“Even to just live your life – go outside and do everyday things – you are afraid. You’re always scared there will be a bomb or something.”
This statement was given by a newly settled Syrian refugee – a father and husband – with the help of a local interpreter with Catholic Social Services (CSS).
Anas Virkdar recently settled in Red Deer with his wife, Huda Alsayed and their three-year-old daughter Lamar and her one-year-old sister Naya.
The family had fled Syria in 2013, making their way through Lebanon, Egypt and eventually Toronto. The family is currently safe in Red Deer, and shared their story with the help of Asma Houssein, their CSS contact and translator for the interview.
“I left Syria with my passport and my family – legally -and first went to Lebanon. From Lebanon, we went to Eygpt, also legally. Life was different and hard in Egypt, too. We still couldn’t feel safe there,” Virkdar said.
“The situation still isn’t safe in Egypt. There were two new presidents while we were there and both of them had different strategies for dealing with things. They also both blamed Syrians for the wars going on and around there.”
Virkdar explained that even Egyptian citizens had to be careful of thieves and violence. He also said that while he was there, he was robbed with a knife to his throat.
Virkdar and his family had heard that many Syrians were fleeing the country via the sea, but he said they were too frightened to try because of their family’s safety.
“I found out how much money we needed to migrate and I didn’t have that kind of money, so when I got the call that we were coming to Canada I didn’t believe it,” Virkdar said.
“I didn’t even know how to finish working because I was so excited.”
Back home in Syria, Virkdar helped to run his father’s restaurant. At the same time, he and a friend owned a security camera installation company. He said that he realized they would have to leave and that Syria was no longer secure for his family.
They began the application process to leave Syria. The family travelled from their hometown of Damascus, Syria to the Lebanese border. Regularly, this would have been a 30 minute commute for the family but Virkdar said that due to large amounts of checkpoints, people were travelling anywhere from four to seven hours.
“The thing we were most afraid of when we were leaving was the security of the road from Syria to Lebanon. There were a lot of checkpoints. We were afraid of those – all of the Syrians are afraid of them,” Virkdar said.
He explained that Syrians are terrified of the checkpoints because they could never be sure who had set them up. He said one would never know if they are with the system of Syria, or rebels, or are even a terrorist group. He said as well that sometimes men would get pulled from the vehicles so it was very scary to wonder what might happen.
Eventually Virkdar received a call from a local Egyptian United Nations department, informing them he and his family would in fact be accepted into Canada.
“We went in for the interview with the Canadian Embassy, which was an hour and a half away and it was pouring rain on the way there. They were very welcoming when we got there, and very kind to us. They said, ‘We’ll call you,’” he said.
He said it was a very long three weeks that they waited to hear back.
“We had to go back to the Embassy and had to do another interview. When we were done, they told us to wait again. We waited about a week, maybe ten days, to go through all the medical exams. A few days after the tests, they called us and told us to come somewhere else for orientations about Canada and living here.”
The family flew to Toronto, where they were welcomed by the staff and citizens.
“The first thing I remember about landing in Toronto were the smiles on everybody’s faces, from the regular citizens and the people working at the airport. It really made us feel welcome, especially because they knew we were coming from Syria.”
Once a refugee or family touches down in Toronto, they are assigned Social Insurance Numbers (SIN numbers) and then stay overnight in a hotel. The families are flown to or driven to their new homes – in this case a flight to Calgary and short drive to Red Deer.
Members of CSS pick up the families from the airport and help them transition through hotels and paperwork before settling into a residence. Houssein, the family’s settlement counsellor and current translator, explained that CSS receives a call and prepares to welcome the families at the Calgary airport.
Houssein said her job is to communicate with the families and help them set up necessities such as bank accounts, Alberta Health Care cards and more. She and her fellow staff at the Central Alberta Refugee Effort and CSS help the refugees to figure out their budgets and to find homes that work within their parameters.
“People can only see what’s in the news. They don’t see the destruction, they don’t see the rapes or the killing of children. The reality is 10 times worse than what’s shown on TV.”
The families will continue to work with CSS, C.A.R.E. and the Canadian governments through the next year in a process of resettlement and getting used to their new homes.