British Columbia

'He has a big heart': cross-continent kindness could save Syrian man from blindness

Florida resident Tom Smith went to great lengths trying to donate money to sponsor a family from Syria. He couldn't find an organization in the United States, so he turned to Canada.

Florida resident donates almost $60,000 Cdn to help Syrian family

Anais is currently waiting in Erbil, Iraq, for his refugee application to be approved by the Canadian government. (Paul Schemm/Associated Press)

It's a race against time for a Syrian family who is struggling to bring to Canada their brother, who has been told he will go blind without medical intervention.

Thanks to help from an unlikely source, their struggle may end. 

Hayfa Schichmouse and her sister Serin arrived in Canada two years ago. They're originally from the town of Al-Hasakah in Syria. Since they arrived, they've been trying to bring over their 26-year-old brother Anais.

Anas Schichmouse fled Syria's war and is living in Erbil, in northern Iraq.

According to a medical document written by a Swedish doctor working in Iraq, Schichmouse, who has been suffering from severe visual impairments since childhood, is in need of a corneal transplant after his eye rejected one performed 11 years ago.

The operation is not currently available in Erbil, and Schichmouse said his eyesight worsens each day.

The Sehmus family's efforts to bring their brother to Canada may soon be realized thanks to a man on the other side of the continent.

Florida resident Tom Smith first began trying to help people fleeing the Middle East when he was inspired by footage of Syrian refugee camps.

Smith — hoping to donate funds to help bring refugees to the United States — first turned to his local churches and rescue organizations. However, he had little success finding a sponsorship program that would help settle Syrian refugees in the United States.

He said he became frustrated with the lack of initiatives available in the U.S.

​'Wasting your time'

"We thought it would be easy to give money to bring people over here ... but we found that our current administration has a lack of compassion for helping people from Syria," said Smith, noting that 31 American state governors said they would not accept Syrian refugees.

​"None of them gave us any hope that we could ever do anything in the U.S. They said 'you are wasting your time.'"

Anais' sister, Serin Sehmus, was told by Turkish doctors that she did not receive treatment for her eye condition soon enough and consequently lost her sight. (CBC)

When Smith read a New York Times article detailing private refugee sponsorship programs in Canada, he decided to take a different approach.

Smith contacted the Refugee Council in New York. The organization's executive director had recently attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland and had met Chris Friesen, the director of settlement services for Vancouver's Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

Smith obtained Friesen's phone number, connected with him, and now they are working together.

A big heart

With Friesen's help, Smith and a family friend have arranged to help privately sponsor Schichmouse and another Syrian family. Smith agreed to donate close to $60,000 to Vancouver's Immigrant Services for the sponsorship.

"It was a random act of kindness that reinforced my faith in humanity," said Friesen.

"We were very excited and thought 'Whoa, this is cool. Maybe there is a silver lining to Trump's election outcome.'"

Schichmouse, speaking through a translator and over the phone from Iraq, said he has been given new hope by this act of kindness from a total stranger.

"I respect him very much," said Schichmouse.

​"When I finish my education, when my vision gets better, that person will be part of my family. He has a big heart."

Schichmouse' refugee application was approved by the Canadian government in July.  Now, his family waits for word of when he might arrive, which can take months or even years. The government was not able comment on his case for privacy reasons but did say people with medical conditions can be prioritized.

Once Schichmouse arrives, Smith hopes to come to Vancouver to meet him.

With files from Susana da Silva and Michelle Ghoussoub