Winnipeg woman in Syria to help uncle escape conflict

When Shae Yakichuk got a call from the federal Conservative government, she thought for a moment that it was an answer to her prayers.
Members of the Free Syrian Army climb up stairs during a patrol in Haram town, Idlib Governorate, on Tuesday. (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)

When Shae Yakichuk got a call from the federal Conservative government, she thought for a moment that it was an answer to her prayers.

The Winnipeg woman had spent weeks asking them to help her rescue her uncle from their blood-stained homeland, Syria.

Shae's story

Here Shae Yakichuk's story on Information Radio on CBC Radio One on Friday, Nov. 2, at 7:45 a.m. CT.

Last weekend, she continued with her pleas as she travelled to Lebanon to help him from there.

However, the call Yakichuk got from the Conservatives was a request for contributions to the party.

"Here it is, four in the morning [Lebanon time], and I said, 'I appreciate your effort and I appreciate your passion,'" she said.

"However, I am sitting across the Syrian border in Lebanon, and I am trying to rally myself any financial support I can to get an ailing man with his toddlers out of Syria."

Dangerous ordeal

It was just one of several surreal moments the Syrian-Canadian has had ever since she left the comforts of her St. Vital home and travelled to Lebanon last weekend.

It's a dangerous ordeal and reminiscent of an episode of Mission: Impossible -- except it's real life, and Yakichuk is no expert in covert operations.

But her uncle and his toddlers are trapped inside Syria, hiding out from the violent civil war that's raging on their streets, afraid of both the regime and the rebel armies doing battle.

Yakichuk wants to get them out and bring them back to Canada. But finding her uncle, getting him safely across the border and into Lebanon, won't be easy.

Anyone who dares to leave their homes — or hiding spots — risks the wrath of the regime, she said.

"Anybody who leaves is shot … daily [my uncle] hears someone is shot, one of his neighbours tries to escape…. They're either kidnapped by the regime or just shot," Yakichuk said.

"This is, of course, to spread fears with the Syrian civilians in Syria, to stay where they are, basically."

Logistical nightmare

If anyone actually makes it to the border, Yakichuk said they will have a tough time crossing it without all the official paperwork, such as birth certificates.

It's a logistical landmine, since the government's shut down most of their offices, she added.

If somehow Yakichuk's uncle makes it into Lebanon, he will then have to take a number and wait in line behind the 100,000 or so other displaced Syrians seeking refugee solace and passage to a safer land.

Even there, outside Syria, they're still within reach of the Syrian regime, Yakichuk said.

Chris Ewert said he sensed that fear when he was there a few weeks ago.

Ewert, the humanitarian relief and disaster recovery co-ordinator with the Mennonite Central Committee, noted that even his Syrian counterparts were at risk.

"That was something very palpable, that they were concerned about their safety in Lebanon," Ewert said.

Don't know who to trust

"They wanted to meet in the basement in a room with no windows, and they were really concerned about being seen, and about their identities being revealed," he added.

Ewert said they have also come to realize that they don't know who to trust, and that includes the rebel fighters.   "Two of the four men that I met with were kidnapped in the last month," he said.

"What was interesting is the men I met with were Sunni Muslim and they were kidnapped by opposition Sunni Muslim. And so yeah, they are as afraid of the opposition group as they are of the government."

It's a fear that Yakichuk too, is facing, as she works the streets of Lebanon, trying to find someone she can trust, and someone who can help her uncle.

"That is the chance that I have to take, that's all that I have to go on," she said.

No guarantees

As for the federal government, a spokesperson for the Citizenship and Immigration Department told CBC News that it's not up to them to help get Yakichuk's uncle out of Syria.

The spokesperson said it's only when her uncle is in Lebanon that he can apply for refugee status.

But that is a process that could take years, and there's no guarantee the answer would be yes.

Still, even though she has neither the money or the connections to help save her uncle, Yakichuk said she had no choice but to risk her life and try.

"I came here so that I could get my uncle out," she said.

"I understand that I may fail, but I cannot sit in Winnipeg and wake up to go to university and go to work as nothing has happened, while I hear [my uncle] crying on the phone."