Rula Labak and her family have endured a lifetime of upheaval. After fleeing Syria in 2011 and bouncing around the region, the refugees finally arrived in Canada two months ago and thought Fort McMurray would be a stable place to begin rebuilding their lives.
But the raging wildfires that forced Ms. Labak, her two teenaged children and her mother from their apartment earlier this week have left them traumatized and worried about the future.
"My kids, mom say, 'What [do] we have to do? You said to us we will live there, we will live happy. Why that happened to us?'" Ms. Labak said in halting English. "That's very bad. I can't answer to them anything."
The terrifying scene as they left – fire in the distance, ash raining down, an acrid smell in the air – brought back memories of bombings near their home in Damascus. And when they arrived at a work camp turned shelter north of Fort McMurray, the rows of cots reminded Tala, 15, and Hesham, 13, of refugee camps and brought them to tears.
In the end, the evacuation centre was full and the family was redirected to Edmonton, where the Red Cross set up the group, which includes Ms. Labak's brother and his family, in a hotel because Ms. Labak's 67-year-old mother, Wedada, uses a wheelchair and needs help going to the washroom. They have almost nothing: Before fleeing, Ms. Labak had hastily prepared some food and packed a change of clothes, leaving her family's passports and other documents behind. To make matters worse, their hotel stay was scheduled to end on Friday and Ms. Labak didn't know where to turn.
"Where I have to go? Where I have to stay? I have three persons to care about but I don't know what I have to do for them," she said, notes of desperation creeping into her voice.
Later on Thursday, Ms. Labak had gotten in touch with a non-profit organization that helps refugees and was looking at temporary accommodations.
But Ms. Labak, 41, is confronting larger questions about her family's future. Before the wildfires upended their lives, they were settling into life in Fort McMurray. They had moved into an apartment, learned how to get around the city and had met many helpful people, she said. Her children had enrolled in school and were doing well. Ms. Labak had begun English classes at a local college and sent out résumés, hoping to get a job at a daycare. Life was much better than it had been in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where the family lived before coming to Canada.
Now, even if her apartment building is still standing, which she has heard is the case although no one is sure, Fort McMurray has been largely devastated and Ms. Labak questions whether it can provide the balm of stability her family needs. She is also "very disappointed" that her children are missing school, especially Tala, who is in Grade 9. "She needs to study for the future," she said. "I'm worried, really I'm worried about everything."
She doesn't want to resettle in Edmonton, saying she doesn't know anyone and the city seems too large for her to figure out on her own. The family came to Canada as privately sponsored refugees, brought to Fort McMurray by Ms. Labak's brother Fahed Labek, who has lived there for about a decade.
"My brother bring to me everything but I can't tell him to bring another home for me and another furniture for me. He give everything to me. I can't tell him, 'OK, give another time everything to me.' That's very hard for him. It's very hard."
Ms. Labak, who is divorced from her children's father and is unsure of his whereabouts, is thinking about moving to Windsor, Ont., where her sister arrived about a month ago. Ms. Labak says her sister has children the same age as her son and daughter and she feels being with their cousins would help her children heal. However, Ms. Labak doesn't have the financial means to resettle there.
"They told me, 'Mama, get us to there to stay there, it's safe there, it's good there to live.' I told them I can't, I have to ask government. There is no one help us or support us there," she said.
Late on Thursday, as she tried to find her family a temporary place to stay in Edmonton, Ms. Labak was thinking she might have to try to rebuild her life in Fort McMurray – again – along with the rest of the city.