'I felt that I was dreaming': After 2 year struggle, cross-continent kindness brings Syrian man to Vancouver
'When my eyes are fixed, I hope the first thing I see is you'
A Syrian man with a degenerative eye disease has arrived in Vancouver after a two-year struggle to come to Canada, thanks to the kindness of strangers.
Anas Schichmouse, 26, fled Syria's war and has been living in Erbil, in northern Iraq. He's in need of a corneal transplant and has been told he's at risk of permanently losing his eyesight if his eyes are not operated on soon.
His sisters, Hayfa Schichmouse and Serin, arrived in Canada two years ago. Originally from the town of Al-Hasakah in Syria, they've been trying to bring Anas over for two years.
Serin, who suffers from a similar eye condition as Anas, has already lost her vision. She was told if she had arrived in Canada just weeks earlier, her vision might have been saved.
As Anas waited in Iraq, she feared her brother, too, would become permanently blind.
That's where Florida resident Tom Smith comes in.
Smith said he'd hoped to help bring a Syrian refugee family to the U.S., but as he contacted various refugee groups, found that it was next to impossible.
After reading an article in the New York Times about Canada's private sponsorship refugee program, he contacted Chris Friesen at Immigrant Services Society of B.C. to see whether an American could sponsor Syrians to come to Canada.
"It was poignant. It's the phone calls that don't happen that frequently and when they do, it's powerful," said Friesen, describing the moment that Smith called, saying he wanted to pay the full $20,000 to bring someone over.
Smith and co-sponsors Katie and Rick Wandoff then began the process of sponsoring Anas so that he could join his sisters in Canada.
At the arrivals gate at Vancouver International Airport, Anas' family craned their necks for a glimpse of him, clutching flowers and hand-drawn signs in English and Arabic.
When he arrived, his sisters rushed in for a hug.
Unable to see them through his blurred vision, Anas softly asked "who is this" as he held each of them.
"I'm very emotional about it. It's wonderful. You don't have an opportunity very often to make a difference in somebody's life," said Smith, blinking back tears.
"I feel like I'm reborn, I felt that I was dreaming, because for a while I lost hope," said Anas, speaking through a translator.
"When my eyes are fixed, I hope the first thing I see is you," he said to Smith.