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B.C. family of Syrian refugees to spend first Christmas together in nearly a decade

british columbia

A new home for the holidays

In B.C., a Syrian family will spend Christmas together for the first time in nearly a decade

Merell Awad, left, with her mother Samira and sisters Rania and Huda at home in Campbell River, B.C.

Merell Awad plans to spend Christmas with her husband and mother, her two sisters and their families, and other friends and relatives at her home in Campbell River, a city of about 35,000 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

As of early December, she put the likely head count for dinner at 22.

Far from being daunted by that number, Ms. Awad beamed as she talked about her plans to prepare a turkey, along with Syrian dishes, including savoury pastries and cookies filled with nuts or dates.

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"I've been excited since November," Ms. Awad said in an interview earlier this month, between serving customers at BaBa Gannouj, the restaurant she runs with her husband, Fouad Awad, in Campbell River. "It's going to be an amazing day."

The celebration will mark the first time the group has been together for Christmas since 2008, when they gathered in the Syrian port city of Latakia. At that time, they didn't know civil war would break out in Syria in 2011, killing thousands and displacing millions more. They didn't know Ms. Awad – who moved to Campbell River in 2009 and is now a Canadian citizen – would connect with local volunteers who would sponsor her relatives to come to Canada. And they didn't know it would take nearly two years from the time the sponsors got together, in the summer of 2015, for all of the people on the committee's list to make it to the city.

There are 10 people in all, ranging in age from 13 to 74. The first group of five – Ms. Awad's sister Huda and her husband; the couple's two teenaged sons; and her mother Samira – arrived in June, 2016.

A second group of three – Ms. Awad's other sister Rania and her two teenaged daughters – arrived in April, 2017. The final two – a couple, who are close friends of Mr. Awad and parents of his godson, who is also now living in Campell River – came this past May.

Merell Awad jokes about the Ma’amouls, a date-filled cookie, with her sisters Rania, left, and Huda.

Merell Awad leaves her home to pick up her sister from work.

Canada began welcoming Syrian refugees in larger numbers in late 2015, following an election campaign promise by the federal Liberal party to resettle 25,000 government-assisted refugees by the end of that year.

After taking power in October, the Liberal government extended that deadline to the end of February, 2016, and said privately sponsored Syrian refugees would count toward the total.

As of the end of October, 2017, according to government figures, Canada had admitted nearly 50,000 Syrian refugees since November, 2015. About 25,000 of those were government-sponsored, 20,000 were privately-sponsored and 5,000 came through a program that combines government and private support.

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Most new arrivals went to major cities. But hundreds settled in smaller centres, including Campbell River.

In 2015, the committee set a fundraising goal of $150,000. By this month, it had raised nearly $145,000.

Money came in amounts large and small. One parishioner arranged to donate $40 a month for a year. (The committee is affiliated with St. Peter's Anglican Church in Campbell River and works through the Anglican Diocese of B.C., which is a government-approved sponsorship agreement holder.)

Residents on nearby Quadra Island raised nearly $10,000 through events that included a movie night at someone's home, with ticket and popcorn proceeds going to the committee.

Merell Awad shows pictures on the wall from summer trips to Quadra Island.

Merell Awad shows family photos from her childhood during Christmas at home in Syria.

Campbell River resident Mary Cook was a key organizer. Once the newcomers arrived, Ms. Cook and fellow volunteers took them grocery shopping and helped set up medical appointments. Most of the refugees spoke some English, which made it easier to adjust to their new surroundings.

Rania Nassar, Merell's sister, was initially reluctant to consider coming to Canada. Then, one day, a bomb exploded near her daughters' school, killing a teacher and her children, who were in a nearby building.

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"Merell [Awad] said from the start of the war, 'come, come come,' and I said, 'no, I will not leave my country.' But after that, I changed my mind," Ms. Nassar said in an interview in her home in Campbell River.

Her husband remains in Latakia and may try to join the family in coming months. Some of her relatives and friends have scattered to Germany, others are in Holland.

Amid such disruption, she's drawn even closer to her sisters and her mother.

She currently works at a bakery and wants to get her drivers licence so she can be more independent.

Rania Nassar talks about her job while at work at Steiner Bakery.

The family that arrived in June, 2016 – Ms. Awad's sister Huda Nassar, Huda's husband, Madi Barhoum, and their two sons – are already through their first year in Canada.

Mr. Barhoum works at Campbell River's Marine Link Transportation, which delivers freight to remote coastal sites – mostly forestry operations – and runs a seasonal freight cruise operation.

In Syria, Mr. Barhoum, as a chief engineer, ran bulk carriers through the Mediterranean Sea, often travelling for months at a time. In Campbell River, he works on smaller vessels and is able to travel on two-week rotations.

"Madi's [Barhoum] role didn't translate 100 per cent, but Madi's skills have translated to our business," Marine Link owner Guy Adams said in a recent interview.

People stop Mr. Adams on the street and thank him for employing a refugee; he says the gain has been his.

"The thing that we've gained is a new appreciation for how to solve some of our mechanical and engineering issues, because we have a set of eyes that look at things from a completely different perspective," he added.

With Mr. Barhoum's steady income and savings, the couple was recently able to purchase a house.

Ms. Cook is proud of the work the committee has done, gratified by the community support and the progress families have made so far.

"At the end of the 12 months," she says, "you just hope you've done enough."

Still, some private sponsor groups that started the application process last year continue to wait for Syrian refugees to arrive.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) has called on the government to boost its intake of refugees, in part to clear the backlog of cases.

The federal government in November announced a three-year immigration plan that calls for increasing the number of permanent residents, including refugees, in stages between 2018 and 2020.

The CCR called the levels in that plan disappointing, noting that the target for government-assisted refugees – 7,500 in 2018 – was unchanged from 2017 and amounted to less than half of the target, 18,000, for privately sponsored refugees.

"There's a big gap between the willingness of groups to sponsor and the government's willingness to help them [refugees] come," said Janet Dench, CCR executive director.

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