Syrian refugee family told Canada is next destination
Lebanon straining under the influx of over a million Syrian refugees
Samer al-Bawab pauses, wrestling with emotion, as he explains why he's abandoning his homeland, Syria, for Canada.
"I think about Syria every day in my heart", he says. "But it's getting worse and worse."
"I'm from Homs," he explains from a rooftop apartment in north Lebanon. "It's only an hour from here, but I can't even go back to see family."
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The 29-year-old father of two is one of the 1.2 million Syrians who have fled over the borders to Lebanon. One in five people in Lebanon now is a Syrian refugee, an influx that is straining the country's tolerance and humanitarian aid.
Canada's newly unveiled plan to bring in 25,000 refugees to Canada, now by March 2016, will likely include al-Bawab, his wife and two children.
They were meant to fly out on Sunday, bound for Toronto, but have been delayed they were told, in order to finalize a visa for their newborn. Canada's minister of immigration announced Tuesday the government would extend its end-of-year deadline to "do it right."
10 days in detention
Al-Bawab's story mirrors that of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been caught up in the brutal civil war tearing at the country.
They stuck it out in Homs, under bombardment for two years until one day, passing through a Syrian checkpoint, al-Bawab was detained, thrown into a hut and beaten unconscious, accused of aiding the opposition.
He maintains he never had any part in the armed conflict and after 10 days in detention — "It was hell," he says — he was released.
He and his wife then packed up what wasn't shattered and moved across the border in March 2013 to take refuge in Lebanon, never thinking it might be for good.
Makeshift tent camps have sprung up all over the country, their status not officially recognized.
Lebanon refuses to legitimize these camps for fear they'll become permanent settlements like the large Palestinian camps, once temporary, now entrenched in this country.
Many refugees, with little means to support themselves, have to rent their meagre tents from landowners — in one settlement we visited the going rate was $65 per month; generators were another $28 monthly.
At the same time, the men are forbidden from working legally, and at one camp they were being forced by Lebanese authorities to pay $500 to renew their papers, or risk being thrown out of the country, back to Syria.
Canada a long way away
One woman told us three families had been offered the possibility of going to Canada by the UN, but that two refused, afraid of going such a long way, and worried they would never get back.
A more attractive prospect was getting to Germany or Belgium where so many others have settled.
Samer al-Bawab's family, ended up in a two-room rooftop apartment in Khalamoun, about an hour north of Beirut.
They registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees in May 2013 (Lebanon has since closed registrations entirely), and in May this year got word that Canada had accepted their file for possible resettlement.
Interviews, and health checks followed. Samer was fingerprinted four months ago, and recently got a call saying, subject to final checks, they would be leaving Nov. 29 on a flight via Cairo to Toronto.
He told us they'd received orientation courses on Canada and learned "that it is peaceful, and everyone is treated equally," he said, and then, "Oh, and they told us how cold it would be."
"It's a beautiful feeling," he added. "I'm so happy about what's happened to us. Canada will be good for us, and for the future."
His 19-year-old wife Ila Zian Anter seemed less confident. "Of course I am afraid," she said quietly, rocking her two-week-old daughter. "It's so far away from all my family."
Then she recovered, and bravely restarted her answer: "It will be better for my husband and for us."