Syrian refugees finish quarantine in time for first Canadian Thanksgiving

Syrian refugees who waited years to be allowed into Canada to reunite with family had their arrival delayed another six months by the pandemic. Now, the Al Khalif family has finished their 14-quarantine period in time to celebrate their first Canadian Thanksgiving.

The Al Khalif family is grateful to reunite with family in Regina after a 5-year separation

Syrian refugee Mahmoud Al Khalif and his family were unable to hug their relatives, who they hadn't seen in five years, when they arrived at Regina International Airport on Sept. 21, 2020. (Submitted by Abdelkarim Al Elaiwy)

The Al Khalif family is just grateful to finally be in Canada, even if the pandemic delayed their arrival and quashed their much-anticipated airport reunion.

Syrian refugees Mahmoud Al Khalif, his wife Mariam, and their three children waited nearly five years to reunite with his sister in Regina.

Then, just as the family got ready to fly from Lebanon to Canada this past spring, the pandemic shut down the borders and prolonged the separation. 

Their brother-in-law, Abdelkarim Al Elaiwy, who has lived in Regina since January 2016, said the delay was hard to take after so much anticipation.

"After COVID-19, we [were] very, very sad about the bad luck," said Al Elaiwy.

It took another six months, but the family was finally allowed entrance to Canada on September 21.

The long-awaited hugs had to wait a bit longer, however.

Syrian refugee Mahmoud Al Khalif, second from right, and his wife, Mariam, far right, completed a 14-day quarantine with their three children in time to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving in Regina with his sister, Rawda Al Khalif, second from left, and her husband, Abdelkarim Al Elaiwy, back left, and their seven children. Three of those children are missing from the photo. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

The two groups were only able to wave to each other from a distance at Regina International Airport. The refugees arriving from Lebanon had to quarantine for 14 days with no contact with anyone else, as required by a federal public health order.

For 30-year-old Rawda Al Khalif, being unable to hug her brother at the airport was excruciating. She's missed him, and worried about him, every day since leaving him behind in Lebanon.

"Crying, sad, no eat, no sleeping," said Rawda.

Tight-knit family

The brother and sister and their families have always been very close. They fled the Syrian civil war together in 2011 and then lived in the same house in Lebanon. 

In late 2015, Rawda and her family were chosen to move to Canada as government-sponsored refugees. They were excited, and grateful, but torn about leaving their relatives behind.

"Our heart is broken about that," said Rawda's husband Al Elaiwy. "I like Canada. Very, very good country...[but] here, we don't have anyone. No relatives."

Regina resident Abdelkarim Al Elaiwy visited his nephews and niece through a window until they completed their 14-day quarantine on October 6, 2020. (CBC News)

Rawda has found the Canadian winters particularly isolating. But she and her husband couldn't afford to sponsor her brother and his family on their own.

Then, a chance encounter changed everything. They met a new friend in the park, Regina resident Blair Roberts, and soon a group of Canadian friends and some local churches were teaming up to raise money and fill out forms for a private sponsorship.

"We are so happy. Thank you, thank you," said Al Elaiwy, who is still amazed by their generosity.

Pandemic still poses challenges

Rawda Al Khalif, a mother of seven, has struggled with depression since moving to Canada in early 2016. She had no other relatives here until her brother, Mahmoud, arrived with his family on Sept. 21, 2020. (CBC News)

On Thursday, just before the Thanksgiving long weekend, Al Elaiwy hosted his brother-in-law's family— now out of quarantine — at his bungalow in south Regina. 

All 10 of the children ran around in the backyard while the parents drank tea. The families, who will stick together in a bubble, were making plans to celebrate both a birthday and Canadian Thanksgiving over the weekend.

The Al Khalifs are just starting to think about what comes next. They want to take English lessons and send their children to school.

But the newcomers know the pandemic will present more challenges.

The Regina Open Door Society, which helps immigrants and refugees with housing, language, and employment, has moved most of its services online, with limited in-person appointments. 

Getachew Woldeyesus is a senior manager at the Regina Open Door Society, which helps newcomers with housing, language classes, employment counselling and other free services. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

"Some may not even have what they need [to access services], like bandwidth and equipment, but our staff in every department has worked very hard [to help them]," said Getachew Woldeyesus, a settlement worker, adding that everything takes longer these days.

Woldeyesus said far fewer immigrants and refugees have arrived in the city this year, although a few government-sponsored refugee families arrived in September and he expects more in the coming months.

"I don't think we expect a wave, I think it will still be a trickle," he said. "Always the refugees are in our mind because they need to be in a safe place like Canada."

Rawda Al Khalif, 30, came to Canada in January, 2016 as a government-sponsored refugee, but then found friends and churches in Regina, Sask. willing to privately sponsor her brother, Mahmoud, and his family. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

Mahmoud Al Khalif hopes he can eventually sponsor his brother, Abdel Rahman, who was wounded during the recent Beirut explosion. For now, he'll focus on embracing life in Canada.

The two families still find it surreal to be together again.

"I don't believe, I don't believe this. Because I am very happy and excited, I cannot believe," said Al Elaiwy.

He and his wife say their life in Canada will be even better now that they can share it with family.

Rawda reaches over and kisses her brother on the cheek. "My brother," she said. "Happy."

Syrian refugees Mahmoud Al Khalif and his wife, Mariam Al Shahadah, who completed a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Regina, Sask., want their three children to go to school and play at the park. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)


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