Lionel Lumb, a parishioner at St. Maurice, has written this very moving article on the story of our Syrian Refugee Family both before and since their arrival in Canada. The article, “Circle of Hope and Safety” can also be found at the entrances to the church. When you read it, you can appreciate how our collective prayers and efforts have made such a difference in the lives of Pascal, George, Joelle and Fadi.
Circle of Hope & Safety by Lionel Lumb
For most Canadian families the daily concerns for their children include making sure they have their shots, stay healthy, brush their teeth, get to school on time, do their homework and finish the food on their plates. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which parents hope their kids will eat even a single meal that day or live to see another sunrise.
Now imagine something worse for a young mother caught up in the turmoil of civil war in Syria. Her husband and father of her three children goes out to buy bread to accompany the evening meal she has prepared. It is their wedding anniversary. He is on his way home when he is stopped by a militant force. After a brief interrogation he is shot and killed. He is Christian and wearing a cross.
Pascal al Zaraana was living with her husband, Nidal al Kaady, in Damascus with their three young children: George, Joelle and Fadi, an infant. A few years prior to the war, they had left their mostly Christian town of Daraa, where fighting began in 2011, and relocated to Damascus.
In Damascus, the family moved into a small apartment—the only one in the building to be completed. The rest was an empty shell of open floors, exposed to the elements and abandoned by other would-be tenants because of the war. Still, they were happy for a short time, until that fateful night of August 7, 2012.
Her husband’s death caused a severe nervous breakdown, Pascal says. “I was treated with very strong medication. Hour after hour I would watch my children sitting in a corner of the room and crying. Eventually, I realized it’s not my fault and it’s not their fault. I knew I had to do something to show them that life must continue.”
Before the war Pascal worked in a school kindergarten but then the fighting made that too dangerous. The family lived on the father’s income. They had no savings. “But now, after his death and with no money for food, I knew I must find work.”
She did find a job, baby-sitting a neighbour’s children, but it came with a heavy price. She had to leave her own children alone to fend for themselves—despite the trauma they had suffered— while she went to work. And soon there was another torment: day-to-day life became more expensive because of the war and the money was not enough.
Then the family had a lucky break. Pascal approached a Jesuit community in Syria and they helped her with a job. “I started cooking for the Jesuits, and the people the community was looking after—other refugees or people in difficulty, both Christian and Muslim. At one time I was cooking for two hundred people.”
But she earned a little money and was able to take food home to her children. “They would be waiting for the food. They were alone but sometimes a neighbour would drop by to see if they were all right.”
The struggle for survival continued for four years in Syria. So did the trauma she suffered. “I had lost the most important person in my life. I was worrying for my children – I didn’t want to lose any of them. I was very concerned about losing my own life because then what would happen to my children? I desperately wanted to escape to a safe place.”
Pascal tried many times to cross from Syria into Lebanon but was always stopped at the border check posts. An image began to haunt her. A St. Maurice volunteer who has befriended Pascal and acts as an interpreter, Nayla Lampsos, says that images are very much a part of Pascal’s life.
This particular image frightened Pascal. In it, she saw herself struggling to cross a river, carrying her three children on her shoulders as she stumbled along in the water. The river was very turbulent, the waves high, and she despaired that she would ever cross to safety.
In real life, the family did have a change in fortune. One day when they approached the border check post they were allowed to cross into Lebanon. That was February 7, 2016. While there was safety and shelter in Lebanon, Pascal still had a problem. As a refugee she was not allowed to work, yet she must feed her children. She found a small apartment in Beirut, with two small mattresses. For food, all they could afford was bread and za’taar (thyme). But soon the rent was raised and they had to leave Beirut for a cheaper home in the mountains, where it was very cold. Still, Pascal had achieved the first of her goals: safety. Now she had to go after the second: a permanent home somewhere else. But where? She had no idea.
That’s when Shadi al Khalil stepped in with a big message of hope. Shadi came to Ottawa in December 2010 to learn English, stayed on after the Syrian civil war erupted and has helped more than 30 refugee families to gain acceptance in Canada by giving their names to the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, which runs a sponsorship service for refugees.
By coincidence Shadi is also from Daraa, and although Pascal didn’t know him, she learned about him from a friend in Australia. She contacted Shadi in Canada, explained her situation and Shadi told her he would work on her case with sponsorship programs in Ottawa.
She smiles as she says: “Our names were given to three churches. The first church to accept us was St. Maurice. Shadi was very prompt and sent our paperwork to St. Maurice, and the parish moved quickly as well. When we learned we were accepted (by the parish) I cannot describe how I felt. All I could think of was this: I am going to bring my children to a safe place.”
St. Maurice swiftly got in touch with the Canadian embassy in Beirut to arrange interviews. Pascal attended the first one alone and then went together with the children to the embassy at the end of March. They took several hours and many buses to get to the embassy. It was the start of their long journey of hope to Canada.
The actual journey was put on hold for four months after their official acceptance—four months of continuing hardship and inadequate food. But then in August last year, Pascal says, they received the phone call they had dreamed about: “You have a flight to Canada in 40 days (mid-September). Get ready.” She adds with a chuckle: “From that day we were counting down every day, repeating again and again the number of days left before we would leave for Canada.”
She bought suitcases and packed as little as possible, as she was told to do. The first leg was from Beirut to Istanbul, in Turkey. But they were delayed for 16 hours, stuck at the airport all that time. “I could not sleep because I was worrying about the children. I had Fadi on my lap. Joelle and George slept on a bench. Joelle was so exhausted she started sleep-walking. I asked Joelle where she was going but she did not answer and kept walking.”
Eventually they took off for the 12-hour flight to Toronto and Pascal managed to sleep a bit. In Toronto there were people waiting to welcome them: Arabic-speaking people appointed by the government to help refugees with the process of submitting papers, etc. Then they were taken to a hotel, where they spent four hours before catching the flight to Ottawa — to a greeting the family will never forget.
As Pascal and the children were descending the stairs to the exit they heard a loud voice proclaiming: “Here is the hero.” It was Shadi al Khalil, there to greet them with a group from St. Maurice Parish.
“I felt very emotional but also very proud,” says Pascal, “because it reflects exactly all I went through (to get to Canada) and Shadi knew all about my struggle to survive with my children after my husband was killed. Shadi is a hero, too, a great man, a great, great man. He has helped many, many people whom he identified as the most vulnerable people needing to come to Canada.”
This is how Pascal describes her first feeling on landing in Canada: “At last we are safe.”
She adds, “The first and biggest thanks I would like to express go to the churches in Canada that chose to sponsor and welcome Syrian refugee families. I quickly felt that the members (of St. Maurice who greeted her) were extremely kind-hearted and loving. There are no words that can describe the care and attention shown our family, and I know full well how much they (parish volunteers) are doing to help us get over our difficulties, and to keep a very loving presence around us.”
Pascal becomes a little subdued and more emotional as she speaks about the early days in Canada. “I was so exhausted and hadn’t quite come to grips with what to expect of life in Canada. I was also upset because I was unable to say goodbye to my parents before leaving Lebanon. I was sad, thinking that perhaps I would not see them again. I started thinking about my mother.” At this point she sobs. There is a long pause.
She talks about another of the images that continue to haunt her. In the struggle to survive she did not examine consciously her anger at the war and the pain of losing her husband. “But now, with my day-to-day burdens lightened, it is time to look into the wounds. This is the image: the wounds never healed, they were covered with more wounds, like festering scabs. Now it is time to remove the dirt from the wounds, to get right down inside to clean them properly.”
Looking ahead, Pascal says she hopes to become active in the community. During the years when all she could think about was staying alive for her children’s sake, she had set aside all ambition for herself. “I missed the femininity I used to have. Now I can retrieve this part of myself, assert myself as a woman again, elegant both morally and physically. I like to work.”
In the early months Pascal received English-language training through ELTOC (English Language Tutoring for the Ottawa Community) and parish volunteers have helped the family on a regular basis two or three times a week. Now Pascal is taking ESL classes, and would like to “produce and be creative” in her future life. One thing she knows she does well is cook. The parish can attest to that, as lucky church-goers found out at the multicultural potluck in January, for which Pascal cooked four dishes.
Her face lights up as she says: “When I was cooking for the Jesuit community (in Syria) they used to ask me how my food could taste so good. I used to say because I add love to food. In fact, I try to add a pinch of love to everything I do. The most noble thing in life is love.”
As for her love for her children, Pascal says: “I hope to help them escape from the fear that is very much inside every one of them, and to give them stability in life. I wish that the loss of their father and the (legacy of the) war be less painful. I hope they can heal from a very painful past.”
In the months since September 15, 2016, the day they arrived in Canada, the children have slipped into their new way of life in impressive ways. They have taken swimming lessons, enjoyed the snow slide at Mooney’s Bay, visited Gatineau Park to admire the fall foliage, and many other parks around Ottawa to enjoy Canada’s great outdoors. Currently, Pascal and her children are enrolled in weekly tennis lessons. Each of them has also received a bicycle and they are enjoying cycling in the neighbourhood. Of course, they go to school: George is at Frank Ryan and Joelle and Fadi are at St. Rita’s.
George, now 13, is quiet but positive about life in Canada: “It is my home. Here I can always find someone to greet me. A home where I can have friends. As simple as that.” He had a liver infection in Syria, “so it’s extra pleasant for me to spend my day in a clean environment, at school and at home. I love swimming and cycling, and I hope to cycle to school in the summer.” George also likes watching TV and would like to become a singer.
Joelle, 12, is happy that she feels safe in Canada but admits she has mixed feelings. “I still love Syria, it is very beautiful. I miss it, and I miss my aunt, and my home in Damascus. My home was close to the fighting and I saw many people killed. I wish the war would end and I could again meet my grandmother and other members of our family.”
Joelle also likes where she lives now. She enjoys playing with the neighbours and says friends she has here make her feel good. She also likes her school and would like to become a teacher.
Fadi will turn seven in June. He declines to chat at first but, as some volunteers know, he likes cars and can identify most makes even from a distance. So he opens up a bit on that topic and says: “I want to race cars.” For those parishioners who have met him and know his whirlwind style that’s no surprise at all.
As their lives unfold in Canada in ways that make the family members feel safe and cared for, Pascal talks about another image, one that brings her joy. “The picture I have in my heart is that I am standing with my children in a circle. The circle is all the members of the church, the volunteers, the committee members, and they are all holding hands around us, to protect us.”
St. Maurice Parish thanks Nayla Lampsos for her Arabic translation, which enabled Pascal to tell her story.
Photos by David Chan
If you have any questions about this committee and its work to date, please send the committee an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 613-366-1076.