October 23, 2020

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Syrian father, son begin new life in city after unspeakable tragedy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/9/2016 (1490 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There used to be seven people in the Sarhan immediate family, which grew every Friday when grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins joined them for a weekly feast in their Damascus suburb.

Now there are just two, huddled alone together, in a strange city 10,000 kilometres away. They don’t have much left — just each other and a warm hospitality, offering visitors a cup of hot tea and cold, sweet grapes served on a tissue with a smile.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ibrahim, 14, walks with his father Sleman Sarhan outside Welcome Place.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ibrahim, 14, walks with his father Sleman Sarhan outside Welcome Place.

In April 2013, while the Sarhans were preparing to host their weekly gathering, Sleman Sarhan’s wife sent him to the store for dishwashing detergent. On his way home, a Syrian regime barrel bomb hit their neighbourhood and he took cover until he heard the horrifying shouts of two young children: "Sleman’s wife and children are all dead!"

It wasn’t quite true. Sleman learned his wife, daughter and three sons were killed. He found his 11-year-old son Ibrahim badly wounded and unconscious. When the boy regained consciousness days later, he asked to see his mom and wanted to know why his sister and brothers hadn’t come to see him in the hospital.

"I was scared about what to tell him," his father recalled through an interpreter.

The mosaic artisan was consumed by grief but tried to put on a brave face for Ibrahim whose injured leg doctors wanted to amputate. After months of war and hopelessness in Syria, Sleman and his son fled in the night on foot across the desert to Jordan. Ibrahim, who still has both legs, was able to walk using crutches but Sleman carried him most of the way.

"It took three days," said Ibrahim, who is now 14 and speaks English. "I was scared and I didn’t sleep."

They didn’t know anyone in Jordan except a relative from Syria living in a refugee camp. The father and son registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and arrived in Winnipeg July 5 as government-assisted refugees. They didn’t know a single Canadian.

On Thursday, a Canadian became their friend. Joel Muller was introduced to the Sarhans by Maysoun Darweesh, who works at Welcome Place where the father and son are staying temporarily.

Darweesh, a refugee who was a journalist in Syria, is looking for other "host" Canadian families to pair with government-assisted refugees, especially the influx of Syrian arrivals. Having Canadian friends to visit with regularly helps newcomers integrate, said Darweesh. She hopes to find matches for 30 refugee families. So far, she has three families and three individuals, including Muller, who’ve volunteered.

Muller, 38, recently moved to Manitoba after being laid off from his trucking job in the Saskatchewan oil patch and has time and an interest in getting to know people from different cultures.

"I’m in the middle of a life change and want to expand my horizons," said the Bible college graduate who’s taught English as an Additional Language overseas. "I enjoy the opportunity of meeting people from a different culture — I think that’s what Canada’s all about."

"We want to have good relationships with Canadians," said Sleman, 43. "Before the war, all Syrians used to hear about how great Canadians are," he said. "We want to be friends with them."

For information about the host matching program at Welcome Place contact Maysoun Darweesh at 204-977-1000 ext. 253 or email maysound@miic.ca. Applicants have criminal record and child abuse registry background checks done and have to attend an orientation sesson.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography

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