'We're like family': Syrian med student, Montreal retiree form unlikely bond

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'We're like family': Syrian med student, Montreal retiree form unlikely bond

Tarek Haidar was all set to move from Damascus to Montreal in 2009 to start a two-and-a-half month rotation in psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital.

But three weeks before his departure, his accommodations fell through.

That's when Mary Austin, a retired teacher with a big empty house, stepped in to help. The two hit it off right away.

"She's been to Golan Heights in the South of Syria. She's been to Israel," said Haidar. "She knows the Middle East. So we had so many subjects to talk about."

Austin had been hosting newcomers since 2005, when her church, St. Peter's Anglican in Mount Royal, had approached her to help with accommodations for a family from Moldova.

In Haidar's case, the short-term commitment morphed into something more permanent when the young student's political situation in Syria turned uncertain.

Haidar claimed refugee status and Austin extended his stay. She also helped guide him through the difficult process of getting back on track with his studies.

Fast friendship

"Tarek was a medical student in Damascus," said Austin. "He had almost finished and to have to start all over again took a lot of courage."

That path eventually took Haidar to Concordia University, Université Laval in Quebec City and to the Caribbean for medical school.

Through it all, Austin kept a room free for the young Syrian, and lent him a sympathetic ear as his home country was plunged into civil war.

"It was quite painful actually to see what was happening in Syria," said Austin. "To see how his family, his sisters and his brothers were having to cope with difficulties."

"One of my sisters is still there," Haidar told CBC. "I keep in touch with her. I know the situation is really bad."

'I felt like I was blessed'

He says through it all, Austin made him feel at home.

"We're like family," he said.

Austin's support also extended to helping Haidar become a permanent resident and eventually a Canadian citizen.

"I felt like I was blessed," he said. "Mary really supported me for the entire eight years."

Haidar's neatly folded shirts on his bed point to a looming departure. Soon he'll be leaving for Baltimore, where he'll start a training rotation in pediatrics.

There's one thing he hasn't packed yet—his white lab coat. It still hangs over his desk chair.

"I think it's a good reward to see him with that coat," said Austin. "He did have to take a detour but he's getting at last where he wants to be."

Haidar credits Austin with playing a vital role on his road to success.

"I guess I wouldn't have done it without Mary, to be honest with you," he said.