As It Happens

She survived the Syrian war, came to Canada, then taught herself English at Tim Hortons

For Reham Abazid, home is the place where you are safe and loved. For most of her life, that meant Daraa, a small city in southwestern Syria. Now, it means Saint John, N.B., the Canadian city that has welcomed and nurtured her family since they arrived in Canada as government-sponsored refugees five years ago. 

Reham Abazid is one of 80,000 Syrians who settled in Canada after a devastating civil war began 10 years ago

Reham Abazid came to Canada in 2016 as a government-sponsored refugee. Today, she is working to open her own business. (Submitted by the Crescent Valley Resource Centre)

Warning: The following story contains graphic descriptions of violence. 


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For Reham Abazid, home is the place where you are safe and loved.

For most of her life, that meant Daraa, a small city in southwestern Syria, where she lived a happy life with her husband and son in a house with a lemon tree.

Now, it means Saint John, N.B., the Canadian city that has welcomed and nurtured her family since they arrived in Canada as government-sponsored refugees five years ago. 

"Home means safe, means love, but I can't find right now anything in Syria like I find it here in Canada," Abazid told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

This week marks 10 years since the start of the war in Syria — a devastating conflict that has left a once bustling country in rubble and fuelled an ongoing international refugee crisis. More than six million have fled the country since the start of the war, and about 80,000 have settled in Canada, according to the Globe and Mail

Pregnant and under fire 

When the fighting began, Abazid was right at the heart of it. 

In March 2011, a group of children in Daraa was detained and tortured for spray-painting anti-government graffiti in support of the Arab Spring uprisings spreading through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

Some of the earliest protests in Syria were in support of those boys, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded with a brutal crackdown. The protests became an uprising. Then the uprising became a civil war. 

Daraa is a small city and Abazid knew the boys who painted the graffiti. Some of them were her brother-in-law's cousins.

"It was crazy and, like, unacceptable," she said. "Because they are kids in the end."

A Syrian rides a motorcycle past destroyed buildings in an opposition-held neighbourhood of the southern city of Daraa on Oct. 2, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images)

As the conflict raged on, Daraa became a different place. Abazid's neighbourhood became a focal point of violence, with bombs going off almost nightly. No longer safe in their own home, the family moved in with friends.

On the morning of Jan. 30, 2013, her husband, Mohammad al Najjar, got a phone call from his cousins. She says they told him: "If you have something very important at your house, you have to grab it right now because the soldiers are in the front of the street."

Najjar got up to leave, but Abazid stopped him.

"I told him, 'No, no, you're not going there,'" she said. "Because if they found him alone at home, they will kill him or they will take him and he will never get back home."

Abazid, who was eight months pregnant at the time with twins, decided that she would go instead, accompanied by her father-in-law. 

They grabbed the documents they needed, but when they tried to leave, they spotted a tank on the street nearby.

"I told my dad, 'Let's run, go back,'" she said.

But it was too late. The regime soldiers spotted them and opened fire. It didn't matter that she was visibly pregnant.

"They know and they don't care," she said. "Even if I have a child like one day old, they don't care."

The pair dodged the fire and retreated back inside the house, where they hid, waiting for the violence to die down. They were so happy to be alive, they burst into a fit of laughter.

"I thought, 'Am I alive?' He said, 'Yes. I am alive too!' And we was laughing," she said. "But at the same time, I can see the tears of his eyes."

About an hour later, the bombing started.

The birth of one child, and death of another

Abazid says she heard it before she saw it. She was knocked unconscious, and when she woke up, she was bleeding. The pair fled to a family member's house.

"I stuck around eight hours bleeding with my babies, and I don't have any idea if they are alive or not," she said. "That was a very scary moment for me."

Finally, when it seemed safe, Abazid's family got her to a hospital. The doctor, a friend of hers, performed an emergency C-section.

The doctor handed her a healthy baby girl, who she named Rous.

"I took her. 'OK, where is the other one? Like, I know I'm expecting a boy and girl.' She said, 'I'm sorry we lost the boy.'"

Abazid, her husband Mohammad Al-Najjar, and children Haidar and Rous. Abazid lost Rous's twin brother in childbirth after being injured in a bombing. (Scott Munn)

Before she even had time to mourn the loss of her son, Hamza, government soldiers showed up with a document for her to sign. It absolved the Syrian government of the child's death, instead putting the blame on ISIS. 

It was a lie, Abazid said.

"I refused to sign it. And they said, 'OK, if you refuse to sign it, you are not allowed to bury him,'" she said. "I was so angry and screaming at their face."

She says the soldiers told her if she didn't sign the document, they would go find a dog to dispose of her son's remains.

"My friend, the doctor, she said, 'Reham, you have to go right now from the hospital. You have to run away.'"

The doctor snuck Abazid out through the employee entrance with her husband, newborn daughter, and stillborn son. She buried Hamza at her old house under the lemon tree; 18 days later, they fled over the border to neighbouring Jordan.

Syrian refugees receive welcome bags at the Toronto Pearson International Airport on Dec. 11, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Life in Jordan was hard, Abazid said. As refugees, they weren't legally allowed to work. Her baby girl had to drink sugar water because she couldn't afford formula. Her husband was arrested several times for working under the table.

Then one day, her husband received another fateful call — this time from the UN refugee agency, telling them they were eligible for asylum in Canada if they wanted it.

"I was jumping beside him and said, 'Yes! Say yes!'" she said.

Najjar was apprehensive at first. They didn't know anyone in Canada, he said, and they didn't speak English.

"I don't care," Abazid replied. "It's a very bright future. That's what I know. Like, let's do it."

So they did. 

Arriving in Canada

She arrived at Toronto's Pearson International Airport with her family on Jan. 30, 2016 — exactly three years since the day she met her daughter and lost her younger son. There were throngs of strangers waiting with gifts and toys.

"The first day, we cried a lot. But my kids, they don't have any idea why," she said. "But someday, someday they will know."

The family settled in Saint John, where they lived on federal assistance for a year while they learned English. Abazid took classes at the local YMCA, and spent three hours a day sitting in the local Tim Hortons with a notepad, listening to people's chatter and learning new words.

"Canadians, they are so famous [for saying] sorry and apologizing," she said with a laugh. "They … love to talk about weather too."

Abazid and Najjar were both able to find work. He's a mechanic with Ford, and she worked at the YMCA where she learned English. 

She is a permanent resident now, working toward citizenship. They have since had another daughter, Canadian-born. They're saving money to buy a home, and Abazid dreams of opening a convenience store in her neighbourhood. 

She says her children — 11-year-old Haidar, eight-year-old Rous and one-year-old Shaden — are happy here. 

"I love Saint Johners. They are so generous and so good, so much welcoming. Like, I appreciate each one of them," she said. 

She has no intention of moving back to Syria, she said, but she would like to visit one day with her kids. 

"I wish someday to take them there, to tell them where I grew up and to show them, you know, here used to be our home."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story called Reham Abazid a Canadian citizen. In fact, she is a permanent resident.
    Mar 18, 2021 11:44 AM ET

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