minutes after 9 o’clock, he doesn’t need to knock. Everyone inside is wide awake. Dalya was up at 6 a.m., staring out the large bay window that overlooks the backyard.
“When I woke up, I felt I was in a dream,” Amal says. “I told Ibrahim to come to see the snow but he didn’t believe me. He thought I was making a joke.”
Four weeks ago, this family woke up on the floor of that windowless living room in Lebanon, too afraid to even venture outside. Today, Ibrahim is immersed in a Lego set, almost finished piecing it together. A cartoon, Super Why, fills the flat-screen television that sits atop an electric fireplace. Ansam is on the couch, reading about each of her new sponsors. (The group prepared information sheets with photos and brief biographies, in English and Arabic.) Dalya is still perched on the windowsill, gazing out.
The group left behind two new iPads on the kitchen counter, with an iTunes gift card to match. Amal says there’s another gift card, too, pointing to the name on Serout’s coffee cup (Tim Hortons). She will learn. “I cannot describe the life here compared to where I was,” she says. “It’s like from hell to heaven.”
Not every day will be so euphoric. Adjusting to the pace and culture of a new country is an overwhelming journey, even for the most grateful refugee, and as the weeks go by, Amal and her children will no doubt endure some darker emotions than they feel right now. Serout remembers his own family’s experience; at one point, they considered returning to their tent in Syria because they found it so hard to acclimatize to Canada. “We were going crazy, to be honest,” he says.
‘Canada is going to be even better than my imagination. I want my kids to be safe, to go to school’
Real life lies ahead. Dentist appointments. Health care applications. First day of school. Amal has never learned to read or write, and as excited as she is to tackle English (“to learn Canadian,” as she says), the road will be long and challenging. Even this gorgeous granny flat—full of bright sunlight and fresh paint and a shiny bathroom—is temporary. With the group’s help, Amal must start looking for a place she can afford once the sponsorship support runs dry next year. A job? That’s listed on the resettlement plan, too.
Near the door, the kids start zipping up their jackets and sliding on their boots. Amal tugs on Dalya’s knit hat, ensuring it covers her ears. “Go play as much as you want because we are going to be here one week and then they are going to send us back,” Amal jokes.
“They’re not going to send us back!” her daughter replies.
A wooden deck leads to a large backyard, where a motorboat is covered with a plastic tarp. Ansam’s boots crunch through a thin layer of icy snow, a sound as Canadian as any. “Only in pictures,” she says, when asked if she has ever seen snow before.
Standing on the deck, Amal watches as a snowball fight ensues. She is still digesting the events of last night, strangers running to hug her. “I didn’t feel like a stranger at all,” she says. “I basically felt at home. It’s like I knew these people a long time ago.”
Paulette the French teacher pulls into the driveway. “Hello, hello,” she says. “You look so nice in your new coats!” All three kids get another hug. Carrying a jug of road salt, Paulette immediately starts sprinkling the deck. “I noticed it was slippery last night,” she says. Amal watches, not quite sure what to think.
Paulette’s first job today is to take the family to the mall so they can buy a new cellphone. Amal’s old one—the hand-me-down with the shattered screen—is long gone. “I threw it in the garbage at the airport,” she smiles.
Reporter: Michael Friscolanti
Editor: Dianna Symonds and Alison Uncles
Director of Photography: Liz Sullivan
Art director: Stephen Gregory
Digital production editor: Amanda Shendruk
Video producer: Kayla Chobotiuk, Michael Friscolanti, and Liz Sullivan
Photographers: Cole Garside and Sam Tarling
Videographers: AFP, Getty, Cole Garside and Sam Tarling
Video editor: Kayla Chobotiuk
Published: January 13, 2016