Syrian-Canadians cope with 'constant stress' of war back home

The conflict in Syria has gone on for more than two years and claimed the lives of an estimated 93,000 people. Syrian-Canadians, meanwhile, watch with dread and anticipation, desperate for news of the well-being of family members stuck in the war-ravaged country.

A look at how the crisis is affecting Syrians in Canada

Thamer Khirdaji, pictured here with his daughter Julie, has been following the conflict back home in Syria closely. He is currently waiting to hear whether his work permit in Canada will be extended. If not, he may have to return to Syria. (Asha Mohidin Siad/CBC )

It’s been over a week since Mississauga, Ont. resident Marwa Tayara has spoken with family in Homs, Syria, one of the cities hardest hit by the two-year-old revolution.

So when the ring of a Skype call echoes through the Tayara household, the 28-year-old Syrian-Canadian quickly excuses herself from the dining room to grab her iPad.

'Yesterday, a bullet came right through her garden, and she went out to see what went on. She touched the bullet and it was so hot, she could not even pick it up.'— Marwa Tayara, translating the experience of her aunt in Homs, Syria

She calls her father, Fariz, over and sets the tablet up on the coffee table in the living room. They both lean in closer to the iPad as her aunt begins to speak on the other end of the crackling line.

"Yesterday, a bullet came right through her garden, and she went out to see what went on. She touched the bullet and it was so hot, she could not even pick it up," Tayara translates.

Fariz listens intently, showing no facial expression. His eyes are fixed on the ground, one hand cupping his forehead.

"It’s hard for him to hear his sister is going through all of this while he is here listening," Tayara tells me.

It has been two years since the civil war in Syria began. The ongoing violence between Syrian rebels and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has resulted in a death toll of nearly 93,000 thus far, says the United Nations human rights chief, with an acknowledgement that it is likely to be far higher.

As a result, many Syrian-Canadians find themselves in the position of listening and waiting. According to a 2011 report by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, over 1,100 Syrians are permanent residents here.

Earlier this month, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that Canada would accept as many as 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.

‘Constant stress’

Ahmad K — who declined to give his last name because he fears for his family back home in Aleppo – came to Toronto in 2006 with his parents and sister to seek a better education.

The third-year aerospace engineering student at Ryerson University says that two years ago, his life was easy. He focused on his studies and hanging out with friends.

Today, however, Ahmad says his life has turned 180 degrees.

"You know you can’t go back, but you want to, and you want to see your family, but you know you can’t," says Ahmad. "Ever since the revolution started, we are just kind of waiting – we are saying, ‘It’s going to be this summer, we are going to see them this summer, we are going to see them this summer,’ and it’s just been stretching [out]."

When the 19-year-old receives a call from his parents at his summer job, he immediately assumes they’re phoning to report news about family members in Syria.

At community gatherings or dinner parties with fellow Syrian-Canadians, the conflict is the only subject of conversation.

"It’s the number one topic, wherever you go. All we do is talk about Syria –what’s going to happen to Syria… and we start saying, ‘You know, I heard from my family this happened and this happened,’ and other people tell you what they heard from their families.

"That’s pretty much our life," says Ahmad. "It is always the constant stress."

New arrival

Three months ago, Anas Alashraf left his parents and brother behind in Homs to be with his wife and children in Canada. The 32-year-old pharmacist believes he made the right decision, but he says he is still conflicted.

"When I was with my parents and my brother, it was OK. I am in the middle of the situation, if something bad will happen, it will happen for all of us," he says.

Anas Alashraf says he checks his Facebook account 24/7 for the latest information on his family's situation in Homs, Syria. (Asha Mohidin Siad/CBC)

"Now, my mind is always busy and thinking, What will happen today? What will happen tomorrow? I don’t know what is their situation," Alashraf says.

While many Syrian-Canadians are constantly checking up on family members caught in the crisis, Thamer Khirdaji finds his own life in Canada uncertain.

Originally from the Syrian capital, Damascus, Khirdaji began studies in the computer engineering program at Toronto’s Humber College in 2008. A couple of years later, he joined the labour force with a post-graduate work permit. When the Syrian revolution started in 2011, however, Khirdaji felt he had to return home to be with his wife and son.

He managed to bring his family to Canada in December of that year, and resumed working.

One of the incidents that compelled Khirdaji to bring his family to Canada was being stopped at a checkpoint in Syria with his son, Yazan.

"They searched the car, saw my ID, so after we finished, [Yazan] said, ‘Daddy, did we do something wrong?’ ‘No, we didn’t do something wrong, they are just checking our papers,’" says Khirdaji. "Then he said, ‘Then why are they pointing their guns towards us?’ And for a kid his age, it is really hard, so even though he was maybe seven and a half at that time, he knows what is going on, he feels it."

‘It’s always question marks, and I have no answers’

But Khirdaji’s work permit expires next month, which only adds to the stress of watching the situation back home. He feels he is stuck in the middle.

"I definitely won’t take my kids to a war zone, so if I have to leave the country, where should I go? If I lose my job, how can I feed them? What will happen to my son’s school? What to do? It’s always question marks, and I have no answers," he says. Recently, Khirdaji applied to extend his work permit. He is now waiting for an acknowledgement.

"I cannot plan anything for [the] future, like I can only plan what we will do today or tomorrow and that is it. Even when I want to buy something for home sometimes, I say, ‘You know what, let’s postpone it, because you never know, we might leave,’" says Khirdaji.

Marwa Tayara says all Syrian-Canadians fear they might lose a family member back home. She says that everyone she knows wakes up in the morning to check sites like Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Facebook for updates on who has died who and who has been captured.

Talking about family stuck in Syria, Tayara said they are braver than she is.

"I do hope for their safety, I do hope to one day see them in the future," says Tayara.