One family’s journey from Syria to Surrey
Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Sua'Ifan family are among 2,700 Syrian refugees who started their lives over in B.C. in the past year. Tara Carman and Mark Yuen have documented their journey.

The hotel is hot and crowded. It smells of too many people crammed into too little space.

Bassam Sua’Ifan waits at the door, smiles and reaches out to shake the hand of a reporter of the opposite sex, unusual for a Syrian man. He is about five foot five and wears grey slacks and a blue-checkered dress shirt. He and his wife, Yousra Al Qablawi, escort guests into the hotel room and insist they sit down. Their teenage daughters bring bananas on plates and offer something to drink. The guests politely decline, but this is not acceptable. Large glasses of sugary juice appear.

It is a grey February day and the hotel is in a particularly grey corner of north Surrey.

The room is full of children. Some belong to Bassam and Yousra (they have seven), and others have wandered in from other hotel rooms. They do not yell or scream or run around, but cling hesitantly to parents or furniture. Four-year-old Mohammad Nour, Bassam and Yousra’s son, shies away from a photographer’s camera. He is afraid it conceals a weapon, his older sisters explain through a translator.

The family, who arrived in Vancouver on Jan. 7, 2016, has been in this hotel for just over a month. They are split between two rooms because there are so many of them. The kids need to be able to go out, Bassam explains. They have nothing to do and are frustrated at being cooped up.

There are no parks or playgrounds nearby where they can blow off steam. Their outings are mostly to Surrey Memorial Hospital, where the youngest member of the family is currently in treatment.

Baby Karam, three months old, was born premature in Jordan just two months before the family’s departure. The trip to Canada was hard on him and he was hospitalized for a lung infection, first at B.C. Children’s, then at Surrey Memorial. His mother, Yousra, is by his bedside almost constantly.

Bassam is a smoker, like many of his countrymen. He is trying to quit so he doesn’t make the baby’s condition worse, so is coping with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal in addition to the stresses of being in a new and foreign place. If he quits, many others will follow his example, he says.

Daily trips to the hospital provide a much-needed change of scenery for the Sua’Ifan children, who are going stir crazy in the hotel.

“It’s so boring,” says 15-year-old Mariana, the family’s oldest child, a petite teen with a soft, high voice and a shy smile.

They want nothing more than to go to their new home, wherever that may be.

The last place the family called home was Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria about 15 kilometres from the Jordanian border. They lived “very well”, says Bassam, who worked as a fruit and vegetable merchant. Their close-knit extended family helped care for the children and tend a large garden where they grew much of their own food.

They were in the process of building a larger house to accommodate their rapidly growing family when the Syrian civil war broke out on their doorstep in 2012. Bombings and assassinations became regular occurrences. Death, which was relatively rare when Bassam was growing up, became commonplace.

Children were becoming accustomed to the sight of dead bodies, Bassam explains, which made him concerned for the mental wellbeing of his own children.

“A child, if he is seeing all of that, he will for sure not be normal,” he says through a translator. “We were obliged to move, to run away from this situation. It was very, very dangerous. We thought it was going to be, like, one month, two months and we will return."

Finding a new home in Metro Vancouver proved challenging for a family of nine. The Immigrant Services Society of B.C., responsible for the initial settlement and housing of refugees in the province, assisted with the search. Bassam looked at several potential houses, but they were either too small or the landlords balked at renting to such a large family. He found one place the landlord was willing to rent to them, but the Immigrant Services Society rejected it as uninhabitable.

Finally, at the end of February, the family finds a home. Their belongings are packed in dozens of suitcases, backpacks, boxes and garbage bags, which line the corridor of the hotel. They are all packed up, waiting for moving vehicles to arrive. Mariana chats on her phone with a cousin in Saudi Arabia. Eleven-year-old Yousra, who has the same first name as her mother, feeds baby Karam a bottle. He was discharged from the hospital several days earlier.

Bassam doesn’t like the house, but felt he had to accept it because the family had been in the hotel for 45 days and was desperate to get out.

The house, a four-bedroom rancher on a quiet side-street in Surrey, is a five-minute drive from the hotel. The white spires of the Port Mann Bridge are visible above a row of evergreens. The front yard is unfenced and distinguished only by a single tree that has had its branches cut off. Near the tree is a hole that looks like something has been dug out of it.

Inside, the wooden floor is scratched, some of the cupboards are cracked, one of the kitchen appliances leaks water, and there is plastic on some of the single-pane glass windows for insulation. The spacious living room contains a three-seater couch and an armchair.

The kids have already laid claim to the bedrooms. Thirteen-year-old Fatima gleefully explains who will sleep where. Her older sister Mariana will share with her youngest sister, two-year-old Rahaf. The two boys, Yousef, 6, and Mohammad Nour, 4, will share a second room.

“This room, Yousra (11) and me,” she says in halting English, opening the door. Each of the children’s bedrooms has two twin beds, with mattresses, box springs, new bed linen in plastic cases and IKEA-style dressers.

The furniture is part of a household startup package for refugees provided by the federal government.

The master bedroom has a double bed and a crib. There is one bathroom.

The house is a flurry of activity as the parents and older children bring in belongings, unpack and clear out cardboard boxes and other garbage. The baby is asleep and the younger children are left to amuse themselves. Rahaf cries and is given a banana. Six-year-old Yousef tries to help, sweeping the floor with a green broom (with no dustbin). Visitors from the media are expressly forbidden from helping, invited to sit down and offered something to drink.

The house has a large, fenced back yard, part of which is covered, but it is unlikely the children will be playing there anytime soon. Its defining feature is a large collection of dead shrubs and trees, which have been uprooted and left to dry out. There is also a pile of scrap lumber with large nails sticking out of some pieces.

It isn’t everything they wanted, but it’s more of a home than the family has had in years.

From Syria, they fled south across the border into Jordan, joining the tens of thousands pouring into the Zaatari camp, where they registered as refugees with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

It was overcrowded, there wasn’t enough food and, as a Syrian, Bassam wasn’t allowed to work. He joined a committee of refugees to try and improve conditions in the camp. It was in that capacity that he met UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he visited. During that visit, Bassam told another high-ranking UN official “not even animals can live here.” Shortly after, Bassam says he was detained by the Jordanian secret police and questioned intensely about what he said to the UN delegates.

Around the same time, Bassam received a threat from a militant group associated with the Islamic State, who had taken over his neighbourhood in Syria. If he ever returned, they would kill him. It was then that the family came to terms with the fact they would never be able to go home.

After eight months in the camp, the family found an apartment in Jordan and Bassam took a job under the table to feed the family.

They had constant company, just like they had had in Syria. For the three years the family lived in Jordan, they never had a single dinner on their own, Yousra says.

“We don’t know how to sit by ourselves.”

In some ways, living in Jordan was worse than Syria. While their lives were no longer in immediate danger, they faced the pain and stigmatization of being in a country that didn’t want them. People yelled and swore at them because they were Syrian, Bassam recalls, and the police harassed them. It would have been impossible for them to stay, he says.

Still, the three oldest children were able to attend school — which is not possible for Syrian refugees in other countries such as Turkey — and excelled, Bassam said. The family’s two youngest children, Rahaf and Karam, were born in Jordan. Eventually, the family was accepted by Canada as refugees and told by immigration officials to pack their bags for Vancouver.

Now, six-year-old Yousef, an energetic boy with a big smile, runs around in the front yard of their new house, unconcerned about sniper fire, bombs or stray bullets. He trips over the hole in the yard, but gets right back up without a whimper. In Syria, Yousef would go to sleep while the sun was still up because he could hear bombs and was afraid to die alone at night. If he was going to die, Bassam recalls him saying, he would rather it happen while he was sleeping.

They have a new freedom in Canada, but it comes at a price. The rent for the house is $1,550 per month, and their stipend from the government will be $1,600. They are no longer in a refugee camp, but Bassam still wonders how they will eat.

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Source: The Province / Tara Carman

Photo: The Sua’Ifan family in the front yard of their Surrey home. (Syrian Refugee Project Surrey)