[Ahmed, right, hold his daughter Sundus at Azraq Camp in Jordan. / Amber Nasrulla]
When we talk about the Syrian war, which officially enters its sixth year today, we can't help but talk about numbers.
The Trudeau government has committed $1.9-billion in aid to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq for emergency humanitarian aid, development, infrastructure and security; the Harper government provided $630-million in humanitarian assistance and development.
Yet the statistics of this dark anniversary are bleak:
- Life expectancy has dropped by 15 years, down to 55 from 70, based on data in a report released earlier this month by Frontier Economics and World Vision International. That same report put the war's economic cost at US$275-billion, wiping out the nation's wealth.
- The death toll ranges from 250,000 and more than one million injured according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to 470,000 from
the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (an independent think-tank)
- 4,600,000 have fled the country and are refugees in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, while 6,600,000 have been forced from their homes and are internally displaced (IDPs)
What do those numbers mean? What do the dollars do? Who is on the receiving end?
This is a tale of two families, both from Syria who are now refugees in Jordan. They have both received assistance - for food and education - from Canada. For now, their fates differ.
From Dera, Syria to Ajloun, Jordan
[Fares Qasem Asmadi (far left) poses with some of his grandchildren in his daughter's basement apartment in Ajloun, Jordan. / Amber Nasrulla]
Fares Qasem Asmadi is the last person I expected to hear praising Justin Trudeau.
I met the former dockworker, who is now a Syrian refugee, living in his daughter's damp basement apartment in Ajloun, Jordan. He was mobbed by babies and kids - his grandkids - while his adult children drifted in and out of the room, which resembled a bunker, windowless concrete walls that were bare of decoration. He sat cross-legged on the floor, chain-smoking while he recounted the circumstances that forced him and his family to leave their home in Dera.
His neighbour had been abducted by Assad's forces, jailed and tortured for six months before being killed. And then the missile and rocket attacks began. One of his sons was a semester away from finishing a degree in history. But Asmadi packed up his family - four sons and seven daughters and 48 grandchildren, brought along the neighbour's son and daughter (now orphans) and headed for Jordan.
"We are one community. That's what we do," he said, waving away the suggestion that caring for the neighbour's children was extraordinary, particularly in such stressful times.
Ten family members, including Asmadi, 68, share a three-bedroom house while the rest are scattered in rented homes nearby. Admittedly it is a struggle. Jobs are scarce. As the patriarch spoke, kids cried, ran over to hug him, and sat in his lap. Then they ran off. Children toddled in and out of the room demanding attention from anyone willing to give it. Laughing. Crying. Playing with smartphones. Asmadi's wife, Naifa Qasem Alneisarat, nodded, encouraging him on. One of the teenaged grandchildren brought a tray of strong Turkish coffee with cardamom.
Asmadi handed over a stack of photocopied sheets; his families' UNHCR documents indicating they were seeking asylum but they could not be granted work permits or residency in Jordan.
He sighed heavily and lit another cigarette. When you are in a refugee camp you receive more cash for assistance, he said, explaining that they manage on 10 Jordanian Dinars, roughly $20 USD per person a month.
In addition, World Vision International gives them cash vouchers. Many refugees need financial support to keep children in school. "They're not paying to go to [public] school but they are paying for books and uniform and transportation," said Julie McKinlay, a program manager with World Vision International in Amman. The vouchers are contingent on the children's attendance.
Asmadi ran a hand over his face, the laugh lines looking like they'd been etched in granite. He brightened up at a memory. "I saw your Prime Minister. We all did. On TV." He grew animated and put his hand on his heart. "He was dressing the young Syrian girl when she came off the plane and welcomed her. I knew then that Canada is a good place and I have to take my family there. The U.S. offered me a chance to go and I said no. I wait. For Canada.
"Subhan-Allah [Glory be to God]," he said, "Subhan-Allah Canada!"
From Dera, Syria to Azraq Camp, Jordan
When Ahmed, 33 and his 25-year-old wife Raja were told they'd been accepted for resettlement to Canada, they were over the moon.
"We have heard that Canada is the best country to immigrate to. We've seen photos of other refugees who have been to other countries and Canada treats people the best," said Ahmed in Arabic, (the interview was documented by a translator, just as it had been with Asmadi.) The couple has friends who have relocated to Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, all of whom report back that they are happy and Canadians treat them very well. "For them it is heaven," Ahmed said.
But three months have passed and they've had no word from the UNHCR and don't know their status or when they will leave Azraq with their two children, three-year-old Ibrahim, and 18-month-old Sundus, who was born in the camp. The couple understands their babies will never know Syria. And as hard as that is, they’ve accepted it. To leave means to live.
The couple's story is, by now, a familiar one: They left their village, near Dera, Syria, because of fighting and came to Jordan. They are anxious. They are excited. The uncertainty of waiting is stressful.
They say they won't feel relief until the moment they step on the plane in Amman. For now home remains a white steel shelter that resembles a shed. There are thousands of identical steel buildings in hundreds of rows in Azraq. Against the backdrop of Jordan's dusty red desert, the crisp white rectangles look like an outpost in outer space. (In fact, The Martian starring Matt Damon, was filmed nearby in Wadi Rum.)
Raja and Ahmed have made their one-room space into a home as best they can. The floor is lined with floral beige-and-brown seating cushions so they don't sleep on the ground. It's also scented with perfume. One area is partitioned off with a sheet. That's where Raja cooks. There is no furniture.
They are beneficiaries of the UN Food Program, to which Canada contributed US$261-million in 2015. The family receives 80 Jordanian Dinars (JD) in cash vouchers a month (20 JD per person), approximately US$160 per month. There's a newly opened fresh food store, Sameh Market, in Azraq and they are able to select their own groceries.
And they keep busy. Raja learned to play soccer in Azraq. Last year when coaches from the English Premier League ran a four-day clinic and trained 36 male and female NGO workers how to coach soccer and referee, Raja was among the Syrian refugees who volunteered to participate. Ultimately refugees created a football league at Azraq. She goes to the multi-purpose pitch every day where women and children can play soccer and basketball on the hard court field. She enjoys coaching and hopes to continue to play in Canada.
"I just can't wait to get there," said Raja. She looked over at Ibrahim who was playing with his father's aviator sunglasses and at Sundus giving visitors high-fives. And Raja gave an enormous grin.
[Ibrahim, 3, poses in Azraq Camp in Jordan. / Amber Nasrulla]