Reporter’s notebook: Catching up with a family of Syrian refugees 6 months later
When I first met Anwar Mahameed, I made two promises. So far, I’ve kept one, and the other is going to be really easy.
Photojournalist Barry Donnelly and I were in Jordan, on the Syrian border. We were staying in Amman, but had travelled about an hour north to the city of Ramtha.
At the border, we asked people if there were any Syrians around. People laughed at the question; they’re everywhere.
There is a massive refugee camp just east of the city, called Zaatari. Some 80,000 Syrians live there. The city of Ramtha has changed as well. The population has doubled in the last couple of years, as people flee the fighting just over the border.
We were told to check out one of the first buildings on the right, only about a kilometer from the security roadblock at the border.
It turned out, the entire building was Syrian.
Anwar Mahameed was living in one apartment with his mother, his wife and three sons. The other apartments were all relatives, including a cousin and one of his brothers.
It turned out Anwar was in the process of applying to move to Canada as a refugee.
He invited us into his home and offered us some coffee and cookies. We spoke to him about his hopes for his family.
When we were done the interview, we went outside and got the lay of the land. The street was usually busy. Before the war in Syria, the road was the main route between Ramtha in Jordan and Daraa in Syria. In the past, it was a 10-minute drive. It is now impossible. The border has been closed for years.
While we were talking, Anwar’s brother Amjad arrived. It was very clear in seconds that he wasn’t happy to see us.
As Canadians, we tend to think only about the good side of bringing refugees to Canada There’s something terrible going on over there, we’re bringing them here. End of story.
But I learned a lesson that day.
Amjad was upset that his brother was leaving. In fact, he blamed Canada for breaking up his family.
At one point, he lifted up his nephew to explain how close they were. Now, Canada was taking him away.
It took a few minutes, but Amjad calmed down, and then invited us into his home. He too offered us coffee and a bite to eat. He told us he wanted to stay in Ramtha, so that someday he could return to the family’s home in Syria.
There was an argument over the fate of the two brothers’ mother. Anwar wanted to take her to Canada, but Amjad wanted her to stay.
Their father was still in Syria. He stayed to watch his home when the others left. He tried several times to cross into Jordan and be with his family, but with the border closed, he wasn’t allowed.
Twice he’d gone to the border and called his wife. Separated by just a couple of hundred meters, he was still turned back.
Anwar and his family arrived in Canada on Christmas Day. They got word on a Thursday that they’d be leaving on the Sunday. Amjad actually hid his nephew on the day they were leaving — for three hours. He didn’t want to lose him.
The Mahameed were resettled in Vancouver and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Bit, since we don’t speak the same language, it’s been tough.
Well, this month I was visiting the West Coast and dropped by their apartment. It felt like seeing an old friend. I suppose being in a country so far from home, seeing someone you knew before is comforting.
We caught up a little bit, using the Google Translate app on our phones. It worked shockingly well. (Over and over, it made me think of the old Star Trek “tricorder”.)
We made plans to meet again the next day for an interview at 11 a.m. I remember wondering why the exact time mattered so much. He asked a few times.
It made sense the next day. He wanted to know what time to be ready with the feast.
And, I mean feast. There was rice and chicken, stuffed grape leaves, a beef dish, salads and other vegetables.
Syrians take great pride in welcoming guests into their homes. I got to see that hospitality first hand.
They fed me, as well as the cameraman and the translator, until we were stuffed. And over that wonderful meal, we caught up.
The boys are doing well. They’re starting to learn English. It’s still early, but there’s progress.
Anwar’s wife has found it difficult. She misses her family and looks forward to visiting when she gets the chance.
For Anwar, the big issue is work. He’s a welder and wants to start earning money to support his family.
He said he appreciates everything Canadians are giving him, but he wants to work so he can give back. His goal is to provide for his wife and children and to be a productive part of society.
Their building has six other Syrian families, which has made the acclimation a little easier. There’s Arabic being spoken around them, so they don’t feel they’re all alone.
If he was alone, Anwar said he would likely still be in Syria. Leaving wasn’t his first choice. He came to Canada looking for safety for his wife and children.
He still speaks to his brother every day. In fact, he’s told Amjad so many positive things about Canada and he thinks he might have him convinced to move. He’s hoping Amjad follows him.
Now, the two promises I made when we met back in December.
The first was that I would try to visit them in Canada. I kept that promise, and couldn’t be happier. It was a great visit. I didn’t feel like a guest. It felt like visiting family.
The second promise was that in their new country, Anwar’s three sons would never have to worry about guns or bombs.
That promise is a sure thing.
We’re pretty lucky to live here. It’s nice to be reminded of that every once in a while.
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.