On a freezing Ottawa afternoon I politely decline the offer for coffee.
The last thing I want is for the Syrian family we are interviewing to go to any trouble for me and cameraman Paul Nolan.
Hasna Ali disappears into the kitchen. A short time later she comes back into the living room holding a tray of glass cups filled with piping hot sweet tea for us.
READ MORE: How Canadians can help people in Aleppo
That’s the kind of warmth and hospitality the Ali family shows their guests. They escaped the horrors of the Syrian civil war with almost no possessions and spent three years living in squalor at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. But Hasna will make sure I am comfortable in her new Canadian home with a hot cup of tea.
It is humbling.
I stumbled upon the story of Mohammed Ali and his family by fluke. Though they had been featured in a couple of media reports earlier this year, I had not heard their story.
I was looking for a Syrian refugee family to interview about the horrors taking place in Aleppo. Knowing that about a hundred refugee families live in a pair of apartment buildings in east Ottawa, Paul and I ventured out hoping to find one.
We arrived just as dozens of children were spilling off the bus on their way home from school. Thirteen-year-old Hamza cheerfully identified himself as a Syrian refugee and invited us upstairs to meet his family.
When we got to the apartment, his mother Hasna invited us inside with a warm smile. She spent the past nine months working on her English and seemed to understand who we were and what we were looking for. She said her husband would be home shortly.
It only became clear that our presence had been lost in translation when Mohammed arrived half an hour later.
This family doesn’t have ties to Aleppo. But they have a compelling story to tell.
The first hint was an easel in the corner with a beautiful painting still in progress. As we waited for Mohammed, I noticed dozens of other canvasses with breathtaking portraits scattered across the living and dining rooms.
The haunting, life-like faces of Syrian children gave me goose bumps. You can’t look at Mohammed’s art and not feel something. Be transported to a dark place. The sorrow in the faces of these children communicate a suffering words cannot.
What really struck me is the evolution of Mohammed’s work. The journey his family has taken from victims of war to residents of a country that welcomes and respects them.
His paintings now are of happy, grateful children enjoying freedom and peace in Canada. Their story has a happy ending. Sadly, for too many others, that is still a dream.
We only spent an hour and a half with the Ali family. But I’m so glad I met Hamza at the bus stop.
The whole experience was also a good reminder: Sometimes it’s the story you’re not looking for that ends up touching you the most