Mohammed’s brother, Mahmoud, on the Greek Island of Lesbos with thousands of other refugees in 2015

Leaving Syria: Life in Van as a refugee (part 4)


Part 4 of a four-part series about how one Syrian refugee is adjusting to life in B.C. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of Mohammed’s story.

I grew up with the quivering voice of my grandfather telling his incredible story of surviving WWI. He lost his entire family at age 10 during the Armenian Genocide back when current boarders didn’t exist. Running away from the massacre, he fled his village in modern day Turkey south to a never-ending desert located in what is now called Syria. He survived death again because nomadic Arabs rescued him, taking him in as one of their children and gifting my grandfather with a new life in a new land.

I used to hear these stories and picture my grandfather’s journey, never imagining that I would also be forced to abandon the home he found for us in Syria. Nearly a century later, my own life was also saved when Canada granted me asylum in 2014. During my first year in B.C., I lived in New Westminster, went to college in Surrey, and volunteered in Vancouver. Meanwhile in Syria, the conflict was rapidly getting more complex after ISIS joined the proxy war invading the country from the border it shared with Iraq—about 50 kilometers away from where my family lived.

My brothers’ crossing

In late 2015, my mother and five siblings joined the mass exodus out of Syrians with only the clothes on their backs. My two youngest brothers escaped first. Then my mother, brother and two sisters followed. Today my family is living in three different countries as refugees; Canada, Germany and Turkey.

My two youngest brothers, Majd and Mahmoud, sought refuge in Germany by way of Turkey where they made the same crossing of the Mediterranean as thousands of other Syrians. Unlike little Alan Kurdi and many others, they survived the dangerous journey in a small overcrowded rubber boat packed with others in the same desperation. After being stuck on the Greek Island of Lesbos for 10 days, my brothers made their way across six countries illegally to finally reach Germany. Arriving in Europe ended a horrific month-long journey.

A third-generation refugee

A few moths after my brothers’ crossing, my mother escaped with my brother, Ahmad, and two sisters (Nour and Shahad), to Turkey making me a third-generation refugee. They fled after our hometown of Al-Hassakeh in northeast Syria became unlivable. Control of the city was split between the Assad dictatorship and the Kurdish militias. The two groups battled over full control of the city and made temporary truces when ISIS attacked.

In Vancouver trying to save my family

In December 2015, shortly after celebrating my first anniversary in B.C., a Canadian friend helped me start a campaign to raise the amount needed to privately sponsor my family to join me here. A few days after I started campaigning, I had the opportunity to be in the studio audience for the taping of Global National’s “Because it’s 2015: Conversation with the Prime Minister” that aired later on Christmas Day. At the taping, I was able to ask a question of the newly-elected Prime Minister specifically about my family. The next day, my first job interview in Canada was scheduled at ISSofBC Welcome House – the same place where my life in Canada started.

My life here was beginning to take shape, but I was constantly worried about my family’s safety. I also worried about raising enough money to help them and wanted them close.

My first Christmas

On Christmas Eve Day 2015, I earned a Canadian graduating as a health care assistant. That same day I got news that I was offered the job I had interviewed for, which was welcoming other refugees from all over the world to the country. It was my first Christmas experience and I was given the most wonderful first gifts from Canadian friends. Yet one of these wasn’t under the tree—it came in the form of a phone call. A kind Canadian couple phoned to offer the extremely generous donation that helped my campaign to reunite my family meet its target. I could now start the process of reuniting my scattered relatives who I missed so much.

I continue to support my refugee family financially and emotionally as we wait for them to join me safely here. Canadian missions overseas have been processing the family’s private sponsorship applications for over a year now. The state of limbo is dragging on, and it’s difficult for all of us on many levels. Yet the wisdom and inspiration of my grandfather’s story of finding a home keeps us hopeful for a new beginnings in Canada, far away from the Syrian quagmire of death.

Mohammed will be speaking at 2018 TEDx Stanley Park. For more information or tickets to the event click here.

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