Syrian refugees embrace new lives in Ottawa, fear for those left behind

Ahmed Elfecir and his family fled Syria when the brutal civil war there became too much. They now call Ottawa home, along with some 2,000 Syrian refugees who settled in the capital.

Of the 2,000 Syrian refugees who now call Ottawa home, some 400 live in a pair of Donald Street highrises

Ahmed Elfecir and Dolat Elellus say they love their new life in Ottawa, but still worry about family back in Syria. (CBC)

Ahmed Elfecir fled Syria with his wife, mother and four children more than three years ago. The family made the hard decision to leave their home when the brutal, ongoing civil war became too much.

"My family was tired, tired, tired," said Elfecir.

In their hometown of Homs, the 55-year-old worked as a civil servant, cultivating a honey business on the side. Elfecir's wife, Dolat Elellus, 43, taught Arabic. 

"Every day ... many families [were] killed," she said. "We [left] Syria for our children. They become afraid [of] everything and there's no good food, no fruit, no vegetables.... Life [was] very hard."

Murhaf, Yahya, Mustafa and Omer Elfecir are beginning to pick up English in school. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

The entire household, including Elfecir's 85-year-old mother Maryam, moved to a refugee camp in Turkey where they lived until they were accepted into Canada in April. Today, along with 90 other Syrian refugee families, they call Ottawa's Donald Street home.

"We choose Canada because we heard it's very safe for people," said Elellus. "We come here for [our children]. They need [a] safe life."

Since November 2015, more than 35,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in this country, with 2,000 settling in the capital. About 400 of the refugees live in two highrises at 1240 and 1244 Donald St. The couple, their sons Yahya, Omer, Mustafa and Murhaf, and Elfecir's mother share a three-bedroom apartment.

English coming quickly for kids

While the boys, ages four to 12, are in school during the day, their parents attend English classes. They're both eager to improve their language skills so they can find work, but it's been a challenge. 

"We need a lot of time," said Elellus, who noted her kids are picking up English much more quickly than she or her husband.

"We find some problem with the language, but for my children their life is very good here. They are happy playing, feeling safe and go[ing] to school every day. They feel happy."

Ahmed Elefcir walks his sons Mustafa and Omer home from the bus stop. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

Their eldest son Murhaf, 12, is in Grade 7 at Henry Munro Middle School. "I like school," he said. "I think Canada [is] very nice and very good."

Like this family, many of the Syrians living in the Donald Street buildings are government-assisted refugees. Federal sponsorship ends in December for those who arrived in the first wave, which means if they still haven't found work, they will need to turn to the province's social assistance program, Ontario Works.

Staying connected to Syria difficult

Staying connected to family in Syria has proven difficult for many Syrian refugees in Canada. Ellelus said there are few functioning utilities in many parts of the war-torn country, making communication a challenge.

"[There is] no food, no water, no electricity," she said.

Ahmed Elfecir and Dolat Elellus fled Homs, Syria with their four sons and Elfecir's 85-year-old mother Maryam more than three years ago. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

The WhatsApp messenger application has helped a lot of refugee families stay connected with those left behind. Though it sometimes takes days for messages to get through, Ellelus said the free app has allowed her to stay in touch with those who have been unable to flee. 

"I miss my home and I miss my brother and my sisters very much," she said. "Their life is very hard. I am afraid for them."

Although Elellus and her husband continue to monitor the developments in Syria, they say they are grateful to now call Canada home.

"We thank [the] Canadian government. [They] give us everything. And [we] thank the Canadian people," said Elfecir.