Iraqi refugees bound for Canada stuck in Syria
'They are just waiting for any hope and begging us, don't leave us alone,' sponsor says
Reem Hameed desperately scours the internet each day for news about her sister and other Iraqi refugees who have been accepted to come to Canada but who are now trapped by the conflict in Syria.
Hameed, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont., is among hundreds of private sponsors, including church and community groups, who have agreed to support refugees from Iraq.
But hundreds of the refugees, including Hameed's sister, Lula, and her two sons, are now caught in the growing violence in Syria. Hameed says the danger grows every day. Last month, two large explosions damaged her sister's home. The explosion also hit a bus that Lula's son normally takes to school.
Waiting for hope
"She was just shaking. It is so difficult for her," Hameed says, barely holding back tears. "They are just waiting for any hope and begging us, don't leave us alone."
Hameed's sister and her family fled Iraq and first went to Libya. But the war in Libya, along with threats on their lives, forced them to flee again. In April 2011, they were granted temporary residency in Syria. They contacted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and were accepted and acknowledged as refugees.
Hameed says she and her family then applied to sponsor them as part of a Canadian government plan to settle thousands of Iraqi refugees in Canada. Their applications were accepted at the visa office in Damascus. But then the violence in Syria escalated and Canada closed its Damascus visa office in January, leaving the refugees in limbo.
Last month, Canadian immigration officials told CBC News that the department would begin by the end of May to process the applications of Iraqi refugees in Syria using video conferencing with Canadian visa offices in other parts of the Middle East.
But it's not clear if that has begun. In a statement Thursday to CBC News, Immigration department spokesperson Bill Brown wrote: "CIC continues its efforts to process as many Iraqi applications as possible under the circumstances. However, for security reasons, we cannot comment further on overseas refugee processing operations."
Lives on hold
The lack of information from Ottawa means frustration for Hameed and others. Hameed says her emails to immigration officials in Canada and at visa offices abroad have gone unanswered. Hameed says she's grateful Canada agreed to accept refugees from Iraq, but she says the situation for those caught in Syria gets more desperate every day.
"Their lives are on hold," she says. "How long will it take? God only knows."
Canada had identified refugees from Iraq as a priority group in need of protection. It has agreed to accept 2,500 Iraqi refugees each year for the next several years. Most are being sponsored by church groups and other private sponsors who provide financial and social support for the refugees when they arrive.
Meanwhile, Reem Hameed tries to maintain daily contact with her sister. Lula's cellphone service was recently cut, off so now she relies on email.
Hameed worries about the escalating violence in the region and for the safety of her relatives.
"Just give her a visa and let her and her family come here and live in peace," she said. "This is the only thing that we want."