The survivors next door

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Fatima Benhatta was outraged. The Surrey-based refugee advocate learned the Alnemer family from Syria had been breaking their first Ramadan fast in Canada on packages of cheap instant noodles.

“This was just too sad. Breaking your fast with Indomie noodles for a whole month! Can you imagine? After all this family has been through,” she said indignantly.

She knew that the Alnemer family was struggling because the father was in a wheelchair due to injuries from the war. The mother had to care for two young daughters under the age of five.

Because the Alnemers pay more than 80 per cent of their income on rent and utilities (the apartment costs under $1,000 per month), they dared not spend unnecessarily.

The Canadian government has already sent them a bill for the first installment to repay, despite the father's disability.

Ottawa had made an exception for the first group of 25,000 Syrian refugees who arrived as part of the Trudeau Liberals' 2015 election campaign promise. The Alnemers missed that group, so like other refugees, they are required to start repaying Ottawa for their travel and medical costs within 30 days of arrival.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told National Observer in an email on Tuesday that the loan program is made to "ensure that individuals, who would otherwise be unable to pay for the costs of transportation to Canada have access to a funding source" and that "repayments go back into the fund to help finance new loans for other immigrants and refugees in need."

"The global repayment record since the start of the program is 91 per cent, which means that Canada has received $91 back on each $100 we have lent out," the federal department said in the email. "At any time, people facing hardships can request a review of their repayment arrangement in order to reduce the burdens they may be facing."

IRCC added that the Syrian refugees' loan repayment rate for loans issued since January 1, 2016, was slightly higher than the rate for other refugee populations, but that the average Syrian loan was about half that of other refugees. Families with disabled adults who have difficulty making the repayment deadlines can request a deferral of repayments up to 24 additional months, according to the IRCC.

Benhatta, a B.C. representative with Islamic Relief Canada, posted on Muslim groups’ Facebook pages across the province, explaining the family’s dire situation and urging them to help them with food and finances.

Soon, food donations poured in.

In July, a group of Canadian volunteers and Syrian refugees who had arrived earlier got together for a belated celebratory dinner after Ramadan.

One couple drove in from Maple Ridge to deliver cake. The family's kitchen was soon stocked with spices and groceries, as well as pots and pans.

To welcome visitors, Reema busied herself in the kitchen cooking traditional Syrian dishes using donated ingredients.

Reema in the kitchen with her friend, preparing a meal for guests on July 9, 2017 in Surrey. Photo by Jenny Uechi​

One by one, guests start to arrive. The first one to come is Joyce Peatch, a retired schoolteacher who has been volunteering over the last year with her friend, Barbara Di Giovanni, to help Syrian refugees. She greets the family warmly. Bassam Suaifan, a Syrian refugee who has been profiled in National Observer, arrives with his wife Yousra and three youngest children—Yousef, Mohammad and Rahaf.

Suaifan has helped fellow Syrian refugees, especially the disabled, to make sure they have food and company. His teen daughters are virtually fluent in English and have ambitions to become doctors.

Peatch immediately catches the children’s attention with a balloon machine.

Guests arrive at Alnemer residence in Surrey, B.C. on July 9, 2017. Photo by Jenny Uechi

“I used to teach kindergarten, and the kids always love this,” she says.

Joyce Peatch with Tabarak (foreground) and Islam Alnemer in Surrey, B.C. Photo by Jenny Uechi
Tabarak and her Rahaf play with balloons in the Alnemer home in Surrey, B.C. Photo from June 9, 2017 by Jenny Uechi

Adham, Reema's husband, is friendly and welcoming when guests start arrive. He's disabled from the waist down, but is seated on the couch without his wheelchair as there's almost no room for it with the tables pushed in the middle of the living room.

Before the war took away use of his legs, Adham was a successful businessman who managed seven companies ranging from delivery to refrigeration. He's now among roughly 15 per cent of the 40,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada since November 2015 who have a medical condition that has no impact on public safety.

Fatima Benhatta on the phone at the Alnemer house in Surrey, B.C. on July 9, 2017. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Large plates of stuffed grape leaves, chicken and rice, as well as thin-sliced potatoes arrive.
Tables are pushed together for guests to take food from communal dishes. It's a remarkable change from the cheap instant food that the family relied on during their difficult first weeks in Canada.

Traditional Syrian dishes at the Alnemer residence in Surrey, B.C. on July 9, 2017. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Di Giovanni, seated on the couch, talks with another parent about how difficult the transition to Canada must be for Syrian adults, compared to children.

“It would be like having the first 30 years of your life, just erased,” she says.

Chapter 1

Escape

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Before arriving in Canada, the Alnemer family had suffered terrible losses during the war in Syria.

Reema's face crumples as she remembers the day everything changed forever.

She and her family were sleeping peacefully in small-town Yabroud in west Syria in December 2013, when a bomb fell on their house during a midnight air strike.

The explosion killed her three sons; her eldest boy at 17, his brother, 14, and her baby, just seven months old. It also left her husband hovering between life and death, shrapnel lodged in his legs and back.

“I thought I was going to go crazy when I found out I lost my kids,” Reema says, in tears.

There was no time to grieve the loss of her boys—she immediately had to rush her surviving daughter, and comatose husband, to medical attention and safety. She had another baby on the way, and needed to stay alive.

Reema trudged through dark underground sewer tunnels with her young children to get to safety in Syria. Now, with their second home in ruins, Reema called smugglers to help to get to safety. Later, the family traveled a harrowing eight hours in the night to Jordan.

“I felt like going mad, but I had to come back to my faith. I saw other people’s problems were worse than mine, and I felt like nothing.”

Reema used to be an upper-class housewife who lived comfortably in Homs before the war forced them out of their home. As Homs was being bombed into oblivion, the family tried to resettle in the tiny city of Yabroud (population 25,891), only to be forced out. She recalls her year as a refugee in Jordan as “hell,” a fate she wouldn’t wish on any enemy.

Her husband Adham lay in a coma for 21 days. His consciousness returned, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. The family had an enormous bill on their hands upon his discharge. Reema was still reeling with grief but scraped out an income cleaning homes, selling vegetables to pay the bill and feed the two children who remained — Islam, now four, and Tabarak, three years old.

At his home in Surrey, B.C., Adham Alnemer hugs his daughters, Tabarak, left, and Islam, right, as they climb into his wheelchair. Photo by Jenny Uechi

“We were so hungry all that time," she recalls. "When we walked past a house, we could smell the food, and we just wished we could have a bit. People would insult us, saying we took their jobs.”

When the mood grows heavy, four-year-old Islam waves her saffron-haired My Little Pony toy in front of the adults and interjects in English:

This one, orange!

Islam and Tabarak bounce and spin on the couch, a whirlwind of pink. The girls seem determined to distract their mother's attention whenever the atmosphere turns dark.

This yours!” Three-year-old Tabarak squeals, gripping a pink beaded bracelet in her stubby fingers.

What’s this one? This one?” Both girls are inquisitive about technology, and attempt to take photos with my camera.

Islam, 4, with her mother Reema in blue and her mother's friend, Yousra Alqablawi in Surrey, B.C. on July 17, 2017. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

The family's first few weeks in Surrey were marked by isolation and confusion, aggravated by Adham's struggles with mobility.

"We didn't even realize there was a Superstore just behind our apartment complex for two weeks," she recalls.

When a group of strangers found out about their difficult situation, the cloud of despair began to lift.

Chapter 2

After the bomb

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Now, the family has some support from not only Canadians but other Syrian refugees like the Suaifan family who arrived just a year ago and have made remarkable progress adapting to their new home.

Bassam's wife, Yousra, sits on the couch to talk. Last year, she had often seemed busy and preoccupied, caring for young children including a newborn who almost died during his first month in Canada. Today, she looks visibly more relaxed.

“I’m going to school,” Yousra said in English, with a touch of pride. She said her daughters Mariana, Fatima and Yusra are enjoying summer break.

When Bassam goes outside for a cigarette, Adham hoists himself off the couch with his arms and drags his body to the balcony to chat. His wheelchair is somewhere, but there’s no room with all the guests and furniture, so he climbs on the chair using just his arms. Yousef, Bassam’s bright 7-year-old son, waits attentively to translate as Adham starts to talk about memories of the war.

“Her - they were really scared. She saw her brother die,” Yousef says, pointing to Islam walking through the room.

“They were … sleeping, and the airplane, come and... ‘boom!’” Yousef uses his hands to depict an explosion.

Shrapnel parts are still stuck in Adham’s back. If he tries to move these parts, a botched operation could render him "blind" or “sleeping all day,” explains Yousef.

Adham woke up weeks later in a hospital in Jordan. He learned all three of his sons were dead, and that his wife and daughters were in a refugee camp. His girls, who were sleeping in another room when the bomb landed, had escaped without long-term injuries.

"Thank God!" Bassam says in English, comforting his friend.

Yousef, 7, Adham Alnemer and Bassam Suaifan, showing scars from his injuries. Photo by Jenny Uechi.

Haroon Khan ruffels Yousef’s hair, calling him a smart boy.

“When I first met Yousef, he didn’t know any English,” he tells me, glowing with admiration. “Now, he’s translating for adults in English.”

Although the Suaifans knew no English and were equally lost when they arrived in Canada last year, they’ve improved with the help of friends. Now, young refugee children like Yousef help struggling adults by translating Arabic to English.

Chapter 3

A troubled peace

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Three days after the gathering, Bassam and Yousra and Fatima Benhatta come to visit again.

It's not easy for them to travel around to explore Surrey since Adham is in a wheelchair. So the people they've met are often the ones coming over to visit their home.

Adham, who was once supporting a much larger household, now lives in an unfamiliar landscape and struggles to communicate due to language barriers. Even though his arrival to Canada was supposed to be a positive change, his initial weeks were traumatizing as he struggled to get support from settlement services.

“It made me hate myself, and where I am,” he murmured. He said he felt like “a burden" on his wife.

The two girls go silent, looking down and fidgeting with their toys.

There is pain and suffering written on Adham's face as his eyes stare off in the distance.

Suddenly, there’s a flurry of talk among Bassam, Yousra, Reema, Adham and Fatima, each shouting their views about what to do about the future.

"We've left everything back in Syria. When the war ends and the country rebuilds, we will go back."

"Be realistic! How long do you think it will take to rebuild? Look at Iraq! Has it rebuilt itself after the war yet?...How many years will it take?"

"But look at what we've gone through here since coming to Canada..."

"OK, but many refugees have it worse.”

Fatima reassures that they’re not arguing; this is just a normal exchange of opinions.

Although the family is tight-knit, they’re still affected by the conflict. The parents say the girls are still terrified of ambulance sirens.

Reema says she accepts all the losses of war. She came to terms with the loss of three children, the death of her sisters, and her husband’s injuries. But she bursts into tears when mentioning the one memory that still troubles her.

“My mom died of starvation. During Ramadan. This is too much,” she says, tears streaming down her face. “This, I cannot digest.”

In front of her, Islam murmurs in English, “I love this one,” holding a plastic doll, and Tabarak wails, “Mommy! Mom!”

“Humanity died during the war in Syria,” Reema said. But she doesn’t have long to linger on the past. Islam will be starting school in September, and she has to focus on her daughters' future.

“It’s God who gives, and God who takes—and I believe we’ll get through this,” she comments, on her struggles. “We didn’t come to Canada for money. We came for peace, and to stop living in fear.”

Adham has turned back into his former gregarious self, and profusely thanks visitors for coming.

“Please come again,” he smiles. “We want to see you again.”