Ahmad Salamat and his sister Dalal speak almost weekly on Skype between Nanaimo and a Jordanian refugee camp, but the one thing missing as they say their goodbyes an ocean apart is a warm embrace.
All that is about to change at the Nanaimo Airport on Thursday (Aug. 2) thanks to the efforts of the Ladysmith Refugee Sponsorship Group, that’s raised $30,000 to support the woman and her three children and bring them to Canada to start a better future alongside their family.
Also arriving on the same plane will be Ahmad’s other daughter. Plans for a big feast that night when they arrive are already in the works.
“Hug my sister, hug my daughter,” said Ahmad, describing what he expects after seeing them for the first time in two years.
The Salamat family, including Ahmad, his wife Amal and their children Mohammad, 6, Batool, 8, Duha, 12, Jamal, 15, Raghag, 16, stepped off the plane in Victoria in February 2016 after arriving here as a part of the federal government’s assisted refugee program.
The Syrian Civil War had meant it was unsafe to stay any longer in their home of Daraa in the far southern tip of the country where Ahmad worked as a full-time bus driver for two decades, transporting people over 100 kilometres away to the capital city of Damascus.
“If we stay there we die…safety for ourselves,” said Jamal, translating for his father. His English is impressive considering none of the Salamat family knew the language when they arrived in Canada. When they fled Syria, the men made the one week journey separately from women and children because of the risk of being ambushed. Ahmad would traverse through the mountains on his way to Irbid, Jordan where he met up again with his family.
In Jordan, they lived in a refugee camp for nine months before having enough money to rent a house.
“My children in school, me, I work…any work because of my family,” Ahmad said.
Eventually, a meeting at the Canadian Embassy in Amman led to their eventual settlement in the B.C. capital and later Nanaimo where it was easier to find housing for a large family.
The Salamats were one of 25,000 Syrian refugee families resettled across Canada between Nov. 4 2015 and Feb. 29, 2016.
Government-assisted refugees are eligible for support including help finding accommodation, clothing, food and employment.
However, they also left behind countless other family members such as Ahmad’s sister, daughter and nephews arriving in Canada on Thursday.
The Ladysmith committee of roughly six people will only be responsible for supporting Dalal and her three children during their first year in Canada. A Nanaimo group is helping the other extended family.
Hiebert said the procedure for sponsoring a family is quite involved and is about much more than simply having enough funds available. The paperwork was signed in January 2017 and it’s been an emotional wait ever since.
“We are responsible to raise enough money to support them for a year and that means housing, food, clothing, because their job in the first year is to learn English,” he said, explaining the role of the committee.
“People have been generous and we’re still asking for money to top it up. If all else fails it will come out of our own pockets.”
Syrian refugees who are brought to Canada under private sponsorship also don’t qualify for public housing like those supported by the government.
Hiebert said his basement is full of furniture and other household items for the new family but finding rental accommodations has so far been difficult.
Even the Salamat family were relocated in May 2017 to Nanaimo because it was hard to find them a suitable place in Victoria with enough rooms for all the children.
“The housing was so expensive in Victoria that more than one family was brought here to Nanaimo and there’s now quite a bit of a community here now,” explains Hiebert.
Salamat estimates there’s upwards of 40 families living in Nanaimo who are refugees from Syria.
A big smile comes to his face as he remembers the surprise of seeing two families he knew from Daraa living here.
“I (know) two families here…same city (as back home),” he said.
Ahmad currently works cleaning cars at a north-end dealership and his wife is taking a job ready program. They are attending the with the support of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society and diligently studying to learn the language to open new doors.
“Here, the weather’s very nice, the people very nice, my neighbour very nice – help me with everything,” Ahmad said, responding to a question about what he enjoys about Canada. “I miss my family. My brother and my mother. They live in camp in Zaatari (Jordan).”
The children have enjoyed everything from volunteering at Canada Day to studying taekwondo. Jamal has even found work part-time helping another Syrian man with painting.
Hiebert said he and committee members have found the process of helping families resettle here in Canada very rewarding.
“There’s many little things that we offer our assistance with but it’s going to be easier for us because we have a loving family already here and they’re going to help them all the time,” he said. “In some ways it’s a lot of work but it’s also very rewarding that you can have an impact on a life, on a family, so substantial just through a bit of volunteering.”
Anyone interested in helping the Ladysmith Refugee Sponsorship Group can mail cheques to the Ladysmith First United Church, Box 124, Ladysmith, BC, V9G 1A1. Alternatively, you can deliver your cheque to the church at 232 High St., in Ladysmith. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,Tuesday to Thursday.
A secure mail slot is at the back door.