World·Refugee diary

Siham's story: 'I wanted to believe we could have a peaceful life again'

She was a social worker in a Syrian refugee camp, then a semi-fugitive in Beirut with two little girls after her husband was shot by a sniper while trying to deliver bread. Siham Abu Sitta's life has been a study in resilience, and now she is on her way to Canada.

From Damascus's besieged Yarmouk camp to Beirut to Canada, with a death in-between

A social worker, Siham Abu Sitta, has been living precariously in Beirut for the past almost three years, ever since her husband was shot by a sniper while trying to deliver bread in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Siham Abu Sitta, a social worker, and her two daughters fled Syria for Lebanon in February 2013 after her husband was killed by a sniper.

She is Palestinian, but grew up in Syria in Yarmouk, a permanent Palestinian refugee camp close to Damascus that has been the scene of vicious fighting between anti-government rebels, Syrian forces and, more recently, ISIS.

A long siege of Yarmouk has led to several hundred deaths from starvation.

While a refugee in Lebanon, Siham met a Canadian-Lebanese filmmaker Carol Mansour who made a short film about her and four other refugee women as they struggled to get by.

The film, Not Who We Are, won two international awards and, earlier this year, caught the attention of Fairlawn Avenue United Church in Toronto, whose congregation reached out to sponsor Siham and her daughters. 

With the prospect of moving to Canada, Siham and her twin girls, Joudy and Jana, have been working hard to become fluent in English.

When our CBC News team met Siham in late November in Beirut while she waited for the call to come to Canada, we asked her to try her hand at some short diary entries for

These are the first installments, which have been edited for style, spelling and length. Her family is to arrive in Toronto later today. — Susan Ormiston

In her words: Ghassan's death

When the revolution in Syria began and the situation deteriorated into armed conflict, our attention turned to providing support and aid to Syrians and Palestinians displaced from the nearby areas of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Hay al-Tadamon.

In December 2012, following days of clashes, Syrian Army jets bombed Yarmouk, for the first time since the civil war began.

A school and mosque sheltering refugees were hit, killing and maiming a large number of Syrian and Palestinian civilians who had taken refuge there.

After that, the intensity of the bombardment increased, and access into Yarmouk was partially closed off.

On Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, me and my husband, Ghassan, with our children, five-year-old twin girls, Joudy and Jana, left the camp and bought 25 bags of bread to feed people inside Yarmouk. We tried to enter the besieged camp in the afternoon but there were intense clashes and it was too risky.

This picture taken on Jan. 31, 2014, and released by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, queuing to receive food supplies, in Damascus. (UNRWA via AP, File)

The following morning, while we were trying to enter Yarmouk , my husband put his arms around me and told me: "I will never leave you alone.''

When we arrived at the entrance to the Yarmouk neighbourhood at 10.15 a.m., the Air Force Intelligence checkpoint was not allowing cars to go in. We could hear the sound of the sniper's bullets.

They searched the car and said they wanted to confiscate the bread: "You can't take bread in, and you're not allowed to enter with the car," an Air Force Intelligence officer told us.

Me and my little kids crossed the street while my husband parked the car just outside Yarmouk. 

As both children were crying at the sound of the bullets, a soldier at the checkpoint said to them: "Don't be scared, this is our sniper. He wouldn't shoot at this corner."

Meanwhile, after Ghassan parked the car, a military commander of the government told us we can take our car.

So Ghassan walked back to the car and drove to where me and children had stood and asked us to hurriedly get inside. I got inside the car with Joudy and Jana in the backseat to protect them in case anything happened.

Ghassan drove for around 75 metre along Yarmouk Street, a main road in the neighborhood, when a bullet punctured the backseat, passed between Joudy and Jana and ripped through the driver's seat piercing Ghassan's back and lodging in his lung.

He shrieked "Ahhhh," and his hands just left the steering wheel. The car swerved uncontrollably onto the pavement and slammed against a wall.

Joudy's nose was bleeding from the impact of the car hitting against the wall, and her jacket soaked with blood. I thought she was injured by a bullet, so I quickly took off her jacket.

She was fine. The blood was her father's.

Jana did not say a word. She just squatted under the seat in shock.

CBC News: How did you learn English and why?

Since seven months, the church in Canada told us that you can go to Canada now. In that time we had to prepare ourselves because we will go to another country and we didn't know any English words, because in Syria it is only one language, it is Arabic language. So we started, me and my daughters, to work hard to learn English. Now we are ready, we can go to Canada now. 

Some of the people came to help and one was a health worker who gave Ghassan mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I looked at Ghassan; his eyes looked as if he was saying goodbye.

They took him to the hospital and I had to figure out what to do with the kids, so I could go with him.

I left them with a family living nearby and told Joudy and Jana that I was taking pajamas to their dad, because they saw the health worker tearing his clothes. I ran to the hospital.

As soon as I arrived there, a health worker told me that my husband didn't make it. There were no doctors at the hospital because a few days earlier, one of the doctors was arrested and so others were scared to come to the hospital.

The funeral was arranged so quickly, he was buried within two hours of his death. My children didn't have the chance to say goodbye to him.

One month on, we went to Lebanon. Joudy has grown to be aware that her father is not returning, while Jana tells people that her father is coming back.

I feel that my husband never left. He's all the time with me. When I look at the sky as it rains, I see him. When I wake up in the morning, I see him next to me. Before I sleep, I see him. Death will not do us apart.

Life in Lebanon

My daughters and I arrived in Lebanon in February 2013 with tourism visa for a week. Since that time our stay in Lebanon was illegal.

I had experience and skills in social work and human rights issues, which I used to start this new life.

At the beginning, I volunteered to work in refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley.

Later I got a job as Director of Protection and Empowerment Project with Syrian women refugees in Shatila camp in Beirut to help them to become self-sufficient in the difficult asylum conditions such as in Lebanon.

Siham Abu Sitta's twin daughters, Joudy and Jana, now eight. Jana still believes her father will come back. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Because of our illegal status in Lebanon, our life remained difficult. I was not able to register my daughters for school and I could not work legally, nor have any health insurance.

These circumstances had severe impacts on my daughters' education, health, well-being and their dreams. We were not able to cross checkpoints, therefore we could not live a normal social life like any other people.

We were living between two choices: either to stay in Lebanon without a legitimate visa or return to Syria to face the murderer regime or detention.

I wanted to believe that we could have a secure and peaceful life again.

The only chance that my daughters received was access to the education program offered for refugees from Syria. So they were able to join the activities that the Jana centre offered.

Recently, they participated in a manufacture of cartoons workshop.

These conditions have provided them some knowledge they would need to succeed at school, and also to build their life.