Metro Morning

Syrian refugee family hopes Toronto church sponsorship leads to expedited visas

Siham's escape from Syria began in blood and tragedy, with her last two years in Lebanon marked by a harrowing and illegal existence. Now the family hopes a Toronto church wins its fight to get them expedited visas to Canada.

Fairlawn Avenue United Church urges Canadian government to expedite visas for Siham and 3 daughters

Siham's escape from Syria began in blood and tragedy, with her last two years in Lebanon marked by a harrowing and illegal existence.

The Syrian widow remains hopeful that she and her three daughters can start afresh in Toronto, with Fairlawn Avenue United Church acting as sponsor. But both Siham and her sponsors fear the family will be deported to Damascus, now that Beirut has begun expelling some of the one million refugees that fled to Lebanon, before Canadian officials give her family approval to come to Canada.

Siham believes she would be arrested by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime if she were forced to return, leaving her children without a mother.

Siham asked that her last name not be published, because she may have been blacklisted for her work documenting human rights abuses in Syria before her husband's death.

A 'so-sad' story

Siham speaks clearly in the English she has been learning for six months, describing a car ride that set her on a path to Canada on Jan. 13, 2013.

"It's a so-sad story what happened in Syria," she told CBC's Metro Morning, her voice faltering as she speaks from Beirut. "It is so difficult for me to have to speak it again, but I will try to give you a summary."

On that day in 2013, Siham's husband Ghassan sat in the driver's seat, their then five-year-old twins in the back, all four waiting as guards took longer than usual to allow them past the checkpoint into Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. They wanted to get home to hand out the 25 loaves of bread they carried for their hungry neighbours, Siham says.

But the family drove no further than 75 metres past the checkpoint when a sniper's bullet pierced the car, hitting Ghassan in the chest.

"It reached his heart," Siham recalled. "The last thing I heard was his voice, and he says, 'Ahhh.' That's the last thing I heard from my husband."

Eight-year-old Syrian twins Jana and Joudy ask about Canada all the time, says their mother, Siham, who is trying to get her family to Canada to avoid deportation to a war zone. (Submitted)

The family's car spun out of control and slammed into a wall. When Siham turned to look at her twins, Jana and Joudy, Joudy was covered in her father's blood.

"Joudy screamed, 'They killed my dad! Baba has been killed,'" Siham says. "I looked into my husband's eyes. His eyes were saying goodbye.

"That's everything that I can say in this moment."

Although passersby tried to help the family, there were "no doctors, no medicine" and Ghassan died. The two girls were separated from their mother as Siham made funeral arrangements.

"I put them in [a] safe house, because there's a lot of bombs and [violence] on the street," she says. "I cannot take them with me — I didn't want to lose them also."

'A family in peril'

Siham and her three daughters — with the twins now eight years old and her eldest daughter 21 — left for Lebanon soon afterward, as she worried that she could become a target for speaking out against the Assad regime.

"I'm afraid for my kids to lose their mother," she says.

After living for more than two years in Beirut, Siham learned in September that her family is at risk of deportation because they only had permission to stay in Lebanon for a week.

Siham's eldest daughter also signed the application for a refugee visa that would allow her to come to Canada. (Submitted)

The congregation at Fairlawn has made several appeals to the federal government and elected officials to expedite refugee visas for the family, Rev. Christopher White says.

"If she gets deported back to Syria, she could disappear," White says. "She is at risk, her children are at risk. It really is incumbent on the government to act.

"This is a family in peril."

The church has reached out to its MP, Conservative candidate Joe Oliver, as well as Citizenship and Immigration Canada. White says he left a message for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander more than two weeks ago, but has yet to hear back.

Oliver's office told the church they would look into Siham's case, White says.

Government response

On Tuesday morning, Oliver appeared on CBC's Metro Morning with Matt Galloway to discuss the family's situation. 

"It's a terrible story," he said. "I sympathize with her and her children."

The finance minister said he admires the Fairlawn congregation for its dedication in helping the family, but this case is one of hundreds of thousands.

"I really want to help her ... but it would be unfair for me to have one family jump the queue," Oliver said, adding the case was approved in Canada, but the family has to go through security and medical checks in Beirut. 

"There is, of course, urgency," Oliver added, but "you can't solve every case immediately," he continued.

"We've increased the field officers in the field and they're working very hard," he said when pressed about his government's efforts.

"We're doing the best we can."

Canada is doing a lot more than other countries to help refugees, Oliver noted, but "we can't resettle them all."

Alexander did not agree to an interview request from CBC News. Alexander's staff said it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment on a specific case.

If I have a chance to meet them in the future, I will learn how to be human like this.- Siham, thanking Fairlawn Avenue United Church

It takes about 11 months for a refugee visa to be processed through the Canadian Embassy in Beirut, according to wait times released by Citizenship and Immigration.

But there are special guidelines for those refugees in urgent or vulnerable situations — which, according to the definition set out by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and accepted by Ottawa, includes those facing the immediate risk of deportation.

Conservative candidate Joe Oliver says it would 'be inappropriate' for him to intervene in this case when there are other 'equally worthy cases.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada can accept up to 100 such emergency cases each year and aims to process urgent cases from submission to departure within five days, according to the UNHCR.

For vulnerable cases, the goal is one to four months.

'It takes 1 phone call'

Fairlawn Avenue United Church has raised more than $40,000 to bring Siham and her family to Canada. Teachers in the congregation are ready to help them with English, and donated clothing and other goods have been collected to help them settle in their new home.

"They don't meet me before, but, really, I appreciate everything that they do," Siham says. "If I have a chance to meet them in the future, I will learn how to be human like this."

The church sent a 193-page application to Citizenship and Immigration in July and it was approved in August, according to White. The congregation will continue advocating for Siham and her daughters to be treated as an urgent case, he says.

"We have done everything that we were asked ... the file is sitting in Lebanon in the Canadian Embassy. It's right there in Beirut," White says. "It takes one phone call to the Canadian Embassy to get this going, to do the security checks ... the health checks — to do everything that's needed to get this family here."


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