British Columbia

After 6 months in limbo due to COVID-19, Syrian refugee family arrives in Haida Gwaii

After a more than six-month delay due to COVID-19, a family of Syrian refugees has finally arrived on Haida Gwaii.

The effort to bring the young family of five to Canada began 2 years ago

Esraa Alissa with her husband Moustafa Ali and their three children after touching down at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday, Oct. 1. (Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii)

After a more than six-month delay due to COVID-19, a family of Syrian refugees has finally arrived on Haida Gwaii.

"When they landed, all they said was, 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We're very happy. We're very happy. We're very happy,'" said Beng Favreau, who sponsored the family's settlement alongside her group, Operations Refugee Haida Gwaii. 

"They kept repeating and repeating and repeating. They were just in tears."

Favreau said Esraa Alissa, her husband Moustafa Ali and their three young children, Sandy, Hasan and Talia, had expected to fly to Canada from Lebanon in March. But travel restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 disrupted their plan. 

At the time, Favreau — who started the family's sponsorship process two years ago — was unsure if they would ever make it to Canada. 

"We have been waiting for too long," she told Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC's Daybreak North, on Monday. 

Beirut blast

When the family learned their trip had been cancelled in the spring, Favreau said they were "disheartened" but had a safe place to stay near Lebanon's capital, Beirut. The family had migrated to Lebanon from Aleppo a few years earlier.

Then came the massive explosion at Beirut's port on Aug. 4, which killed nearly 200 people and was reportedly felt on the neighbouring island of Cyprus, roughly 240 kilometres away.

Haze and commotion surrounded the building where the family was staying, according to Favreau, forcing them to stay indoors.

"That's all they could do," she said.

Later in August, the federal government told Operations Refugee Haida Gwaii to begin arranging new travel plans for the family. 

But now they had another hurdle to jump.

A floatplane carrying the young Syrian family arrives on Sunday. (Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii)

In late July, the British Columbia government banned all non-essential travel to Haida Gwaii, following an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. A local state of emergency remains in effect.

To assure the Council of the Haida Nation that the family would pose no threat, Favreau said the organization devised a detailed travel and quarantine plan, including ensuring the parents would wear masks during their journey and meals would be delivered to their hotel room to prevent public exposure to the virus. 

A growing community

On Sunday, the family arrived in a float plane, greeted by a few members of the small Syrian community that has taken root on Haida Gwaii in recent years. 

The newcomers join three other families who have fled Syria's ongoing civil war, including one previously sponsored by Favreau's organization. 

Beng Favreau, left, greets the Syrian newcomers, right, with other Syrian children who have made Haida Gwaii their new home in recent years. (Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii )

"We don't have big bucks. But I feel strongly that we need to help because we are human beings," she told CBC News. "If we can help one family at a time, that is something that we can do."

After completing her mandatory isolation, the family's oldest daughter will start first grade in two weeks. Meanwhile, Moustafa hopes to work again as a mechanic like he did in Syria. 

There's much paperwork and details to work through, explained Favreau. But food isn't an issue. She says the local Syrian community has been preparing meals all week and the fridge has been stocked full.