Syrian family reunites in Canada after father, son spent 3 years in Australian detention camp

A heartwrenching separation from family. A harrowing journey on the open sea. Three years of torment inside Australia's controversial detention system. Now an 18-year-old Syrian refugee and his father are settling in to their Saskatoon home.

'I feel like everything that happened to us is like a miracle. It didn't happen to us like we thought.'

Ali Kharsa is shown with his parents, Ahmed and Doha, in their Saskatoon home. (Bonnie Allen/CBC News)

A heartwrenching separation from family. A harrowing journey on the open sea. Three years of torment inside Australia's controversial detention system for asylum-seekers.

Syrians Ali Kharsa, 18, and his father Ahmed, 47, have now settled in Saskatoon in a way they never could have anticipated.

"I'm one of the luckiest people to get here," Ali Kharsa told CBC News, speaking from his new home in the Prairie city.

His mother, Doha, is still relishing the reunion with her eldest son and husband.

"I feel like everything that happened to us is like a miracle. It didn't happen to us like we thought or like we planned," she said.

Desperate gamble

In 2012, the Kharsas' home in Aleppo, Syria was destroyed. Their car had been stolen. Several relatives had been killed or kidnapped.

On the advice of friends, the family of seven flew to Malaysia. But they soon discovered that the country was not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and didn't recognize refugees or give work permits to asylum-seekers.

Ahmed Kharsa says he is settling into his life in Canada after suffering from depression while in an Australia detention camp. (CBC News)

Ahmed Kharsa decided to gamble their life savings and pay smugglers to take him and Ali to Australia. Their plan was to sponsor the rest of the family upon arrival.

It was to save the family, he said, speaking through a translator.

His pregnant wife, who would soon be left alone with four children, didn't like the plan.

"I'm saying goodbye and I don't have any hope to see them again," Doha recalled. "Maybe yes. Maybe no."  

Detained at sea

After four days at sea, enduring punishing rain at night and scorching heat by day, Ali and Ahmed's boat was intercepted and rerouted to an Australian detention centre on the island of Nauru.

"I got shocked. The first thing I said was 'return me back to my country, Syria,'" Ali Kharsa said. "I don't want to stay here. I want to die back in my country."

  • To learn more about the Kharsa family's harrowing journey, tune into The National on CBC Television at 10 p.m. ET Monday.

At the time, hundreds of asylum-seekers had drowned at sea on their way to Australia. Seeking to deter entry by boat, the Australian government decided to reopen its controversial offshore processing camps, which had been closed a decade earlier.

The country paid two impoverished countries — Nauru and Papua New Guinea — hundreds of millions of dollars to house detention centres on their tiny islands.

Iranian asylum seekers who were caught while sailing to Australia sit on a boat in Bali, Indonesia, in this May 2013 file photo. Australia refuses to allow any asylum seekers who try to reach the country's shores by boat to ever settle there — a policy that has virtually stopped people from attempting to reach Australia on rickety boats. (Firdia Lisnawati/Associated Press)

Detention camps

It was established that anyone who attempted to reach Australia by boat would be sent to these detention camps with no chance of ever settling in Australia.

"They're warehoused indefinitely in conditions that the UN have said are inhumane and breach international law," said Daniel Webb, an Australian human rights lawyer. "Our policies are tremendously cruel — and deliberately so. They're designed to treat anyone who arrived in a way that it frightens off anyone else from coming."

Journalists have never been granted access to the overcrowded detention camps, but human rights organizations and the United Nations have documented abuse, squalor and high rates of suicide.
Australia paid two impoverished countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, millions to house detention centres on their tiny islands. (Google Maps)

"They used to call us by our boat numbers, not by our names. It's inhumane," said Ahmed Kharsa. He was Number 61, his son, 60.

Ahmed became depressed and medical staff gave him drugs that made him sleep all the time

In 2014, after two years in detention, the father and son were recognized as refugees and allowed to leave the camp. But they were still restricted to the tiny island of Nauru.

Freedom at last

Back in Kuala Lumpur, Doha was earning just enough money as a translator to feed her children. As a single mother, her refugee application was moved to the top of the pile and eventually approved by Canada.

She arrived in Saskatoon in November 2014, and quickly sought help from the government and refugee settlement agencies in an effort to reunite her family.

It took a year of paperwork and bureaucracy. But in November 2015, Ali and Ahmed became the first refugees to leave Australia's offshore detention system and be settled in a Western nation.

After missing four years of school, 18-year-old Ali Kharsa is attending high school in Saskatoon. (CBC News)

They were exceptions to an unspoken rule. Australia has negotiated a deal with Cambodia to resettle refugees from Nauru, but not with Canada or any other Western nation.

Earlier this week, New Zealand's prime minister said his country was willing to accept some asylum-seekers. But his Australian counterpart seemed to dismiss that offer, saying his government was "utterly committed to ensuring that we give no encouragement, no marketing opportunities to the people smugglers."

"It sounds like this is a pretty unique set of circumstances," Webb said of the Kharsa family. "[But it's] not one that's going to provide a solution for the 2,000 people that the Australian government continues to leave languishing."

'Bright future'

Since arriving in Canada, Ali has quickly adapted. The teenager attends high school and spends his free time recording rap music. He wants to become a human rights lawyer.

"I really love it [in Canada]," he said with a quick smile. "I can see a bright future here."

It's been more difficult for his father.
Ali Kharsa says he sees a 'bright future' in Canada and wants to be a human rights lawyer. (CBC News)

Ahmed is adjusting to the winter in Canada, taking English classes and getting to know his three-year old son, just an infant when Ahmed and Ali left Malaysia by boat.

His wife says the entire family needs to be patient.

"We need some time. Maybe it takes us years — I don't know — to feel the same peace and the same happiness, like before the war," Doha said with a shrug.

Nonetheless, she says she sees each day spent together with her family as a blessing.


Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

With files from Australian Broadcasting Corporation


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?