[Tima Kurdi sits for a photograph with a photo of her late nephews Alan, left, and Ghalib at her home in Coquitlam, B.C., on Aug. 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck]
A year after her three-year-old nephew became the tragic symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis, Tima Kurdi still wears a pendant with a tiny portrait of Alan Kurdi and his older brother Galib around her neck.
But it’s only recently the Coquitlam, B.C., hairdresser has allowed herself to really grieve their deaths.
The photograph of Alan’s body, lying on a Turkish beach after the rubber boat his father Abdullah was trying to steer to nearby Greece capsized, summed up in one image the desperation of Syrians risking everything for safety in Europe as civil war tore apart their country.
It galvanized efforts in Europe – for a time at least – to help. In Canada, it was a turning point in the federal election campaign, helping propel the Liberals to power on a promise to bring over 25,000 Syrians from crowded refugee camps.
Tima Kurdi had tried in vain to bring brother Abdullah Kurdi, his wife Rehan and the two boys to Canada. She would become a public voice for refugees and sponsored her other brother Mohammad Kurdi and his family to join her in Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb.
Abdullah, the boat’s only survivor, now lives in Erbil, Kurdistan — the family members are ethnic Kurds — but is a shell of his former self, his sister says.
Tima, who sat down at her dining room table with Mohammad and his family for an interview with Yahoo Canada News wears the intense, determined expression she had as she lobbied for them and other Syrian refugees in the wake of the tragedy.
But it’s hard not to notice a weariness in her eyes. Success at rescuing one part of her war-sundered family has not led straight to a happy ending. At least not yet.
Media interest waned but the real problems of settling the newly arrived family remained, another unwelcome symbol of the struggle many newly arrived refugees face.
“Thank God, since we arrived to Canada it’s good so far,” Mohammad said in Arabic with Tima translating. “Slowly, slowly our life is getting better every day.”
“The Canadian people, they’re very friendly and when they see them they smile on their face, which is very nice,” added his wife Ghouson, via Tima.
[Tima Kurdi holds nephew Sherwan and standing behind them are her brother Mohammad, his wife Ghouson, daughter Heveen, 16, son Shergo, 15, daughter Ranim, 10, and son Rezan, eight. YAHOO CANADA NEWS/Steve Mertl]
Happy to be safe and together
They are the words of people happy to be safe and together after almost five years on the move. Before Tima sponsored them, Mohammad spent months in Germany trying to bring his family out of Turkey. But after eight months in Canada, they still do not have a home.
Rents for a three-bedroom home are upwards of $1,800 a month, if you can find one in Vancouver’s overheated housing market, said Tima. When they do, landlords balk at renting to a family with five kids, aged one to 16.
“Is it really that impossible in the whole of Canada there is not only one house for me and my family to live in?” Ghouson asked.
The family initially lived with Tima and her husband, Rocco Logozzo, and their son on a quiet Coquitlam cul-de-sac until June, when the inevitable frictions of 10 people sharing one house began to create tension.
“We couldn’t agree with very simple family issues,” Tima said. “It’s not a big deal but they couldn’t stay with us. So they left and they are staying at the Welcome House right now.”
Welcome House, run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., is in downtown Vancouver, about an hour by public transit from Tima’s house. It’s home to several Syrian refugee families.
“There’s nothing in Welcome House,” Ghouson said through Tima. “It’s very bad there. When they sleep, they said the mice is going all over them.”
The family complained and staff set out traps, she said. Chris Friesen, the society’s settlement director, said a pest-control company went in to tackle the rodent problem.
“It’s an old building and like all old buildings this arises periodically,” he said.
“It’s very difficult for the kids,” added Mohammad. “It’s kind of like being in a small jail and there is no way they can go out. It’s downtown. Where are you going to take them?”
Where children will go to school is uncertain
The four school-age children were enrolled in Coquitlam schools. Since moving out they’ve commuted to class, including summer school. Whether they’ll be allowed back in September is anyone’s guess, Tima said.
[Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart takes a selfie on Jan. 6, 2016, as he gets his hair cut by Mohammad Kurdi. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO/Richard Stewart]
A barber by training, Mohammad worked at Tima’s hair salon but business is slow so he left and is looking for other work.
“He’s just sitting there eight hours, not even a single client for him,” said his sister. “This shop is always there for him and when it gets busier he’ll come back.”
The children are learning English in school but lessons for their parents evaporated months ago.
Tima said the family is getting little help with anything, including the housing quest, because she privately sponsored them. Priority goes to government-sponsored refugees, she said.
As emotions around the refugees’ arrival subsided, so has outside support, Tima said. The one time she turned to a local Muslim organization for help finding housing “they sent me the link on my phone, saying that’s where you can look.”
Friesen confirmed government-sponsored refugees have priority but the society, with concurrence of federal officials, have taken the unprecedented step of assigning a housing-search worker to assist the Kurdis directly to find a permanent home.
“We normally don’t get involved in supporting housing needs of families that are privately sponsored,” he said. “In fact, I think this may be the first time we’ve been ever involved in this situation.”
Friesen said the move was approved in mid-August but he did not know whether the worker had met with the family yet.
Despite the challenges, neither Tima nor the family regrets their journey here.
The kids are beginning to thrive. Their English is improving. They enjoy school. Shergo, 15, said he has made friends and plays soccer and basketball. Sister Heveen, 17 in September, is looking forward to Grade 11.
[Tima Kurdi, back second left, sits for a photograph with her brother Mohammad Kurdi, second right, and his family at her home in Coquitlam, B.C., on Aug. 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck]
Sister vows continued support for family
Tima’s sponsorship obligations expire at the end of the year but she said she will continue supporting the family financially. She also helps her two sisters, still living in Turkey, with rent and is in touch with Abdullah, who is deteriorating.
“I would love to bring him here because he really needs help but financially I can’t,” she said.
Tima has pulled back from pubic advocacy, which included a TEDx presentation last April, to focus on the family and finally deal with her own sense of loss.
“To be honest, being in the media spotlight was more than a full-time job, but I did it because I wanted to be a voice for the people who do not have a voice,” she said.
“But I didn’t have time to grieve. Just one day about two months ago … you go through stress and all of a sudden it hit me, hit my family. All of us, we just crashed. We’re still grieving right now.
“But inside me, I want to keep going. I want to be the voice; I want to help the others.”
[Tima Kurdi, right, plays with her nephew Sherwan Kurdi at her home in Coquitlam, B.C., on Aug. 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck]