This is MY Community Project | Portraits of Syrian Refugees in Vancouver

This week marks the sixth year since the start of the Syrian conflict which has led to one of the largest humanitarian crisis of our times and it is fitting to share a project so personal to me which I call “This is MY Community”! With all the news of the recent and thankfully short immigration ban in the US, I feel the way I can help is through what I know best… and that is through photographs. Over the past month I have photographed five brave refugee families that have arrived in Vancouver early 2016 in hopes of giving them a face and telling their story about their past life, journey to Vancouver, and current life in Vancouver.

In 2015 my sister Margaret attended a conference which spoke about the crisis in Syria and by the end of it, she was determined to do something about it. So with an amazing group of people at our church, we raised enough money to sponsor a Syrian family of five. It was all a very quick process and with only a few days notice that the family was to arrive, we managed to find a one bedroom condo in Burnaby and furnish it up. We couldn’t have done it without all the support of our church community, family, friends and strangers who rallied together in donating furniture, clothes and toys all within a couple days notice.

Here are some photos of our journey and we are delighted to share with you some photos of our new family.

Meet Ahmad (below)

Ahmad and his wife Amal were originally from Damascus, Syria. They met, got married and had two children. Ahmad worked as a tailor for eight years. When the war erupted in Syria they made the decision to pack up their belongings, leave their large extended families and flee to Jordan as refugees. While in Jordan, Ahmad eventually found work in a restaurant and lived in Jordan and during that time welcoming their third child. Four years go by in Jordan and they were given the opportunity to come to Canada through a public/private sponsorship in early 2016.

When they arrived at the airport they were greeted by a large group of people from a Baptist Church in Burnaby who would then become their support system for their first year in Vancouver. Ahmad and his family have now been in Vancouver for more than a year and are so grateful be here in a safe environment. Since arriving, Ahmad and Amal have taken ESL classes and their English has improved considerably.

Recently Ahmad found work in a textiles factory in Vancouver and enjoys finally being able to work. Amal has also recently found out that she is now expecting their fourth child this summer. Ahmad is currently trying to find ways to bring his brother, wife and children to Vancouver and hopes the community can help get their family out of a dire situation in Jordan.

Meet Mohamad and Maha (below)

Mohamad and Maha are originally from Hazeh, a suburb of Damascus, in Syria. Their lives were closely entwined with their extended family. Mohamad has 5 sisters and 2 brothers, and Maha has 9 brothers and 4 sisters. Their parents were helping to raise their son, Adam, and Mohamad worked for 15 years as a chef. Maha has lost three brothers to the war in Syria—one killed, one missing, and one unjustly imprisoned. And they have lost everything twice in their young lives. Once fleeing their homeland, and a second time when the building where they lived in Coquitlam caught fire in July. In 2013 they fled to safety in Jordan, where Mohamad was fortunate to get a temporary work permit, and find work as a shwarma chef. Hala, now 2 years old, was born in Jordan. They are so grateful to have been selected to come to Canada, and were working hard to settle their children, learn English, and rebuild their lives in Coquitlam.

After nine months, just as they were getting their feet under them, a fire accidently started by a plumber’s torch, resulted in ten Syrian refugee families losing all of their possessions, including anything they had been able to bring with them to remember home and friends. A TV interview after the fire led to a job offer from Bill Dick, the owner of Phoenix Truck and Crane. Bill is known in the community for his big heart, and Phoenix was recently awarded the TriCities Chamber of Commerce’s Community Spirit Award. And the community rallied around these families, with donations of clothing, furniture, toys, so they could once more start to build a home.

While grateful for their new community and friends, safe home and gainful employment, they long for their family. They hope to find a private sponsor, so that Maha’s sister can join them. Currently living as refugees in Lebanon, her brother-in-law is a skilled electrician, and their two children would love to be reunited with their little cousins.

Meet Betul (below)

Betul is from Aleppo, Syria. She was widowed at the young age of 21, when her husband died in a car accident, leaving her to raise her 2 ½ year old daughter, and 16 month old son. From a progressive family, Betul had the support of her parents, sister and three brothers, to attend university to become an accountant.

But after six years of study and work, and four years of living through the conflict in Aleppo, it became too much to bear. One brother had been killed. And then the neighbouring building was bombed, and her house was damaged. Her family thought Betul and her children were dead, and when her brother pulled them bleeding from the house, he packed them into a car and straight to Turkey with nothing, just GO!

Betul was in Turkey only eight months, when the chance came to go to Canada. They arrived in February 2016, and eventually settled in Coquitlam. Miraculously, Betul has retained a positive and optimistic outlook on life. She has worked hard to learn English, and has made many Canadian friends. She volunteered at Immigrant Services Society and with the TriCities Friends of Refugees Task Group. Recently, she became the second Syrian newcomer to be hired by Phoenix Truck and Crane and was gifted a car by CA Church outreach ministry.

Betul says her favourite thing about Canada is the lovely people, who have helped her and her children so much. She is happy that her children will have a good future in a safe place.

Meet Anwar (below)

Anwar and Hala arrived in Vancouver on December 28, 2015 with their three sons, Mohammed 12, Loay 9 and Youcab 5 from Jordan. They had fled their home three years earlier in D’ara, Syria due to the Syrian war. They brought very little with them as they truly thought that they would return home soon. They never left Jordan until coming to Canada. Anwar has very little formal schooling as he joined the family machinist business at the age of 15. He was able to bring documents that confirm his training as a machinist.

Anwar and his family stayed at the Sandman Hotel on Davie Street in Vancouver for about one month before moving to a two bedroom apartment in Coquitlam. They were told that they could only live at this location for one year as the building was scheduled for demolition after one year. The two eldest children started school while mom, dad and the youngest boy went to English classes. Things were going well besides being homesick and trying learn a new culture. Finding foods that they would like was a challenge at first also. They are very resourceful and sourced out markets that sold items like back home.

Anwar was struggling with learning English and wanting desperately to work and support his family. As he is a trained and experienced machinist, he went to the machinist union and spoke with them through an interpreter. It was confirmed that he was a qualified machinist and was offered work once his English was at a level to work in this environment. That was the biggest hurdle yet, Anwar could not seem to improve his English skills. Anwar did find work in an aluminum factory and has been working since December. His English is slowly getting better. Working with only English speaking co workers is a big advantage to learn the English language.

The family has moved into BC Housing close to where they first settled in Coquitlam. The boys have changed schools and are loving school. Hala and Youcab go to English classes during the day. There is still a longing to see their families back home but they love Canada and are grateful to everyone who has helped them settle and call Canada home.

Meet Danya (below)

Danya and her husband Mohamad loved their life in Syria, before the war. Danya is an educated woman, with two years of post-secondary training, and worked in a daycare, and teaching sewing to teenagers. Mohamad was a veterinary medicine pharmacist, and did some farming. They lived in Daraya, a city near to Damascus, with their three children.

In August 2012, Mohamad was one of 700 people in Daraya killed by Syrian government forces. After months of constant bombing obliterated the city, Danya and her children fled in 2013 to Egypt.

Life as a refugee in Egypt was very hard. Danya worked in a UNICEF funded daycare for Syrian children, but was living with ten people in a two bedroom apartment. Even her bed was shared with an aunt.

The young widow and her three children arrived in Canada in February 2016. She says her favourite thing about Canada is good schools for her children, and such good Canadian friends, and to have her own home. She loves being in Canada, and is grateful to finally be getting medical attention for her son’s hearing loss, resulting from chronic ear infections as an infant.

However, it is very hard to be so far away from her family, and alone as a single parent. Danya says “What happens to my children if I die?” She fears them being put into government care, and wishes her brother or father could join her in Canada. Danya’s dream is to learn to drive a car, and to become fluent in English.

I hope this post will give you a better sense of the refugees living in our community and by hearing out their stories, there is a better understanding of their hardships, journey and new life in our cities. I am not a political person or have never been one to debate all the issues surrounding the crisis in Syria, so would greatly appreciate that you do not use this space to leave any hate messages or negative comments about refugees in our community.

I couldn’t have done this project without the help of Julie Silgailis and I am also eternally grateful to her for volunteering her time and introducing me to these beautiful families who are bravely sharing their stories. A big thank you to our family Ahmad and Amal on their friendship and in allowing us to share in this journey with them. Lastly to all the amazing and selfless members of the R-Team at LHF for your long hours, hard work and dedication in making sure our refugee family is well taken care of.

How can you help?

Ahmad is wanting to sponsor his brother, wife and two children currently living in Jordan to Vancouver. Maha is also wanting to have her sister and family sponsored to Vancouver and Danya has expressed that she would love to have more family here. These families would need to be privately sponsored. If you or someone you know are interested in forming a group to sponsor a family, please contact me at gina@butterstudios.ca and I can get you in touch with the families.

Amal is currently pregnant with her fourth child expected to arrive this summer. If you have any lightly used or new baby items, please contact me directly at gina@butterstudios.ca.

Donate or volunteer at Journey Home Community. You can visit their website here: www.journeyhomecommunity.ca
You can donate directly to Journey Home here: Journey Home Donate

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If you have any questions about this post, please contact me at gina@butterstudios.ca. Thank you for reading!



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