Syrian refugees feel guilty for leaving relatives behind in war-torn country

Settlement agencies get requests every day from refugees who want to bring over their relatives from Syria, like an 80-year-old mother left behind in Aleppo, with bombs and gunfire not far away.

'Almost every refugee who comes has somebody who they left behind,' says settlement expert

The Sabounji family describes what it's like to phone their family every day and hear bombing in the background

6 years ago
Duration 0:41
Settlement agencies get requests every day from refugees who want to bring over their relatives from Syria, like an 80-year-old mother left behind in Aleppo, with the sounds of bombs and gunfire not far away.

It has been a year since Canada started getting an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees, with more than 2,000 settling in Calgary alone. This is Part 3 in a five-part series looking at how those refugees are doing a year in and the effects of that influx on their support agencies.

A simple bell ringing out from a nearby C-Train is enough to trigger a wave of emotion for Samira Sabounji.

The Syrian refugee and mother of three says the clanging reminds her of the church bells she used to hear in Aleppo, her beloved hometown which is in the throes of a devastating and long-running civil war.

"In my country, ring for church bells. I cried because I miss [it]," she said from the family's home in Edgemont, northwest Calgary.

The Sabounjis were sponsored by the First Alliance Church and arrived in Calgary in February with their three children, aged 8, 14 and 20.

But they also left behind close relatives — including her husband's mother and aunt. 

"It's difficult, it's so hard," says Sabounji, who was a teacher in Syria.

The refugee crisis has scattered members of her family all over Europe.

Anis Sabounji with his mother, Mary Tarakji, 80. (Sabounji Family)

Her husband, Anis Sabounji, speaks to his mother in Aleppo every day. Some of those conversations are interrupted by the sounds of bomb blasts and gunfire.

Anis says he would like his 80-year-old mother, Mary Tarakji, to come to Canada as well, but he feels helpless.

"Yeah, we hear the guns, the bombs sound," said Samira.   

For many of the thousands of refugees from Syria, this week marks the beginning of their second year in Canada. 

Nearly 5,000 will have arrived in Alberta by the end of the year — about half of those in Calgary.

Survivor guilt

"Almost every refugee who comes has somebody who they left behind," said Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), one of the main settlement agencies in Calgary.

"Actually, they feel guilty living in an environment like Canada, being free, having enough food, having good place to sleep, community life they have, it's always going to be a challenge," he said.

Fariborz Birjandian is CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. (CBC)

Birjandian says more than 2,000 people have approached CCIS, asking for help to bring over a father, brother, sister or other family member.

​"So that remains a challenge of us, that on a daily basis, we have to tell people coming here that we're sorry, we cannot sponsor their relatives," says Birjandian. 

Experts who've worked with refugees say the issue of family reunification needs to be addressed by the federal government.

"There will be a need for a policy response," says Julie Drolet, an assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary's Edmonton campus.

"That notion of survivor guilt, or the notion of thinking about those family members, can play a role in a person's ability to settle and integrate," Drolet says.

Challenges include untreated or undiagnosed medical conditions, along with trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Asad Alsalamat and his son Adnan, 14. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Asad Alsalamat, 44, is tremendously grateful for the opportunity to start a new life in Canada, a country he says is safe for his family. 

He and his wife have five children and are hoping to be reunited with his parents and brothers who are still in Daraa, a city south of Damascus.

"All Syria not safe because of fighting," he says. 

His relatives ask them about coming to Canada.

"They ask, but we can't do anything," says Adnan, Asad's 14-year-old son.

"I hope that to bring my family here. They would love to come here," he adds.

Samira and Anis Sabounji are relying on their faith to help bring their family together.

"We trust God to save them, but they can't do anything right now," said Anis Sabounji.