Ottawa family anxiously awaiting reunification with relatives left homeless by earthquake in Turkey

Masri and his family have been sleeping in parks, bus shelters and apartment lobbies such as this one after their apartment was destroyed by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake. (Submitted by the Hijazi family - image credit)
Masri and his family have been sleeping in parks, bus shelters and apartment lobbies such as this one after their apartment was destroyed by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake. (Submitted by the Hijazi family - image credit)

Fadila Hijazi recalls the sinking feeling in her heart as she and her parents spent hours frantically trying to reach their relatives in southern Turkey.

Having escaped the civil war in Syria in 2016, the Grade 12 student watched in horror from Ottawa as she scrolled through photos of collapsed buildings on Facebook, desperately looking for any update on her uncle, aunt and two young cousins in Antakya.

"Somebody told us that they saw them alive, which is hope," Hijazi said.

"We're like, 'That's all that matters.' But then when we actually got in touch with them, we saw how injured they were," she said.

During the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, the walls of her uncle's apartment collapsed, pinning his wife under the rubble for several hours.

The kids, 4 and 7, were luckier, their tiny bodies spared because their father Mahmod Masri formed a shield over the girls as bricks fell around them.

Hijazi's aunt Farah Algharib survived the ordeal, but more than two weeks later she's still unable to visit a hospital.

Bruises remain visible on the woman's face, arms and stomach — "half of her body is swollen," as the family describes it — yet medical attention isn't their top priority right now.

"They're homeless, they have nowhere to go," Hijazi said.

Submitted by the Hijazi family
Submitted by the Hijazi family

Hijazi's family has spent the last three years trying to bring Algharib, Masri and their two daughters to Canada.

"We're just waiting for them to come here and then we can take care of everything else," Hijazi said, adding they've already arranged a place for the family in east Ottawa's Orléans community.

Instead, her uncle, aunt and cousins are seeking refuge in parks, bus shelters and apartment lobbies 8,600 kilometres away, not knowing when another wall might collapse in the aftermath of the disaster.

Hijazi said at one point, the family was able to borrow a tent to stay at a refugee camp in Kilis near the Syrian border, but had to return it.

Tarek Hijazi, Fadila's father and owner of Shami's Bakery in Orléans, said he's worried about Masri and his family.

"They are homeless now, no food, no nothing," Hijazi said.

Nick Persaud/CBC
Nick Persaud/CBC

A 'frustrating' wait

The Hijazi family first submitted a private sponsorship application for their four relatives in January 2020.

The Masri family had also escaped war in Syria and were in Turkey awaiting their immigration documents.

They were interviewed at the Canadian visa office in Ankara in April 2021 and the extended family had been waiting for news on their reunification in Canada ever since.

To bolster their application, the Hijazis asked family friend Jane Logan to act as co-sponsor.

"It's very frustrating," Logan said. "We have people lined up to drive them to medical appointments, we have people lined up to enrol the children in school, we have people lined up who have small children who want to welcome them."

Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC
Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC

Logan said she understands how the pandemic has contributed to delays in the application process, but it doesn't make the waiting any easier.

"When there's a much-loved family, you nonetheless feel a huge sense of urgency and also responsibility for their safety," Logan said.

IRCC 'reviewing its options'

Logan and the Hijazis said they would like to see an expedited process for urgent immigration cases like this.

"It's a humanitarian crisis and I would really like them to put all their resources there and help these people come to where they can be safe," Logan said.

So far, the only update they've received from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is that their application is "actively being processed."

In the most recent correspondence on Feb. 20, the department said applicants affected by the earthquake can fill out an urgent crisis form to request priority processing.

Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC
Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC

The email from IRCC also said it's "reviewing its options to determine whether special immigration measures that take the unique local circumstances of the emergency into consideration are warranted."

IRCC told CBC News the Canadian government is deeply concerned for the safety and well-being of those impacted by the earthquakes, and is watching the situation very closely.

"When responding to international crises, Canada tailors each response to meet the unique needs of those who require our support. We coordinate with our international partners and consider what they are doing to support," IRCC said in a written statement, adding it cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy concerns.

IRCC also told CBC the earthquake in Turkey's southeast region hasn't delayed the application process.

Logan and the Hijazis have since requested priority processing and are hoping good news is on the horizon, especially after the latest earthquake on Monday.

Calling from the borrowed tent in Kilis last week, Masri told the Hijazi family they still feel tremors every few minutes and his daughters are so scared they don't want to let go of him.

Tarek Hijazi said he remains hopeful the Canadian government will help the family.

"They will help you like how they helped us," he told his brother-in-law. "God willing, you can be here soon."