Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Helpless anguish for local Syrians

Homeland 'terrible,' refugee life arduous

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The pain of Syrians in harm's way is being felt by relatives in Winnipeg watching helplessly, and almost hopelessly, from afar.

"The situation is terrible," said Mai, a member of the Syrian Assembly of Manitoba. "A lot of children are being killed," said the 26-year-old new mom with a month-old baby. Mai doesn't want her last name published because she fears speaking out against the Assad regime could lead to reprisals against relatives there, such as her 70-year-old grandmother.

"She's terrified," said Mai, who calls her grandma near Damascus every day and can hear the fighting.

"I don't understand, and no one's doing anything about it," said Mai, who wants the Canadian government to help Syrians come to Canada as visitors until it's safe to return.

Some Syrians are going to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as refugees, she said. There are restrictions on entering Jordan and if people do get in, they're often not well-treated, she said. In Turkey, Syrian refugees aren't allowed to leave the camps.

"If they have money and want to rent a place, they can't," she said.

In Lebanon it's hard to get health care and there are Assad supporters and kidnappers targeting well-to-do Syrians for ransom, said Winnipegger Laila Chebib, who came to Canada with her husband nearly 50 years ago.

"People are going back to Syria rather than staying," added Mai. She wants the Canadian government to make it easier for Syrians to be able to get a visa to visit the safety of Canada, she said. With the Canadian Embassy in Damascus closed and the nearest embassies in Lebanon and Jordan, it's not easy, Mai said.

"A visa usually takes 10 to 20 days, now it takes a few months." Syrians who need a passport to get a visa can't get the necessary documents from chaotic Syria, Mai said. "The government isn't really working right now."

She wants Canada to make it easier for Syrians to get extended visitor visas to come here rather than risking their lives in Syria or a neighbouring country as refugees.

But Syrians who want a visitor's visa to Canada still have to apply through all the regular channels, Citizenship and Immigration Canada says. And Syrians already in Canada who want to extend their visa because of the conflict still have to meet the normal eligibility requirements and pay the regular fee to apply for a visa extension, CIC says.

Canada is helping by providing $6.5 million to Jordan in aid to Syrians and an additional $1.5 million to the United Nations World Food Programme for up to 185,000 Syrian refugees.

The Mennonite Central Committee is helping out, too. It's had workers in Syria for 20 years and is working through churches there to help both Muslims and Christians, said Sarah Adams, who works for the MCC in Syria and Lebanon.

They're distributing medicine in Damascus and Homs as well as fuel and money to help people move to safe villages.

"Everything is really expensive," said Mai, whose relatives in Syria are constantly on edge. Guns and weapons are being fired indiscriminately, she said. "My uncle got some bullets in his house." They punctured the tank that holds hard-to-get fuel, she said, and people are becoming prisoners in their homes.

Adams, visiting MCC headquarters in Winnipeg, said she hears a diplomatic solution is still possible.

"There's hope there will be enough calls for diplomacy and that they'll see the ongoing destruction isn't leading to anything."

Turkey appealed to a reluctant UN Security Council Thursday for a safe haven for thousands of Syrians facing a "humanitarian disaster" as Britain and France said they would rule out no options -- including a no-fly zone -- to aid residents fleeing an escalating civil war.

But Turkish leaders held out little hope for the endorsement of a deeply divided council that has been paralyzed on taking action to stop the 18-month uprising that is alleged to have killed more than 20,000 people.

-- with files from The Associated Press

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Relief for Syrians

The Mennonite Central Committee is collecting donations and relief kits for refugees fleeing the conflict. To date, MCC has shipped 2,774 relief kits, 8,160 hygiene kits, 10,327 blankets, 14,377 school kits to Jordan. An additional 460 relief kits, 4,200 hygiene kits, 2,300 blankets, 3,000 school kits and 280 infant care kits have been shipped to Lebanon in preparation for a quick response.

How to help

Go to: http://mcccanada.ca/kits/relief

-- source: Mennonite Central Committee

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2012 A9

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