Syrian refugees evacuated from Fort McMurray

Syrian refugees Abdul Almouazan and his family fled Tuesday's wildfire just two months after settling into their new home in Fort McMurray.

Instead of 'missiles hunting them,' the wildfire’s embers rained down on them

Two years after Abdul Almouazan and his family fled the horrors of Syria, Fort McMurray's wildfire has forced him to leave the new home he loves. (Dave Rae/CBC News)

Fleeing a massive wildfire can feel a lot like fleeing war.

"Like when the missiles come down and burned the whole neighbourhood," says Fort McMurray evacuee Abdul Almouazan, 66, through a translator.

Two years ago, Almouazan fled war-torn Syria with his family of eight. In February, they began their new life in Fort McMurray. Almouazan felt safe, "like a human being again."

Canada is like a mother for us with its tenderness and love.-  Abdul   Almouazan

But two months on, he is one of 140 evacuees finding shelter at Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton. Uprooted again, his smile is still frequent, but it triggers memories of the horrors in Syria.

Almouazan recalls bombs flattening homes, "people being killed all around him" and "pieces of people flying in the air."

Bombs often rained down around his daughter's house by the hospital, he says. One day she disappeared. He doesn't know if she's alive.

Her two children are now with Almouazan in Edmonton. So is his wife, his son, daughter-in-law, and their three children.

If not for them, Almouazan says he never would have fled Syria. He never imagined fearing for their lives when they arrived in Canada.
Abdul Almouazan fled Syria, then Fort McMurray with 8 family members including his 7-year-old granddaughter.

On the run again

But that changed Tuesday when, they escaped the smoke thickening around their beloved Timberlea home, heading to the local mosque.

Then the municipality issued a mandatory evacuation order. Suddenly, Almouazan and his family were on the run again.

It felt eerily familiar, he says, recalling moving from one shelter to the next in Syria. But rather than "missiles hunting them," the wildfire's embers rained down on them instead.

Compared to Syria's loud explosions, Almouazan found the fire hauntingly quiet. He's sitting cross legged in the cot where he'll later sleep. Colourful prayer beads jingle in his hand. He's had them ever since Syria because they're always in his pocket.

Now they're all he has. His family left home Tuesday without anything figuring they'd soon be back.  

Making his way through the chaos and devastation of Syria and now Fort Mac, Almouazan has touched bead after bead, repeating the name of Allah.

It brings inner peace, he says.
Abdul Almouazan and other Fort McMurray evacuees join Edmontonians in prayer at Al Rashid Mosque. (Dave Rae/CBC News)

Despite all the loss among the evacuees at Al Rashid, faith seems to be in abundance. Almouazan's smiling friend in the next cot says he also fled Syria with his young family four years back.

Another evacuee gets off the phone. Crestfallen, he tells the two men his home has burned down, adding he too was once a refugee from Somalia.

"Alhamdulillah," they say softly, which translates as "Praise be to Allah" — a phrase to be used in both good times and adversity. 

On Thursday, mayor Melissa Blake spoke about Fort McMurray "as a community that welcomes refugees" now being refugees themselves.

"People are being so kind," said Blake, her voice thick with emotion. "They're willing to take us into their homes. And now I know what it feels like."

'Even if they left Fort McMurray, they still have a house somewhere else in this country,' says Al Rashid Mosque's executive director Omar Najmeddine. (Dave Rae/CBC News)

In contrast, some of those helping were once on the receiving end. The executive director of Al Rashid Mosque fled bombs as a child during the civil war in Lebanon. Later he immigrated to Canada for the safety of his own children.

"It makes you feel more what they are going through and how it feels when they leave their houses," said Omar Najmeddine. "Whether it's war or natural disaster, they are leaving their houses and everything they own."

"We opened our doors just to show people they are not in the middle of nowhere. Even if they left Fort McMurray, they still have a house somewhere else in this country."

As Almouazan waits for the day he can return to Fort McMurray to rebuild his life yet again, he expresses gratitude for the Canadians who have offered him and his family refuge not once, but twice. 

"I feel like Canada is like a mother for us with its tenderness and love."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca       @andreahuncar

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About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca