Annie Sakkab/for The Globe and Mail
Annie Sakkab/for The Globe and Mail
'It's like a dream come true'
As the UNHCR prepares a list of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey for Canada to consider, the Globe's Senior International Correspondent Mark MacKinnon receives exclusive access to a screening centre in Amman, Jordan, and finds many are as anxious as they are hopeful
Mohtaz clutched the sheaf of papers tightly in his hand and looked skywards. "We're going to Canada," the 30-year-old Syrian man said softly, disbelievingly, as a grin stretched slowly across his goateed face.
Mohtaz and his family are one step closer to Canada, anyway. The papers he was clutching included a tiny white square with the number "1" written on it in blue ink. That means Mohtaz, his wife and their two young children will be on the list of up to 10,000 names that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Jordan will put forward to the Canadian government for consideration under the Liberal government's plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February.
"Canada is a civilized and good place," said Mohtaz. (Last names are being withheld from this article to protect identities until the selection process is complete.) Before the war he worked as a salesman in the city of Deraa, which in early 2011 became the first place to rise up against Bashar al-Assad's rule. "I have no work in Jordan. Life is very difficult. We need help. I dream of being a happy person again."
One more hurdle remains for Mohtaz and others who received the treasured blue "1" on Friday: an interview with the Canadian government officials who are arriving in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to conduct a last round of medical and security screening before the refugees are allowed to board planes to Canada. Mohtaz and several others who made the UNHCR list were told the final interviews will start Dec. 5 at a facility near Jordan's Marka airport, suggesting the airlift to Canada could start shortly afterward.
The UNHCR's screening of its list for Canada was at full tilt on Friday in Amman, as 500 Syrian refugees – heads of their respective families – crowded into the metal-roofed hangar that is ordinarily the registration area for newly arrived refugees. Each of the 500 had received a mobile-phone message from the UN refugee agency suggesting his or her family might qualify for resettlement in Canada. Another 1,000 will be interviewed on Saturday.
The specifics of the resettlement program continue to shift even at this late hour. UNHCR in Jordan was asked Thursday to increase its list from 7,000 to 10,000 names, while Lebanon and Turkey will each put forward smaller numbers. Not included in the UNHCR numbers – but part of the overall 25,000 – are refugees being sponsored by church groups and other non-government organizations.
Annie Sakkab/The Globe and Mail
The Canadian government is planning to charter commercial aircraft to fly hundreds of people every day from the Middle East. Canadian military transport planes may also need to be used to meet the Feb. 29 deadline. Sources have told The Globe and Mail that Canada has asked Jordan if it can use Marka airport as a hub for the region-wide operation.
The text messages sent to refugees in Jordan could prove to be life-changing. The recipients are among the poorest and neediest of the 633,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan. Nearly all of them live on less than Jordan's official poverty line of $3.20 (U.S.) per day.
But being at the bottom rung of the economic ladder has put them at the top of the list for a move to Canada.
One by one the heads of household – most of them men, but also many women made widows by Syria's 4 1/2-year-old civil war – went into interview rooms with UNHCR case officers who took iris scans to confirm the refugees' identities, and then quizzed them about their situation in Jordan, the whereabouts of their family members, and their readiness to move to Canada by the end of February. Nearly all those invited for interviews were families registered for several years with UNHCR in Jordan, and thus people well-known to the agency.
Karen Whiting, a senior protection officer, said that – contrary to some media reports – the Canadian government had given UNHCR no instruction to exclude single men from the process. However, because claimants were being prioritized based on need and vulnerability, few if any unaccompanied men will likely make the refugee agency's list.
Also on the list will be individuals identified as in need of immediate protection, including some who told the refugee agency they were gay, lesbian or transgender.
Many of those on the UNHCR shortlist confessed they knew little about Canada beyond facts they'd learned in a quick Internet search.
"I know it's in North America, and they speak English and French, and it has one of the best refugee programs in the world," said Mohammed, a 41-year-old widower with fast-graying hair who worked before the war at a fast-food restaurant in Deraa. His wife died last year while they were living as refugees, and Mohammed has struggled to raise his six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son on his own. "I just want to give them an education," he said. Like nearly all the refugees invited by UNHCR on Friday, he spoke only Arabic.
Annie Sakkab/for The Globe and Mail
The UNHCR office was filled with as much anxiety as hope on Friday. A few, like Mohtaz, were openly elated at the idea of leaving behind hardscrabble lives in Jordan for a chance at something new and better in Canada. But many more looked nervous – worried that they might not be chosen, anxious about what it would mean if they were.
"I have a question: How will we live in Canada? Will they put us in camps?" asked Fatima, a 60-year-old widow, turning the tables on the UNHCR staffer interviewing her.
"Only for a little while," the interviewer replied, admitting that some refugees might live temporarily on military bases after arriving in Canada.
Fatima, dressed in a black head-to-toe abaya, looked unimpressed. She and her 18-year-old son Ibrahim have struggled since arriving in Jordan from the shattered city of Homs; like many of those interviewed Friday, she lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Amman, and Ibrahim had to give up school to take a job at a window blinds factory to help pay the rent. But at least in Jordan she understands the language and culture.
Fatima said she had agreed to come for the interview at the urging of her son, who was far keener on trying to make a new life somewhere else. "I know nothing about Canada," she conceded. "But my only dream in life is a future for my boy. He wants to be a soccer player – I want him to become a doctor."
She barely smiled when she was handed the treasured "1" at the end of her interview.
Others left dejected after being handed the dreaded "2," turned away because a family member was no longer in Jordan, or because one of the family wasn't properly registered with UNHCR. Some of those called for interviews left with a "3," meaning a decision had been deferred for the time being.
"Our papers weren't complete," said 35-year-old Sundus, cradling her four-month-old daughter, one of three children she and her husband hoped to bring to Canada. Tears welled in her eyes as she and her family slowly left the UNHCR building. "Of course we're upset. They told us to go back home and wait for a call."
Others were going through the agony of having to decide whether to go to Canada, whch would mean leaving behind friends and relatives who were not invited for UNHCR interviews.
"If they don't accept my brother, I won't go," said Alia, a 28-year-old mother of two young children. Her husband had been killed in the fighting in Deraa, and her brother Amr and his family were not on the UNHCR's interview list.
"It's difficult to explain to people why they're not included," said Ms. Whiting, the UNHCR officer. But the agency, she added, is hoping to hand Canada a list with as few question marks on it as possible.
Like all 89 UNHCR staff who were giving up their Friday-Saturday weekend here, Ms. Whiting – an Ottawa native who has been living in Jordan since 2013 – was volunteering her time on Friday.
The aid workers say they're excited by the Canadian program, and happy to help out. There's evident hope that the effort will be deemed a success, and that other countries might decide to follow Canada's lead.
"We spend a lot of time dealing with challenging issues. This is a rare opportunity for our staff to speak to [the refugees] about something that's positive and uplifting," Ms. Whiting said. "For me, as a Canadian, I'm very proud that our government is taking its responsibility seriously."
Annie Sakkab/forThe Globe and Mail
One refugee who had no qualms about leaving the Middle East for a new life in Canada was 30-year-old Firas, who has struggled for the past 2 1/2years with the twin challenges of life in exile, and telling his conservative family that he's gay.
He was able to hide his sexuality from his family while living on his own in relatively cosmopolitan Damascus before the war, but he had no choice but to come out once the family was briefly thrust back together as refugees in Jordan.
Firas said some of his relatives attacked him physically when he told them the truth. He's since been kicked out of a succession of apartments in Amman and Aqaba by prejudiced landlords. "They judge me because of the way I dress and the way I talk," he said, clad in a tight sweater and switching between softly spoken Arabic and halting English.
On Friday, he was handed the piece of paper with the little blue "1" on it. He and his 18-year-old brother Mazen, the only member of his family unbothered when Firas announced he was gay, are on the short list to go to Canada.
"It's like a dream come true for me. I've been looking at what life is like in Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal, I've been reading about the marriage laws," Firas said, exhaling. "It will be a completely different world for me."