The topic of Syrian refugees has dominated the media this year, but true humanity of the situation is felt when coming face to face with a family that has been caught in the middle of the massive humanitarian crisis.
Mohammad Al Lwisi, his wife Nesreen Nemeh, their eight-year-old son Yazan, four-year-old daughter Ghazal and two-year-old daughter Manessa arrived at the Penticton airport Dec. 7 to a group of around 30 people who welcomed them to the community.
The Al Lwisi family are now living in their new home in Oliver.
Coming to Canada was literally a dream come true.
“We were dreaming to just have that phone call. For a year and a half we’re waiting and waiting and dreaming of getting that phone call to come to Canada,” Mohammad said through translator Suha Alkhaled, a refugee herself, who came to Canada 11 years ago from Palestine.
Alkhaled has been helping the family adjust to life in Canada in collaboration with the Oliver Syrian Refugee Support Committee, who initiated the blended sponsorship, a combination of federal and private sponsorship. Members of the committee welcomed the Al Lwisi family and had their home set up, furnished and toys ready for the children when they arrived.
The Al Lwisi family are from the city of Sham in Syria where Mohammad worked as a concierge and in guest services at a hotel.
When the revolution started, the family started moving around, from 2011 to 2012 as areas became less and less safe. In October 2012, the family left Syria, ending up in a refugee camp in Lebanon where they spent three years. A difficult time, especially for the children.
“Really bad, bad conditions. Lots of diseases were around. No safety, people were really insecure and we were not allowed, especially Syrian refugees, out of our houses after 5 p.m.,” Mohammad said. “We’re not allowed to work, we’re not allowed to have a bank account.”
“So many things,” Mohammad interjected in English.
Mohammad and his brother volunteered in the camps doing work in statistics with fellow Syrian refugee families.
June 3, 2014 was the family’s first interview with the UN to attain refugee status. The next was in September and the third was May 22, 2015. After 10 days there was another interview. Medical exams, fingerprinting and other medical tests followed.
“They contacted us 15 days, a couple of weeks before we came to Canada and said ‘you’re going to go, here are your tickets’,” Mohammed said.
“It was really difficult. Waiting for something like that just to survive, to be safe and praying for nothing to happen until that day was really, really hard for us, for the kids. We were living in very poor conditions. It was very difficult.”
Coming to Canada was bittersweet for the Al Lwisi family, who left behind Mohammad’s 18-year-old brother, 22-year-old sister and his mother, who all lived together in Syria, and were together in the refugee camp.
“We were all together on this one file. When they called us they just called me and my children. Not my mother, not my siblings, which was a shock for me,” Mohammad said.
He said the rest of his family are still in the refugee camp in Lebanon. They maintain contact, but sometimes it is hard to connect due to the conditions of the camps and finding a connection to wi-fi.
Tensions can be high at the camps with different political and cultural backgrounds together in one place, and his brother has been facing gruelling hardships just for his desire to get an education.
“My brother wanted to study. What they did when he said I want to study, I want to go to college, I want to do something, build my future. They hit him until he bleeds,” Mohammad said.
There were three options for the Al Lwisi family — Australia, Canada and the U.S. The Al Lwisis had their sights set on Canada.
“We heard and we saw in the news that (Canada) is the best place on Earth, that people here are very nice and it’s worth living here,” Mohammad said.
Aside from escaping the turmoil, they want to have a new life and new future here in Canada for themselves and their children.
“For sure, for sure I want to stay here and just have a future here, a new life,” Mohammad said. “It’s a lot better, lots of excitement in going forward and moving on and having a new life and having a good future. We are really planning to just go through the right path and find our way. It is much brighter here for sure.”
Mohammad and Nesreen are now taking English language classes, making doctors appointments, setting up bank accounts and taking the many steps required to start a new life in Canada.
The children, who quietly watched Spongebob Squarepants during the interview, are getting set up to go to school in the new year.
It is about more than seeking refuge for the Al Lwisi family. They want to be the ones helping next time.
“We’re not here only to be happy and to be supported and be secure. We’re here also to do something for this country. Working here, being positive, being the ones in the community who give the support. Right now we are taking the support, so one day we are looking forward to being part of the community that supports others,” Mohammad said.