Further five family members arrive today
Pictured, members of the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group meet for the first time two members of the Syrian family they helped bring to Canada. Front row, beginning third from left, are St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee, Warda, Sponsorship Group chair Gwen Ament, and Marah. Also present are other members of the committee and host family.
By Dan Rankin
Aleppo, formerly home to over 2 million people, used to be the biggest city in Syria. In 2012, considering the city to be controlled by rebels, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began conducting airstrikes on Aleppo. Prior to one such attack, a father and his young son had been having tea on their apartment balcony when a bomb exploded below them. Shielding his son from the blast, the father felt shrapnel from the bomb shoot into his back.
Miraculously, both survived that day, as they dropped everything and fled the city with five other family members. For the next four years, they were in a state of limbo along with millions of other Syrian citizens who had been caught up in a violent struggle between their oppressive government and extremist groups.
Today, after years of hardships few Canadians have experienced, that family has arrived here in St. Marys.
That story, about fleeing Aleppo in 2012, was one of the stories told, through an interpreter, to the members of the St. Marys Refugee Sponsorship Group in Toronto last Saturday morning. The group had come to pick up the first two members of the family the community had sponsored, Warda and her 20-year-old daughter Marah, who had departed the Middle East separately.
The other five members of their family, Warda’s older daughter and son (the father struck by shrapnel) along with his wife and two children – a five-year-old son and four-year-old daughter – were due to arrive in Toronto yesterday. In an interview Wednesday, Sponsorship Group chair Gwen Ament said she would be making a return trip to greet and deliver the rest of the family to St. Marys today.
Ament said meeting Warda and Marah Saturday had gone better than she ever could have anticipated, though it also felt somewhat surreal. They were surrounded by other groups of refugees waiting to meet their sponsors.
“Right next to us, there was a little girl practicing her A,B,C’s with her parents,” she said. “It was just adorable.”
While Warda and Marah appeared happy and thankful to the group of St. Marys residents who had made the trip, “There was also a degree of anxiety because they didn’t know at that point yet what the story was with the five others,” Ament said. “They’re pretty excited now.”
While today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of the seven family members, Ament said that Warda told them a new part of the story that they had previously had no idea about. “Warda has four other children,” Ament said.
Two of those four have their United Nations certified refugee papers already, but the whereabouts of the other two is unknown, she said.
“They have no idea what’s happened to them, and they haven’t been in touch since 2012,” Ament said. “They got split up. These seven were together in two neighbouring apartments. When the bombing happened, it happened all at once. They had very little time. They had to immediately leave.”
St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee was in Toronto for a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame function, and was present as the Sponsorship Group first met Warda and Marah.
He called it an incredibly emotional experience. “The first thing Warda did when she came off the elevator was ask if we had heard anything else about the rest of her family,” he said. “That’s what struck me, her concern for the people who hadn’t made it yet. She seemed incredibly grateful, but also incredibly human and down to earth.”
Having arrived in St. Marys last weekend, Ament said the two women have been outfitted with an apartment and a cellphone, as well as an explanation of some of the quirks of St. Marys that residents may take for granted. “We had to explain about the fire siren that goes off, and the blasts at the cement plant,” she said. “We’re all used to that, but that would be a different sound for them.”
Mayor Strathdee said the community response to the refugee sponsorship group has made him proud. “It has been overwhelming,” he said. “Despite all the negativity in the news and so forth, in my opinion St. Marys has really risen up to the challenge.”
Over $30,950 has been raised towards the Sponsorship Group’s goal of $50,000. To donate, visit donate.mcccanada.ca/registry/st-marys-refugee-sponsorship-group.