A Syrian family's long journey to Canada

When the Farwan family left Daraa, Syria, more than three years ago, they never thought they would end up in the Canadian Prairies. The CBC picked up their journey seven months ago as they were preparing to leave their temporary home in Jordan for Lethbridge, Alta. Trace their extraordinary voyage through photos and video.

The Farwan family gave CBC rare access to follow their voyage from Jordan to Lethbridge, Alta.

The Farwans are a family of 10 from Daraa, Syria, who came to Canada as refugees last December. They spent three years in Jordan, where they picked olives to earn money. 0:26

Over the past seven months, as Canada has been welcoming thousands of refugees from Syria, the CBC has been reporting on the enormous hardships the newcomers face.

Not so well known is the sadness they carry with them as they rebuild their lives far from home, missing loved ones left behind. Once settled in Canada, the refugees struggle to adapt to a strange place and a new language, all the while bearing the emotional burden of their past.

  • Watch Adrienne Arsenault's documentary on the Farwans in the video at the bottom of this story

One family gave the CBC's The National extraordinary access to their private lives as they made their life-altering journey from Syria to Lethbridge, Alta., by way of Jordan.

This is a portrait of the Farwan family.

When we met the Farwans, they were living in Jordan.

We first met Jebreel, 6, and his family last December in Irbid, Jordan, where the family of 10 had settled three years earlier after fleeing the civil war in Syria.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

They found respite in a nearby olive grove.

The Farwans took us to a quiet olive grove not far from the rented apartment where they were living. The olive trees felt familiar, like the ones on the small plot of land they owned back in Syria.

Three of the Farwan brothers chase each other through an olive grove in Jordan, where they and their family pick olives to earn a little money while waiting to come to Canada as Syrian refugees. 0:16

Kawther, 2, the baby of the family, seen here in the arms of her sister Yamama, 14, was born in Jordan and has never seen the Farwans' home in Syria.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The fruits of their labour helped sustain a large family.

The olives the family picked supplemented the small allowance they received from the UNHCR and helped feed and clothe Adam, 11, and his siblings. 

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The whole family pitched in.

Ahmad, 18, the eldest of eight siblings, found work as a mechanic. His income helped ease the expense of raising a large family for his parents. One of the biggest limitations of refugee life in Jordan is not officially being allowed to work.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The Farwans' hometown was the flashpoint of Syrian conflict.

The Farwans are from Daraa, the southern Syrian city where protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011 and were violently crushed. In Daraa, Khalil worked as a taxi driver to support the family. Their life was modest but happy and full. 

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Leaving Syria was a difficult decision.

In Syria, the Farwans owned a house and a car and often went on picnics and other family outings. "We were happy. We had a good life," Khalil said. But after two years of enduring the escalating violence that had spread from Daraa to the rest of the country, Khalil decided to take the family to Jordan.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Home was just over the border but worlds away.

"I miss everything — the houses, the neighbourhood," Huda told the CBC when we interviewed the family in Jordan. Having some of her relatives around, who also fled to Jordan, helped her fight the homesickness, but not entirely. "I miss my memories," she said.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Canada opened its doors.

In November 2015, Nouh, 9, and his family applied to come to Canada under the Liberals' newly announced Syrian refugee resettlement program. The UNHCR in Jordan assessed the family and placed them on its list of refugees recommended for Canada's program. The next step was a meeting scheduled with Canadian immigration officials followed by security and health checks. The family felt encouraged and hopeful.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Ahead of their meeting with Canadian officials, everyone was eager to look their best.

With the promise of their meeting with immigration officials and possibly their eventual journey to Canada, the Farwans were eager to look their best. They went on a shopping trip, and everyone picked out an item or two of new clothing. Jebreel chose a pair of colourful sneakers.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The Farwans received some bad news.

Soon after their shopping trip, Khalil received a call. The family's meeting with Canadian officials had been cancelled. After a sleepless night for the entire family, Khalil travelled to the UNHCR office and waited for someone to explain what happened with their case.

To watch Khalil over several anxious hours waiting to find out what had gone wrong was to truly appreciate how precarious the life of a refugee can be.

Khalil Farwan spent hours in a UNHCR tent waiting for news about why his family had been taken off the list of Syrian refugees approved to come to Canada. 0:36

Eventually, Khalil learned the family's removal from the queue was down to a clerical error, one digit in their case number written down incorrectly. The error was fixed, and the family was back on the list.

There was still much to do before the Farwans were cleared to come to Canada.

Before their final approval for resettlement in Canada, there were still security, health and other checks to undergo. Adam waited anxiously as a refugee official checked the family's papers.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

The family was anxious but hopeful.

Over a period of several weeks, the Farwans would attend many meetings with refugee authorities, but as they waited for the final word from Canadian officials, the family was hopeful. 

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Flight to Canada was the Farwans' 1st time on an airplane.

Mohammad-Eid, 17, Adam, Mahmoud, 15, and Yamama were excited to be going on their first plane ride but were also sad to be leaving behind close friends and relatives. The family boarded a plane to Toronto on Jan. 31 and after a night in the hotel, continued on to Lethbridge, Alta.

(Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

A new year brought a new home, new weather and the challenges of a new language.

In January, the family moved into their new house and began settling in for their first Canadian winter.

The Farwans spent their first winter in Canada at their new house in Lethbridge, Alta. 0:20

All eight Farwan children have enrolled in public school while their parents have signed up for English classes. Learning a new language has been a challenge, especially for Khalil and Huda, who have spoken Arabic their whole lives.

The youngest of the Farwan brothers run through a park in Lethbridge, much like they used to do in Jordan while waiting to come to Canada as Syrian refugees 0:21

To read more about the Farwans' journey, watch Adrienne Arsenault's documentary below:

Six months ago, a Syrian refugee family let us into their lives as they were about to come to Canada. Adrienne Arsenault checks back in with the Farwans to see how they are adjusting. 18:29

About the Author

Carmen Merrifield

Current affairs producer for The National

Carmen Merrifield is a producer with CBC's The National. She has produced news, current affairs and documentaries for CBC throughout Canada, the U.S., Latin America, Afghanistan and Europe.