New Brunswick

Family reunited after two years of paperwork, fundraising and tragedy

At the Saint John Airport arrival’s lounge, 30 people crowded around a mass of hugging sisters, nephews and nieces.

Kawkab Hijazi needed her family to grieve and heal, and on Thursday, they were reunited to do just that.

Hamza Hleilo hugs his nephew Bashar Hijazi in the foreground, and Kamar Hleilo looks at her aunt in the background. The family hasn't been together since the Hleilos left Lebanon four years ago. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

At the Saint John Airport arrival's lounge, 30 people crowded around a mass of hugging sisters, nephews and nieces.

Shahd Hijazi, Samer Alsaj and their two kids Bashar, 9, and Mariam, 5, did the rounds — shaking hands, hugging and kissing everyone who came to the airport to welcome them to New Brunswick. 

The family's road to Saint John was two years long. They were living in Lebanon, having left Syria when the civil war started. 

Shahd's sister Kawkab Hijazi moved to Saint John first, in 2015. Kawkab and her family began the steps to bring their extended family here after their eldest son died by suicide. She needed her family to grieve and heal, and on Thursday, they were reunited to do just that.

Shahd Hijazi, left, wipes away her sister Kawkab's tears after they reunited at the St. John Airport Thursday. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

"It's hard to describe, no matter what I say I won't be able to describe what is in my heart," said Kawkab Hijazi in Arabic after greeting her sister.

"I'm her oldest sister, and she's the youngest, so I'm like her mother," she laughed.

Shahd Hijazi agreed.

"I didn't come to my sister, I came to my mother."

A community sponsorship

On Thursday Kendra Ball was waiting with New Brunswick flags in hand. She is part of the seven-person sponsorship team that brought Kawkab and her family to Saint John, and who took on the task of fundraising to bring Shahd and her family as well.

"It's so exciting and so great to see so much of my community and so much of the Syrian community come together for one family," she said.

She said the process to bring the family together started by finding a church that co-signed to become the guarantor. In this case, it was Midland Baptist. Then there's building the sponsorship team, which includes Ball, her father and two other couples.

Members of a Syrian family separated by war and two years of paperwork are reunited in Saint John after about $30,000 worth of fundraising and a family tragedy. 2:44

And then they needed to raise $30,000 to support the family for their first 12 months in Canada. 

And then there's a lot of paperwork.

"And then you submit it to Ottawa and then it goes to Lebanon and they process it and there's a lot of interviews and medicals and more interviews. And then finally you get your visas and you can come," Ball said.

She said the most difficult part of the whole process was finding a church.

"There are so many Syrians who want their family to come here," she said.

Hamza Hleilo says the two-year application process is worth seeing his aunt Shahd Hijazi again. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

And surprisingly, she said, the fundraising was not the biggest barrier.

"Honestly we thought it was going to be, but so many people in the community stepped up."

They had dinners and fundraisers, collecting $6,000 at one dinner alone. Ball said this tells her something about Saint John.

"I think that everyone is willing to welcome new people and that it's definitely eye opening."

Bashar Alsaj plays with snow for the first time minutes after touching down in Saint John. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Next steps

Shahd Hijazi said her life is going to change in every way now that she's in Canada. Enrolling her kids in school, and learning the language and the culture are first on her list.

"Right now we're going to start thinking about the future of the children, that's the most important part," she said.

She said they saw a lot of discrimination in Lebanon, and she hopes it'll be different here.

Hamza Hleilo shows his five-year-old niece Mariam Alsaj how to blow on fluffy snow. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Kawkab Hijazi said it's important to tell everyone how thankful she is that they made this happen.

"When we came here we saw such great things. The priority is the future of the children, the education is excellent, the livelihood is great, the people love you, they accept you no matter what," she said. 

After the meet and greet at the airport the family stepped out into a snowy night. Bashar and Mariam ran to the accumulating snow. They started making snowballs and throwing them at each other. Hamza Hleilo showed his little niece how to blow on a handful of fluffy snow like dandelions. 

Abdul Salam Mohammad Hleilo, Kawkab Hijazi's grandson, plays with a balloon as the crowd awaits the family's plane. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Hleilo, Kawkab's youngest son and family translator, said a reunion after four years feels good.

"The application took two years, but it was worth it."

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