First 'new wave' of Syrian refugees arrive in Canada from Lebanon

Small groups of Syrian refugees began arriving in Canada from Lebanon this week as the government prepares to process greater volumes of asylum seekers.

Small groups of Syrian refugees are landing in Canadian cities as Ottawa ramps up processing

Ibrahim Tonbari struggled off Air Canada Flight 8867 in Windsor, Ont., Monday with his wife, Zaineb, and four children under  the age of seven.

He shuddered in the cold, but told CBC News in Windsor that the first thing he thought of was a better future for his children.

We met up with the Tonbari family two days before, 9,500 kilometres away in Daousse, northern Lebanon, where they began the last stage of their odyssey.

"My sister told me Windsor is a beautiful place," he said then, staring out over the Lebanese valley only 11 kilometres from the Syrian border. "She said life is beautiful there, you feel that you are a human, and that you are alive."

He added that "she told me about the cold."

His sister's family went to Windsor a month ago, while Ibrahim's is said to be one of the first Syrian refugee families to arrive in the "new wave" of 25,000 that Canada is hoping to take in.

At the Beirut airport Sunday night, 32 Syrians took off for Toronto and onward, the culmination of many painful paths, combined with luck and fortitude.

Like so many others here in Lebanon, this family had been displaced many times in the last four years. They lived in Homs just as the Syrian regime began its vicious offensive to cut down an opposition uprising.

"We couldn't find food for the children," said Zaineb al Omar, Ibrahim's wife. Her brother-in-law was killed, her sister-in-law disappeared, leaving an orphaned son, Kenan.

First 'new wave' of Syrian refugees arrive in Canada from Lebanon

6 years ago
Duration 3:43
Syrian refugees are landing in Canadian cities as Ottawa speeds up processing 3:43

Ibrahim had been a migrant construction worker in Lebanon, and one day he told his family to come over the border and stay. That was over four years ago.

"I will not go back to Syria, ever," says Tonbari defiantly.

Life in a 1-room box

Life for many of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon is hand to mouth. The Tonbaris — 9 of them, including their parents — lived in a one-room half-constructed cement box. 

It would have been a store. Water leaks onto the floor. They use a one-pot gas burner to cook, and at night pull mats onto the concrete to sleep. 

They have also moved numerous times, one step ahead of the landlord demanding $200 US per month in rent on average. As refugees, they can't legally work. Zaineb has sold what jewellery she had to raise cash, but they were running out of resources.

But their years-long appeals to the UN High Commission for Refugees finally paid off and their names were put forward to the Canadian government for consideration. They passed initial screenings and security checks, then the final medical screenings last Friday.  

"I want to go for my children," says Ibrahim. "I want them to study and I will work, and my wife, too, and we will start our life from the beginning.

"We don't have anything, and I want my children to get an education because I didn't."

He assured us he never wavered from his decision to leave, but his face showed the stress of shepherding his family so far away. 

His duty, he seems to feel, is to create better opportunities for his children, and he wants to, but it's clearly painful.

A 'last supper'

On Saturday night Zaineb quietly packed all their belongings into three bags. They ate a "last supper" of fried eggplant and pita with Ibrahim's parents, all sharing from a cereal-sized bowl.

"I know I am not going to see them again", said the grandfather Mohamad Khaled Tonbari, gazing at his grandchildren. "But I am so happy for them," he said convincingly, "They are going to a country where there is everything."

"Yes, I will miss them", said Aida Abdel Karim Omar, the grandmother. "But they are finished from the pain and poverty, I hope." Still, she looks sad and pensive as she swoops up the youngest grandchild, nine months old, and gives him a long hug and a kiss.

The chance to go to Canada is so rare, amongst the millions of Syria's refugees. It would be easy to think families would jump at any opportunity. And they do, but it doesn't mean the leaving is any easier.

Lots of people and organizations in Windsor want to help Syrian refugees - but some people feel there are lots of questions and not enough answers. We spoke to Dr. Ahmad Chaker about a meeting tonight that hopes to solve the issue. 9:31

Sunday, they piled into one taxi and make the three-hour drive to Beirut's Hariri airport.

None of them has ever flown on a plane, let alone a 28-hour journey with four kids and two layovers.

"I didn't sleep last night", says Zaineb wanly.

The Canadian government has contracted the International Organization of Migration to handle logistics and country exits. The official arrives and starts calling out names for the 32 refugees who are on the flight that night. 

Each gets a blue bag, stenciled IOM, and inside is the coveted document , a copy of  Canadian "permanent resident status" — one each for Ibrahim, his wife and four kids.

Ibrahim's mother has come along. He grabs her in a long, haunting hug and says "Pray for us", as she sobs, then reaches down to kiss her grandchild. 

These are not families of means; there is a chance she may never see them again. As Canada prepares to welcome more of the 25,000 Syrian refugees, this scene will repeat itself. A layering  of hope, gratitude and sorrow, born of war. 


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.


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