Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/10/2015 (2048 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After losing his home, his leg and a good chunk of his childhood to war, 14-year-old Omar from Syria got a nice surprise when he arrived in Winnipeg Monday afternoon.
A gleaming, white stretch Hummer was waiting outside the airport for him and 23 members of his family who’ve faced nothing but tragedy since 2011.
"Wow!" said the wide-eyed boy in the wheelchair when he saw the donated Hollywood Limousine Service ride there to chauffeur his and two other Syrian families sponsored by Refuge Winnipeg.
The charitable group came together more than a year ago. Different faith groups, non-faith groups and members of the Syrian Assembly of Manitoba joined forces to privately sponsor three refugee families with relatives in Winnipeg. They’ve raised close to $120,000 to resettle the Syrian refugees, and had been waiting since they were approved this spring for them to arrive. "I feel very emotional," said Mayer Abdullah after her 24 young cousins, aunts and uncles arrived in Winnipeg. "I still can’t stop shaking." Her relatives fled fighting in Syria more than two years ago and have been staying in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Before they left Syria, her cousin Omar was hit by a Syrian army truck and lost his leg above the knee. When the fighting got too close to them, Omar’s dad Kamal and Kamal’s two brothers and their families fled — mostly on foot — to Lebanon. Kamal said through an interpreter that he carried his son, who has no prosthetic limb, half the way. Omar uses crutches but still has no prosthesis.
"It was kind of a scary time," said Abdullah, whose younger siblings held up a Welcome to Winnipeg sign they made with a beaver wearing a Mountie hat saying "eh" and a Canadian flag. The families fled their homes, leaving behind everything they owned and everything that was familiar, she said.
"They don’t have any hope of ever going back. It’s hard on them, emotionally and physically," said the teen who was born in Canada.
"I’m thankful to everybody who donated," said Abdullah, who visited her relatives in Syria in 2008 before President Bashar Assad started bombing his own people in 2011.
She said her mom messaged the families every day in Syria and after they fled to Lebanon.
"It feels like a dream," Abdullah said of their long-awaited arrival Monday. "They’re going to be here. They’re going to be safe," she said.
"We’ve been waiting for so long."
Her family and nearly two dozen volunteers with Refuge Winnipeg met the exhausted travellers at the airport.
"They feel very happy," said her mother, Fadila Aldiab, whose brothers and their families arrived after long flights from Beirut to Cairo to Toronto. "They like the people here," she said wiping away tears as the volunteers from Refuge Winnipeg cried and hugged the families they’d fund-raised to sponsor and were meeting for the first time.
Refuge Winnipeg has a three-storey home on Maryland Street for two of the families, said Rev. Loraine Mackenzie Shepherd with Refuge Winnipeg. They’re still looking for a four-bedroom wheelchair-accessible home for Omar and his family to rent, said chairwoman Barbara Wynes. For now, they’re staying in temporary housing in St. Boniface at Abri Marguerite run by the Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba, she said.
On Monday night, the big white Hummer took the three families for their first meal in Canada at the house on Maryland. Their fridges and cupboards have been stocked with food, thanks to the Refuge Winnipeg volunteers and donors. They bedded down under hand-made quilts that volunteers donated for each of the children and their parents.
Today, they’ll be visiting government offices to apply for social insurance numbers and Manitoba Health cards. Soon the school-age children will begin classes at the NEEDS Centre on Notre Dame Avenue where they’ll get oriented to enter the school system. Their parents will begin language classes — all the first steps on the road to becoming independent that Refuge Winnipeg is guiding them on.
"This community is incredibly beautiful," said volunteer Laila Chebib, who immigrated to Winnipeg from Syria a half-century ago. "There are committed people doing this for people they don’t even know. This is the global village."
While there were tears of joy, smiles and hugs at the airport Monday, resettling refugees isn’t just a humanitarian act of compassion — it’s good for Canada, said retired teacher and Refuge Winnipeg volunteer Frank Wynes.
"The net benefit to Canada is immense," said Wynes. "There hasn’t been one large group of immigrants that hasn’t contributed to the economy and to the country."