Syrian refugee refuses to relocate, thought Winnipeg 'was another country'

An advocacy group claims a refugee family was given notice only hours before relocation to a new province.

'Confused' refugee family told to pack in the middle of the night

Amer Mejarmish, 33, pictured with daughter Mayar. (CBC)

After weeks in a Toronto hotel eating food they don't know among strangers who speak a language they don't understand, a Syrian refugee family's patience was rewarded.

They got a phone call telling them they would be transferred to a permanent home. Although, it wasn't clear where they were going.

In fact, they thought they were destined for another country.

"We didn't know where Winnipeg was," said Amer Mejarmish, who spoke exclusively to CBC News through an interpreter. 

But Winnipeg is where they were going to be. And soon.

What's Winnipeg?

The first call, Mejarmish said, came at around 6:30 p.m. Friday. The translator on the phone said to start packing and get ready to move in the morning.

Hours later, at 4:30 a.m., a second call. And a warning: the bus is coming to take your family to the airport — and on to Winnipeg — at 6 a.m. sharp.

The federal government helped Mejarmish move to Canada with his pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter about 20 days ago. Winnipeg was not one of the three Canadian cities he Googled before he left the refugee settlement in Jordan, where he couldn't get identity papers and couldn't work. 

Amer Mejarmish's daughter Mayar sneaks a kiss during interview with her father and Syrian refugee aid volunteer Sam Jisri (far right) and CBC. (CBC)
Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto were the names he knew. Toronto was the shiniest of those. It was where he was told he would land, where he planned to make his home. This new change in plan was a shock, and confusing. 

At the airport Saturday morning, the Mejarmish family joined a lineup of other refugee families, bussed in from hotels across the GTA. One by one they signed the paperwork for their transfers to Manitoba.

Those families told Mejarmish to stop hesitating, worried there could be repercussions if he didn't go. 

But the plane left without him on it. Mejarmish refused to leave. Now, his family doesn't know what happens next.

'Changes happen' 

The people in charge are offering no answers. On Tuesday, CBC reached the head of the non-profit company charged with overseeing the refugees at the hotel where Mejarmish stayed.

"Changes happen," said Jacquie Lewis, executive director the Malton Neighbourhood Services.

She confirmed several government-assisted refugees were relocated from Toronto to Winnipeg over the weekend. But refused to say how much notice they were given.

"We got instructions that there would be changes on the weekend," she said, adding her organization was just following government orders.

As of Tuesday night, the media section for the federal government's Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship had not responded to requests for interviews. 

Forever running

"They may not have a choice, but we can at least make the change easier,"  said Sam Jisri, who runs a group that helps refugees resettle in Canada called Syrian Active Volunteers. 

He said he understands that refugees must move where the resources exist to take them, but believes those transfers should be facilitated fairly.

"Give them notice, tell them about it, explain what is there [in that province or city]," he said. "Those people ran from a regime, so the last thing they want to see is any kind of oppression."

Mejarmish doesn't feel like he's running anymore, he's treading water.

His family transferred to a different hotel. And like hundreds of others, they wait: looking forward to doing the normal things their Canadian neighbours do, like opening bank accounts and buying hummus at the grocery store.

And wondering what city they'll land in next.


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