How one family fled torture and persecution in Syria and found asylum in Canada through private sponsorship. A story of survival, sacrifice and the price of a life
His name is Marwan and he’s 33 years old. I can’t tell you his last name—he’s worried that his relatives in Syria will be persecuted or even killed if their identities are revealed. Marwan grew up in Jasim, a city of about 40,000 people in the Daraa region, the southwestern agricultural hub of Syria. He married a woman named Safa and got a job transporting animal feed at a granary for about $7,000 per year. In his spare time, he built his family two rooms and a kitchen above his parents’ home. The couple had a son, Oudai, in 2006, followed by another boy, Qousai, a year later.
Marwan is well over six feet tall, with vivid green eyes and close-cropped hair. He has the robustly muscular look of a video game hero, but his manner is tender, almost shy—neighbours called him the Gentle Giant. Marwan led a good life until May 2011, when Jasim was occupied by regime troops seeking to quash the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. A few months later, Marwan’s cousin defected from the armed forces. As per army custom, Assad’s soldiers began hunting down his relatives.
On November 28, 2012, Marwan, Safa and the children were finishing dinner. “We’d put fruit on the table after we’d eaten, and I was going outside to hang laundry,” recalls Safa. She is a small woman with round features and thickly fringed brown eyes. “I opened the door and saw a troop of regime soldiers approaching.” Safa rushed to the family room to warn Marwan, but before she could say a word, the men had forced their way inside the house. They arrested Marwan, threw him in the back of a truck and brought him to a nearby hospital that the army had converted into a detention centre. Marwan had nothing to do with the conflict, but the army was convinced he knew where his cousin was hiding.
“The first day was the worst,” he says. “They tied me to a chair and poured water over my head so I couldn’t breathe.” Over and over, they asked Marwan to give up his cousin’s location, and each time he said he didn’t know. After four days of torture, they offered him a deal: they’d let him go if he signed a document pledging to inform on the rebellion soldiers. Fearing for his family, he agreed. Once he’d done this, he realized, both the army and the opposition had cause to target him.
Marwan had been swept into a conflict that traces back to 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, a member of the tiny Shiite Alawite sect, emerged as dictator. When he died in 2000, his son, Bashar, took over as president. The younger Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, was initially celebrated as a modern reformer among both Syrians and foreign powers. In the first years of his rule, he released hundreds of political prisoners and brought the Internet to Syria. But it soon became clear that Bashar was not so different from his father: he relied heavily on censorship and brutality to quell dissidence among the population. He also liberalized the economy, which increased wealth among the country’s elite business and political classes, but left Marwan’s home district of Daraa destitute.
In February 2011, a group of Daraa teenagers defaced a school wall with anti-government graffiti. “The people want the regime to fall,” they scrawled. The Syrian army rounded them up, arrested them and detained them. Rumours circulated that the children were being tortured and, inspired by recent uprisings across the Middle East, civilians in Daraa staged large-scale demonstrations, which were met with mass arrests, torture and killings. Within months, regime troops had taken over.
Over the next year, Syrian civilians began counterattacks on Assad’s army. There were various groups of armed rebels, many of whom gathered under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. These factions gained ground, and finally, in June 2012, open warfare broke out between the FSA and the regime troops in Jasim. Snipers perched on rooftops, ready to shoot civilians who ventured out past curfew. Marwan removed his kids from school to keep them safe at home. “I was scared for my children,” he says. “I thought, This will never end.” By the time he was arrested, the city’s hospitals, ambulances and main water tank were in ruins.
In December 2012, Marwan was released into this chaos and slowly made his way home. He was bruised and disoriented—alive, but driven by new conviction. “I decided to take my family and go anywhere,” he says. “What mattered was that we got far away from Jasim.”
Two weeks after Marwan got out of prison, he packed up his family and left Jasim on foot. The violence had shut down the main roads and bus routes, so the family left late at night, walking through farmland to protect themselves from the shelling, bombing and gunfire overhead. They took frequent detours to hide from army and rebel checkpoints along the major roadways. The next morning, they reached the town of al-Qunia, where a bus to Damascus was still operating. When they arrived, Marwan dropped off his wife and children at the home of his aunt, and fled by bus to Masnaa, a bridge on the Lebanese border, where he paid a facilitator $130 to let him jump the queue into the country. There, Marwan joined an estimated 60,000 other Syrian refugees.
The first thing he did was register as a refugee with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which oversees the provision of basic shelter, food and health care for asylum seekers. He received a voucher for $130 per month, an amount Marwan figured would cover about 20 percent of monthly expenses for his family.
Many Syrians who have fled to Lebanon set up tent camps; others seek shelter in abandoned buildings or live on the streets. In Baaqline, a town outside Beirut, Marwan met a fellow Syrian who found him a place to stay—a small room in a building under construction, with no furniture, water or electricity. The next step was finding work. There was a public square in Baaqline where 100 to 150 people would gather looking for odd jobs. On any given day, between 20 and 25 men would get work. “It all depended on luck,” he says. “Occasionally, you’d work with someone once and he’d then hire you for a few days more. At best, you’d get five days of work.” He eventually got a semi-regular job as a labourer at a livestock feed plant. On good days, he’d make $20 per day, but sometimes he’d earn only $5. Other days he didn’t work at all. After a couple of months at the feed plant, Marwan had saved enough money to bring his family to Lebanon.
Over the next year they squatted in a basement, a space they shared with a family of five. During that time, Safa had a third child, a girl they called Rouba. But it was getting harder to survive on the rations they were allotted. By the end of 2013, more than two million Syrians had fled the civil war into countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Little by little, UNHCR funds were being depleted as the organization dealt with the increasing numbers of Syrian refugees, and the family’s monthly stipend was reduced to $67 per month. There was a voucher for heating oil, but this was withdrawn before the winter ended—a dangerous situation for a family living in a cold, high-altitude area of Lebanon. Marwan began borrowing from his brother in the United Arab Emirates to cover expenses. “We were heavily indebted,” he says. “Life was hell.”
Canadian refugee policy has always shifted with the political winds. When the UN drafted the Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951, the Canadian government refused to sign it, fearing that doing so would prevent Canada from being able to deport refugees they considered security risks. Canada didn’t sign on until 1969 and, a few years later, finally tabled a new Immigration Act that for the first time recognized refugees as a special immigrant class.
Until 1979, refugees coming to Canada were sponsored publicly; the government covered all costs for processing and resettlement. But the influx of Vietnamese boat people fleeing war-torn Southeast Asia prompted Joe Clark’s government to augment our refugee program with a novel addition: private sponsorship. By allowing private groups such as churches to assume financial responsibility for resettling refugees, the government was able to resettle more than 60,000 Indochinese people between 1979 and 1980. Since the creation of the private sponsorship program, the government has also formed a blended visa model, in which the federal government matches refugees with a private sponsor group, and splits the costs for a year. To this day, Canada is the only country in the world with a private refugee sponsorship program.
The Harper government amended some of these progressive policies three years ago. Suddenly, people like Marwan were required to apply through the UNHCR, which added months to their application process. The government also decided to sponsor fewer refugees, shifting the onus to private organizations: back in 2005, less than 40 per cent of refugees coming into Canada were privately sponsored. By 2013, that percentage had risen to well above half. That same year, Jason Kenney announced that Canada would take in up to 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. However, only 200 would be government-assisted refugees; the rest would be privately funded.
Dawn Clarke is the minister at Perth Road United Church in Kingston, Ontario. She’s 67, with a warm, hippie vibe and long grey hair pulled back in a bun. In December 2013, she found herself stricken with insomnia. “I would turn on the radio in the middle of the night and hear stories of suffering in Syria,” Clarke tells me over lunch in downtown Kingston. “The refugee numbers kept rising. I had to do something,” she says. “I knew that if I put the cost of sponsoring one family on my line of credit, it would still be there when I died. But I would sleep better.” She wasn’t sure where to start, so she approached Mohammed Saleem, the president of the Islamic Society of Kingston, and asked him if he knew anyone who had family displaced by the conflict. Two weeks later, Saleem put her in touch with a PhD student at Queen’s University named Yasir who had Syrian relatives in Lebanon and Jordan. His wife, Sabah, had a brother who was living in especially brutal circumstances in Lebanon. His name was Marwan.
Clarke told her stepdaughter, Annette Wilde, about her plans to sponsor the family, and Wilde immediately stepped in to help. She realized it was too much for one person to take on. Wilde is a mother of two who runs her own software company in Toronto. After work and on weekends, she’d make the three-hour drive to Kingston to meet with Clarke. Together, they navigated the world of Canadian refugee sponsorship: a complex and often baffling process.
Clarke and Wilde had a couple of options: find three more people and apply as a community sponsorship group, or apply as a constituent group of the United Church of Canada, which was already a sponsorship agreement holder with the federal government. (There are 96 SAHs, most of them churches or religious groups, across the country. Forty-five of them are in Ontario.) Given the pre-existing relationship between SAHs and the federal government, applying as a constituent group through an SAH was the fastest, easiest route. They came up with the name Save a Family From Syria and set up a website for the group to generate publicity and gather funds.
As private sponsors, they would be assuming complete responsibility for the family’s resettlement. “We knew we’d need at least $35,000 for a family of five,” says Wilde. “Dawn was just going to pay for whatever we couldn’t raise. She went to each of her friends and I went to mine, asking for big donations.”
By this time, conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon were growing dire. Relations between the Lebanese and Syrians have always been tense, but with one million Syrians in a country of four million, the refugees became the target of discrimination and hostility. After Marwan had been in Lebanon for a year, the government introduced a curfew for Syrians, who at that point made up 25 to 30 per cent of the population. Whenever Marwan tried to go out after curfew alone, locals would harass him. “Even when Lebanese people glanced at you, it was as if you were subhuman,” Marwan says. “Police would patrol after 6 p.m. If you wanted to buy a carton of milk for your child or a loaf of bread, you couldn’t go unless you took a Lebanese person with you.” Lebanon also introduced a law requiring Syrian refugees to renew their residency permit every six months, under the sponsorship of a Lebanese national. “Imagine that!” Marwan says, laughing. “Where was I going to find someone Lebanese to sponsor me?”
Marwan spent hours chatting on WhatsApp with Yasir, who would then transcribe information for Clarke and Wilde to record on the sponsorship application. He sent documents to Canada by email and post that verified his family’s situation in Syria, and why he would be in danger if he went back. “We told them to get their birth certificates, get their high school certificates, get all the addresses they’d ever lived at,” says Wilde. “We needed a complete story about what happened to them in Syria and why they had to leave.” In September 2014, the application was finally finished. After Marwan and his family signed and returned a printed copy, the team submitted it to the head office of the United Church of Canada, which, after approving it, sent it to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office in Winnipeg.
Getting CIC’s approval is notoriously slow. “It can take a month before they can review it and approve it, and then years longer to process,” Wilde says. (The government has since committed more resources to the office in Winnipeg to speed things up.) But in this case, the process was even more complicated. In October, as they were waiting for approval from CIC, Marwan and Safa found out they were expecting a fourth child. The family of five was about to become a family of six, and though they were more desperate than ever to leave the country, they had to resubmit their entire application.
The whole time, the sponsorship group was actively fundraising. The Islamic Society of Kingston, which had been raising money for Syrian refugees since the conflict started, began asking for donations at their Friday prayer meetings, and holding pizza and movie nights for families, the proceeds of which went to the Save a Family From Syria fund. In partnership with the Catholic community, they held a fair at Regiopolis-Notre Dame, a local high school, and banked the profits. But Clarke and Wilde still had trouble raising enough money. As awareness of the refugee crisis continued to mount, so did the backlash among Canadians who resisted the idea of sponsoring refugees from a Muslim nation. “A lot of people were asking, ‘Why aren’t we helping Canadians first? Why are we helping foreigners?’ ” Wilde recalls. This response was particularly pronounced in Kingston, a town with a Muslim population of only 2,000. “People just hadn’t been exposed,” she says. “They didn’t go to school with kids who were Muslim.”
In early 2015, a year after they began the sponsorship process, Wilde and Clarke had still only raised $18,000, just over half of what they’d need to cover the estimated costs. Then they got a letter from a group of nuns called the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, who offered a donation of approximately $20,000—enough to put them ahead of their goal. That week, Marwan received a call from the visa office, asking him and his family to come to Beirut for interviews, as well as medical and security screenings. At this stage, CIC routinely looks for red flags that indicate a refugee might be a security risk: a non-conscripted soldier, for example, or a member of a violent activist group. It was two hours away, and they paid a neighbour to drive them. A couple of months later, Safa gave birth to a baby girl they named Mais in a small clinic, paying for a midwife with a $60 voucher from the UNHCR.
They knew Mais’s birth would delay their application by six months, but that period came and went, and still they heard nothing about their application. Marwan started to worry that the visa office had forgotten about him. “Every day that passed was stressful,” says Marwan. “We lived in constant despair about the delays. There were some nights when I just didn’t sleep.”
Then, in August 2015, Marwan’s phone rang. It was the International Organization for Migration, confirming that the family would leave for Canada on September 24. “The children and I were all sitting together,” he recalls. “We were overjoyed. We were travelling to Canada! Once we got off the phone, I grabbed all of the children and wrapped them in a Canadian flag.” That night, Marwan says, he fell asleep instantly—his first peaceful rest in more than two years.
Every major war has its defining image, a picture that captures the tragedy of the conflict and rallies public sympathy for its victims. During the Vietnam War, it was a photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her naked body burned by napalm, running down a south Vietnamese road. In 2002, a photo of tortured detainees in Guantanamo Bay became emblematic of the abuses against prisoners during the War on Terror.
On September 2, 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis got its iconic image, when two small boats capsized off the coast of Bodrum, Turkey. The vessels were carrying 23 Syrians who were trying to leave Turkey and get to Greece. Among the 14 people who drowned was three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who was photographed washing up on shore: red T-shirt, little legs, face down in the sand. Within hours of its release, the image became the top trending photo on Twitter, under the Turkish hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (translation: “humanity washed ashore”). As that shot cycled through news reports across the globe, public awareness of the refugee crisis soared.
Money started pouring in to Save a Family From Syria. First, Lori Rand, a part-time curriculum co-ordinator at Queen’s, called Clarke. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “A lot of us have children the same age. We all knew about the crisis over the past few years, but the drowning mobilized us.” Rand started an email and Facebook fundraising campaign, which racked up $53,000 in six weeks, and held a clothing drive that provided enough items for Marwan’s family to last them through the spring. As word got out, more people stepped up. A mother at Rand’s children’s school donated her second car. A local Leon’s furniture store supplied beds for the whole family.
After the surge of interest in the Syrian crisis, the Harper government modified several of their policies. CIC announced that it would no longer require UNHCR certificates from privately sponsored refugees, which opened up the pool of potential applicants. They also increased staff in foreign embassies to expedite applications. Finally, they announced earlier this year that Canada would raise its quota for Syrian refugees to 10,000 by next September. Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has promised to spike that number up to 25,000 by the end of 2015. He has a long way to go. As of October, just 1,300 Syrians had arrived safely in Canada.
It’s easy to recognize agents from the International Organization for Migration: they wear bright blue vests. On Marwan’s trip from Lebanon to Kingston, the vests appeared at every stopover, escorting the family through customs, helping put them on planes, trafficking their luggage. Marwan was getting nervous again. “I was afraid that something would stop us in the airport,” he says.
At the Frankfurt airport, IOM agents helped Marwan, Safa and the children through arrivals and customs. “The arrivals person chastised us, saying ‘Why did you stop here?’ or ‘Get out of the way,’ ” recalls Safa. “He took a picture and he started writing something down. After that treatment, I told Marwan that I hope we don’t regret coming to Canada.” But when the family got off the plane at Pearson, they all felt reassured. “The first thing the officials did was welcome us,” says Marwan. “It was so simple, but it meant a lot to us.”
Marwan and his family now live in a three-bedroom apartment a 10-minute walk from Yasir and his wife. When I visited them at Yasir’s home, they passed around tea. Baby Mais was curled up asleep in her carrier. In the small kitchen, Marwan’s sister, Sabah, made a snack of falafel, and Oudai and Qousai parked on the sofa, watching soccer highlights on an iPad. They’d attended two days of school already, and while they had studied English in Syria, Oudai found the all-English instruction hard to follow. “I understand everything,” his brother countered. He then returned to the iPad. The boys hope to join a soccer team, and even talked about playing for Canada in the World Cup.
Marwan asked us about Toronto, whether there are jobs here. Right now, he said, he plans to go into an apprenticeship program for a trade, possibly plumbing. He enjoyed farming, but he heard it was difficult to get a farming job in the Kingston area without connections. He hopes he will find steady work, and that his children will settle in well.
Wilde and Clarke had so much success raising funds for Marwan’s family that they decided to do it again—this time for Yasir’s brother Maher, his wife, Ibtihaj, and their three daughters. Like Marwan, the family had fled Jasim on foot in 2013, taking only their birth certificates. Eventually, they paid a smuggler $400 to cross the Jordanian border and registered as UHNCR refugees at Zaatari, a sprawling refugee camp that has housed 430,000 people. They arrived two years after they’d first escaped Syria. They’re currently living in a townhouse complex in Kingston, sparsely furnished with donations from the community. There’s a shared garden, children’s books and stuffed animals are scattered about the surfaces, and index cards with English words—Monday, Tuesday, one, two, three—are taped up on the walls.
As privately sponsored refugees, Marwan and Maher have their expenses completely covered for the first 12 months of their stay in Canada—that includes the monthly rent on their respective homes, groceries, phone and clothing costs. The only exception is the loan Canada forwarded them for the costs of their travel. Marwan believes it comes to around $6,000. For the first year, they are eligible for OHIP, but not disability benefits, welfare, or extended health care. And unlike some countries, which offer temporary status to new refugees, Canada has given Marwan, Maher and their families permanent resident status.
They have access to language classes and counselling; once they have sufficient English, the government also arranges for job training and placement programs. If the sponsors run out of money before the end of this 12-month period, the families will have to go on public assistance, and the government will charge the SAH—in this case the United Church of Canada—for the additional costs. At the end of the year, the families will be expected to survive on their own. “Bottom line, as a group, the church has a moral obligation to make sure that by the end of the 12 months they are good to go,” says Wilde. “They have to get some education, some language. They have to integrate into the city.”
Before they left Lebanon, Marwan says, Canada was like a dream. Yasir had told him and Safa about the abundance of the land: the lakes and trees and snow. But he wasn’t prepared for the flourish of hope that came over him when they finally arrived. As the plane touched down on Toronto tarmac, Marwan remembered something from his Syrian youth. “We used to watch a cartoon series called Adnan Wa Lina,” he says. “It was about a time when the entire world had been destroyed by wars and earthquakes.” Characters flocked to the only surviving island, which was called the Island of Hope. “That feeling exhilarated me as the plane was landing,” Marwan says. “We’d been delivered to the land of hope. We can forget about the past.”