Traumatized refugee marks birthday with long-awaited reunion

Traumatized refugee marks birthday with long-awaited reunion

When Ayham Ahmed stepped off the escalator at the Ottawa International Airport, he was greeted by the happy shrieks of his teenage sisters and the tearful embrace of his mother, Madeeha, who held a giant birthday card. It was the first time he'd seen them in four years. 

The joyful reunion was only made possible by a parent's determination and the generosity of a handful some Renfrew, Ont., residents.

"I'm very, very, very happy," said Madeeha Ahmed after she showered her eldest son with kisses. She kept hugging Ayham, releasing him, then pulling him back as though she couldn't believe he was really there. His arrival finally lifted the burden of guilt she had carried for years. 

Madeeha had excluded Ayham in her initial application for sponsorship after officials with the United Nations refugee agency told her his age and health condition could hurt the Iraqi family's chances of getting to a safe country. Ayham who was 23 at the time, was considered an adult, while her four other children were categorized as minors.

Ayham also walked with a limp and suffered from debilitating headaches and mental trauma after witnessing his father's killing.

According to the family's immigration file, which his Renfrew sponsorship group shared with CBC, Ayham's father, a lawyer in Mosul, was killed right in front of his eyes. During the deadly confrontation, a bullet grazed Ayham's ear and hit him in the foot  After her husband's murder, Madeeha took her children and fled to Turkey where they stayed in a refugee camp. In April 2014, Canada accepted Madeeha, her two daughters and her two sons as government refugees. But Ayham remained in the refugee camp.

Find a way

Madeeha says she tried to find a way of bringing Ayham to Canada from the moment she arrived in Ottawa but couldn't raise enough  money on her own. She went to the Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI) for help and begged the agency to help her find sponsors.

In her appeal letter, Madeeha wrote:

"He suffered psychologically because his father was murdered in his presence while he was young and that destroyed his life with suffering...It is very hard for me as a widowed mother to be away from my sick son who needs me the most. My other four children are with me here and he is alone in Turkey. My heart and mind are scattered between here and there."

CCI connected Madeeha with some residents in the Ottawa Valley whose sponsorship journey had hit a snag. During the summer of 2016, the Renfrew Refugee Welcome group learned the Syrian family that had been assigned to them was no longer coming. The group was given a new family to sponsor, but the application wouldn't be processed until 2019. 

But when Mary Anne Schinkel-Venema heard Madeeha's story she was moved to help.

"She was devastated and although (Ayham) was considered an adult, he's still her child. There will always be a part of her missing when he's not there."

Chipping in 

Schinkel-Venema and her husband, along with four other Ottawa Valley residents decided to form a sub group and used their own money to sponsor Ayham. 

The group will provide approximately $1,000 a month over the next year to help settle Ayham. But they won't see very  much of him, because Ayham will live in Ottawa with his mother instead of Renfrew. 

Richard Smit who is also one of the sponsors, says regardless of how much or how little they see Ayham, they've already achieved their goal.

"We did our part. We brought him here. He's back with his family and that matters more than anything else," said Smit.

The group says they will work hard to build a relationship despite the distance. They're making plans for a Canada Day celebration involving a barbecue and a pool party, giving him an extended family in Renfrew along with the one he was reunited with in Ottawa.