February 10, 2016 4:37 pm
Updated: February 10, 2016 5:02 pm

Refugee family reunited after 9 years in limbo

WATCH: Refugee family reunites at Toronto airport after 9 years apart.

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It was a long, long wait.

Nine years since Sana Hassan had last held, smelled, hugged her husband and eldest sons; nine years — 60 per cent of his life — since Omar had last seen his dad or older brothers.

But the final few hours were especially agonizing, as Hassan and her son stood, shifting their weight and adjusted the belongings draped over their arms at the international arrivals gate at Toronto’s Pearson airport long after their family’s flight from Frankfurt landed.

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They watched as that long-awaited flight notice on the orange-dotted board was edged out by more recent arrivals. Each opening of opaque sliding doors raised hopes, then dashed them.

Hassan hadn’t anticipated a decade’s separation when she flew with her youngest son across the Atlantic for lifesaving surgery on the five-year-old’s heart, which has plagued him with a septal defect and transposed arteries for years.

They applied for refugee status because Hassan couldn’t conscionably bringing her son back to an Iraq torn apart by worsening sectarian warfare, and where Omar’s Sunni name and shaky heart put him at risk.

“If I go back to my country, I cannot keep my son safe.”

Canada didn’t buy it. Their refugee claim was rejected. But Canada hasn’t deported anyone to Iraq since 2003: It’s just too dangerous. So they were thrown into limbo — remaining in Canada but without official status.

They put down roots anyway. Hassan put her English lessons on hold to work full-time in a restaurant and care for her son.

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Omar’s been in and out of Sick Kids Hospital so many times he considers the staff his friends and knows their food offerings by heart (the quesadillas, apparently, are very good). Now he’s 15, in Grade 9, has friends in school and on Snapchat. He wears his navy blue toque indoors “in case I fall asleep in class.”

Hassan has watched her son become a Canadian, integrating in ways beyond her reach. He’s beginning to forget Arabic, she says — an accusation he vehemently denies.

But they were stuck in waiting mode until a phone call three weeks ago: They were coming. All three of them — Hassan’s husband Kanaan and her two older sons Ali and Taha.

READ MORE: No, Canada doesn’t spend more on refugees than retirees

The news was surreal. Hassan spent Monday afternoon making an enormous pot of dolma — rice, meat, spices wrapped in grape leaves — and she brought it to the airport for a celebratory snack.

“When I left, they were Omar’s age,” Hassan said.

“It’s too much. Now, when I see them, they are men.”

Omar, meanwhile, has gone from a little kid to a teen who can barely remember his dad and brothers.

“Watch me hug the wrong person,” he said, only half joking.

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Eventually the electric urgency dissipated. Omar zipped across the hall to grab coffee, exchanged Snapchats with friends.

The reunion, when it finally came, was almost anti-climactic.

Joy jolted from one face to another like electric current and then they were running, colliding, hugging, hands cupping teary faces and faces buried in necks, chatter overlapping as overburdened luggage carts were wheeled outside.

The five took their first gulps of Canadian air — not much colder than Turkey’s been, Ali said. Kanaan had his first cigarette in 14 hours.

Omar leapt on his brother’s shoulders.

“I just realized he’s a lot taller than me.”

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There’s still plenty unresolved: Hassan and Omar’s one-bedroom apartment is about to get a lot more crowded. Mother and son may have to leave the country for 25 hours, then re-enter in order to benefit from the rest of the family’s landed immigrant status — status denied to Hassan and Omar for years.

For now, Hassan doesn’t care.

“Maybe someone will call me from immigration — I don’t know. What do I do? My family is with me. I’m not worried.”

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