After tumult of war, deaf Syrian family finds peace in Canada
When deaf teenager Mohamad was shot in the neck, his family fled for their lives. Now they are starting over in Canada.
CALGARY, Canada, March 21 (UNHCR) - Profoundly deaf, Mohamad al Kawarit did not hear the gun shot ring out as he made his way to prayers at the mosque in Al-Harra, his hometown in southern Syria.
But when he felt a jolt of pain and saw blood gushing from his neck, the 15-year-old knew he had been struck by a bullet. Clutching his neck, he waited for the flashing lights of the ambulance that took him to hospital in Dara'a province.
The war in Syria, and that stray round in particular, sent Mohamad and his family - his father and three of his siblings are also deaf - to Lebanon. The family ultimately found safety in Canada as government-assisted refugees, stepping off a plane in this prairie city of 1.2 million people last December.
"If I say thank you to the Canadian Government and the Canadian people every day, it would not be enough," says Mohamad's mother, Souad Al Nouri, speaking through an interpreter in the tidy, sofa-lined living room of their new house.
As Souad shares her family's story, her husband and children quietly converse in sign language. Diana, 10, cradles the youngest brother - who has cerebral palsy - in her arms.
For the family of eight, life in Canada is a return to much-needed stability, after years spent in mortal danger and flight. In Al-Harra, Souad and her husband, Hassan al Kawarit, ran successful businesses, including a construction company and several bakeries. The children had the support they needed for their disabilities. "Our life in Syria was very good," says Souad.
After the conflict erupted five years ago, the family hoped to remain in al-Harra. "For the first few months, everything was okay," says Souad. But peace did not last, and they fled to another village in Syria.
They tried returning to Al-Harra a few months later, after gathering from news stories that it was safe to go back, but they found their home had been partially destroyed by fire. "No doors, no windows, nothing," recalls Souad.
The family tried to make it habitable by putting plastic sheeting over the windows, but their return proved to be short lived. A few months later Mohamad was shot, and then militants stormed the town, triggering a hurried evacuation. On the day they fled for the last time in 2014, 15 people were killed in the melee, Souad recalls.
The family first sought refuge in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where they stayed in a refugee settlement in the town of Saadnayel, before eventually moving into a decrepit apartment. "Our situation got turned upside down," says Souad.
The children were not in school, and the disruption took its toll. "They were like someone in the desert who doesn't know where to go," she said.
The family registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and sought resettlement. When the call came informing them that they had been selected for resettlement to Canada, Souad wept. "I cannot describe the feeling," she says. "I was so happy." Hassan and the children danced for joy. "It was like a birthday party."
Partnering with UNHCR, Canada has resettled more than 26,000 Syrian refugees since November. Most are government-assisted refugees like Souad's family, who have been initially resettled in 36 communities around the country, where they receive a one-time start-up allowance plus monthly support.
"Resettling refugees is a proud part of Canada's humanitarian tradition," says Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for the Government agency Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. "It demonstrates to the world that we have a shared responsibility to help those who are displaced, persecuted and most in need of protection."
Once government-assisted refugees arrive in Canada, NGOs help them settle in. The Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, or CCIS, found a house for Souad and Hassan to rent on a quiet street in one of the city's most multicultural neighbourhoods. The agency also assisted with furnishing their new place, setting up bank accounts and help them enrol in services including healthcare.
The agency stays in close contact with the family. "We follow up with them until they will be okay," says Ashour Esho, the family's resettlement counsellor with CCIS.
The newcomers also get informal support from Syrian Refugees Support Group Calgary, an organization of local volunteers who provide refugees with furniture and other items. The volunteers make a point of befriending the newcomers.
Souad has found a good friend in Honne Jeha, a local mother and one of the volunteers. "If she needs something," says Jeha, "I'm here."
Jeha helped Souad and Hassan register their children for school, and showed them where to buy Middle Eastern food and how to get to the children's hospital. "They still need help just to adjust to life," says Jeha. "To get around. Because everything's foreign to them."
Even so, three months into their life in Canada, Souad feels at home. "In Canada, I am in Syria," she says. "It's like my country. The people are friendly. They are good-hearted. I am so happy here."
Now the family faces the challenges of learning English and finding work. To this end, Souad has begun language classes five days a week. Hassan hopes to do the same soon. "If they learn the language, they will be okay," says Esho. "But for now, that's why we are with them. To help them. To ask: what do you need?"
The children go to three different schools in Calgary, according to their needs. After being out of school for nearly two years in Lebanon, they are relishing being in a classroom again. "The kids found themselves here," says Souad. "They found their direction."
Her daughter Nour, 12, wants to be a teacher. Ahmad, 14, wants to be a doctor. And Mohamad is impressing everyone with his navigation skills. "Mohamad amazes me," says Jeha. "He's deaf but he's so incredibly smart." He's a whiz at getting around Calgary on the transit system, often going to a nearby recreation centre to lift weights.
"He doesn't know English, but he's able to add addresses into the phone," says Jeha. "He's adapted very well."
Looking ahead, Souad is optimistic that her family will thrive in the country that welcomed them in their time of need. "I dream that my kids will do something good for Canada, because Canada saved us," she says. "We have to give that back."
By Jeremy Klaszus in Calgary, Canada