2 families who shared a room for year after fleeing Syria hope to reunite soon in N.B.

·7 min read
Mohamad and Latifa El Daher are two of the estimated 6.6 million Syrians who fled the country during the ongoing civil war. The couple say they are enjoying life in Saint John and eager to welcome their brother and sister who are still living as refugees in Lebanon. (Julia Wright/CBC - image credit)
Mohamad and Latifa El Daher are two of the estimated 6.6 million Syrians who fled the country during the ongoing civil war. The couple say they are enjoying life in Saint John and eager to welcome their brother and sister who are still living as refugees in Lebanon. (Julia Wright/CBC - image credit)

When Mohamad and Latifa El Daher arrived in Saint John in 2016 with their three children, all they had with them was contained in a few plastic shopping bags.

They had spent the previous few years as refugees near Beirut after fleeing the war in Syria.

"Before the war it was a beautiful country and I had a beautiful life there," Latifa said. "But when the war started, it became a very difficult life, not safe, for kids, for everyone."

Mohamad was perhaps most at risk.

"If my country's government would catch me, they would kill me," he said.

Mohamad was a soldier in Syria's National Army.

"He was among 18 who acted as bodyguards for a general," recounted family friend Catherine Chiasson.

He fled because he didn't agree with the politics and actions of Syria's president, Chiasson said.

In order to make his escape, Mohamad had to leave Latifa and their two oldest children behind. Eventually a relative brought them to the border and was able to pay someone off to let them cross.

In Lebanon, Mohamad lived in constant fear that he would be sent back to Syria, said Chiasson.

Mohamad and Latifa El Daher with two of their welcome team members, Valerie Grant and Emilie Chiasson.
Mohamad and Latifa El Daher with two of their welcome team members, Valerie Grant and Emilie Chiasson.(Julia Wright/CBC)

The El Dahers arrived in the first big wave of Syrian refugees accepted by Canada.

Valerie Grant was part of the team of YMCA volunteers there to meet them at the Saint John Airport on New Year's Day. Grant says the Dahers are a "wonderful family."

"We just fell in love with each other. And we've been very very close as family ever since."

In the past four years, the El Dahers have come to love their new friends and home, too. They say they've had a warm welcome, and they like the city's small size and relative quiet.

Compared to what they've been through, it's an "easy life here," Latifa said.

"This is a beautiful country," said Mohamad, who values the opportunities for his children most of all.

They've had two more children since arriving in Canada.

Their kids are "thriving," said Emilie Chiasson, Catherine's daughter and another former welcome team member who's become a close family friend.

They've taken a "keen interest" in extracurricular activities such as gymnastics, karate, soccer, sailing and exploring the outdoors.

There have been new opportunities for mom and dad, too. Latifa works in a daycare and is studying early childhood education at the New Brunswick Community College.

"She is the first woman in her family to pursue post-secondary education and to drive," said Emilie.

Mohamad had a job with Saint John public works and is now working on his truck driving certification through Trans-Canada College.

He passed his road test on Tuesday, said Catherine. Now he is looking for a four-week placement to finish.

Life for the El Dahers is, in many respects, idyllic.

It's a stark contrast to what their brother and sister are experiencing back in Lebanon.

An exterior shot of Hasan and Shamsa's makeshift home in Lebanon.
An exterior shot of Hasan and Shamsa's makeshift home in Lebanon.(Submitted by Catherine Chiasson)

"Now it's more difficult than Syria," said Latifa. "There's no work, even for Lebanese people."

Mohamad's brother Hasan and Latifa's sister Shamsa are married to each other.

That makes each couple's five children double cousins.

The sibling couples are extremely close.

Mohamad remembers their tearful departure from the airport in Lebanon in late December 2015.

It was hard to leave his brother, but he felt he had to for the sake of his wife and children.

The families used to live together in Syria.

After the war broke out, Hasan's family got to Lebanon first.

They moved into someone's garage-type building that had been cleared of junk to make room for them.

This single room is home to Hasan and Shamsa's family of seven.
This single room is home to Hasan and Shamsa's family of seven. (Submitted by Catherine Chiasson)

When Mohamad's family arrived and had no other place to stay, Hasan took him in.

They were 11 people living in a one-room concrete building together for an entire year.

Rent was $100 US a month.

"The UN helped Mohamad with some funding and to get a job working with ceramic tiles when the work was available, two or three days at a time," said Catherine.

But the two families stuck together even when Mohamad could afford to move out. His family got their own place just 100 metres away.

Now Hasan's family are the ones in greater need.

Hasan used to make bricks in a factory, but he hasn't had work for three or four months. And at about the same time the work dried up, so did monthly subsidies from the UN of 100 to 200 Lebanese pounds.

Mohamad sends him money so that he can eat. Their sister in France also sends him money when she can.

"They need food over there. They don't have jobs over there. The country's economy is very bad," said Mohamad.

Hasan and Shamsa El Daher and their children, from left, Ibrahim, Souaad, Fatima, Manar and Mohamad (far right.)
Hasan and Shamsa El Daher and their children, from left, Ibrahim, Souaad, Fatima, Manar and Mohamad (far right.)(Friends of Shamsa/Facebook)

Hasan's family still lives in that one-room building. They've been there eight years now. It has four concrete walls and a tin roof.

"When it is cold, he makes a fire in a metal can that they can also cook on," relayed Catherine.

"Unfortunately, the roof leaks and water gets in the room. Each winter he must buy materials to put over the roof to help protect them."

And particularly troubling to Mohamad is that there are no educational opportunities for his nieces and nephews.

Hasan used to pay for his children to attend a Lebanese school for an hour or two a day, but schools were closed to refugees during the pandemic.

"If you want to keep the kids without education there's a big problem," said Mohamad.

A number of handmade child's apron sets are among the items that have been donated for the Friends of Shamsa Online Auction.
A number of handmade child's apron sets are among the items that have been donated for the Friends of Shamsa Online Auction.(Friends of Shamsa Online Auction/Facebook)

For the past two years, the Saint John newcomers and their friends have been trying to help Hasan, Shamsa and their family get to Canada.

"Two years for us — easy. But over there — very hard," Mohamad said.

His brother is brushing up on his English to improve his Canadian job prospects.

This floral oil painting by Ed Coleman is item #61.
This floral oil painting by Ed Coleman is item #61.(Friends of Shamsa Online Auction/Facebook)

Mohamad said he hopes the Canadian government will speed up its intake of refugees.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency more than 13 million Syrian refugees are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Hasan and Shamsa's family are among about 100,000 being allowed to squat outside Beirut by landowners, in exchange for their labour.

Meanwhile, two church groups are hoping to help get Hasan and Shamsa to Saint John this spring.

A number of local businesses have donated gift certificates for the auction.
A number of local businesses have donated gift certificates for the auction.(Friends of Shamsa Online Auction/Facebook)

St. David's United Church in Rothesay and Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada are supporting their application.

As a fundraiser this week, they've been hosting an online auction, which ends Saturday at noon. It's on Facebook under "Friends of Shamsa Online Auction."

Auction item #130 is an antique sofa
Auction item #130 is an antique sofa(Friends of Shamsa Online Auction/Facebook)

Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada requires sponsorship groups to raise $37,000 to help support the family during their first year in Canada.

More than 160 items were donated for the auction, said Grant.

After they arrive, the family will need furniture and clothing.

Cash donations or e-transfers can also be made through St. David's United Church.