After three years in limbo, this Syrian family pins hopes on Canada

  • Date 27 November 2015
  • Publication The Globe and Mail

At 9:33 Friday morning, for the first time in years, Mohammed Ismail Ali felt something he’d just about given up on – hope.

The Syrian physician has been living in Irbid, a dreary, sprawling city in northern Jordan, for three years. He and his wife Noor have tried every angle they can think of to get themselves, their daughter Hala, 10, and sons Osama, 6, and AdbelRahman, 3, out of the Middle East. And they have failed, time and again.

Australia turned down their asylum claim. France took two months with their application and sent a text message: not eligible. Canada said asylum was possible only through UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The Germans said no.

In August, Dr. Ali and his wife sold their last assets – her bridal gold jewellery – and booked flights from Amman to Istanbul: They would try to reach Europe by sea from Turkey. But they were stopped by Jordanian intelligence at the airport: A man with the same name was on a watch list, and Dr. Ali couldn’t fly until he could prove he was not the wanted man. By the time he did, the flight was long gone and 1,250 Jordanian dinars ($2,350) were lost.

“For two days, I was so depressed,” Dr. Ali said. “I thought, maybe this time wasn’t the right time. Maybe after something would happen.”

Then something did. Dr Ali’s phone rang, and the UNHCR employee on the other end wanted to know, would he and his family possibly like to go to Canada?

“I told them, ‘Please be sure, is this really for me? And my wife? And our kids?’” he recalled responding.

The family has an appointment Saturday morning with UN interviewers. If they are recommended for resettlement in Canada, Canadian officials will do final screening and interviews.

For the Ali family and thousands of others like them, the Canadian government’s decision to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees, and the question on the other end of the line – “Would you like to go to Canada?” – mark the end of one road, and the potential of a whole new journey.

Like many of the Syrians in Jordan, the Ali family is from Daraa, in southern Syria. Dr. Ali said he worked at a Daraa hospital in the mornings, and in his own clinic in the afternoons. His wife said she taught at a finance institute nearby. Home was a flat above the clinic, and the grandparents helped with child care. Life was normal – until it wasn’t.

In March, 2011, Daraa was shaken by anti-government protests and military response that would lead to civil war. As checkpoints went up and security evaporated, doctors especially felt unsafe.

“I think doctors were targeted in those days. All educated people were targeted from all sides,” Dr. Ali said.

In the summer of 2012, his luck ran out at a government checkpoint. “They took me from the car and blindfolded me. I could hear them whispering, ‘We should kill him,’” he recalled. After seven hours, he was released. He said his clinic was burned a few days later. The family decided to flee to Jordan. “I knew I should leave Syria,” he said, “or we will die here.”

In their home on the northern fringes of Irbid, in a living room with peeling paint and tired velour couches, the family feels they are treading water: They are safe, but unable to get ahead.

They are financially better off than the vast majority of refugees: He makes the equivalent of $1,700 a month working at the Zaatari refugee camp run by the UN. The family can afford to send the two older children to private school – many Jordanian public schools do not take non-Jordanians – that cost about $283 a month. The rest of his income goes to help support family still in Syria, for transportation and other necessities, and for rent.

Curly-headed AbdelRahman has only ever known life in Jordan. But for Osama, the fear of war is a feeling he can’t articulate but that sends him running to the bathroom to hide at the sound of fireworks.

The possibility of resettlement in Canada offers the chance to live a normal life again, and for Dr. Ali, this would mean re-qualifying as a physician in Canada. “I cannot stop practising medicine,” he said. “It’s my passion. As long as there’s a process, even if it takes three or five years, this is okay with me.”

Added his wife, Noor: “A house and safety and school for my kids – it’s all I need.”