Sitting in a beige, second-floor room in a Mississauga office building, Maher is practising his English.
Despite just a few months of study through the non-profit group Newcomer Centre of Peel, the quiet, bespectacled 38-year-old has already learned to put together simple sentences. To describe his life just four months ago living in Aleppo – considered Syria's most war-torn city – there was this: "No safety. No life."
And to describe the news, in March, that he and his family of eight had been accepted into Canada, he had just one word: "Happy."
But it wasn't easy. Maher and his family of eight waited an agonizing 11 years before their refugee application was accepted.
As the refugee crisis in the Middle East and central Asia continues to unfold around the world, the story of Maher and his 56-year-old mother, Sumaia, underscores the mounting desperation many families in Syria are feeling, and the quagmire of bureaucracy they face. Both Maher and Sumaia asked for their last names to be withheld, for fear of reprisal against relatives still living in Syria.
Before 2011, when Syria became swept up in the Arab Spring protests, Maher and his family had a comfortable life in Aleppo. Maher, who had studied law in Iraq, launched a career in fashion design in Aleppo, eventually owning a clothing factory and providing a good living for his wife and two young sons.
"When it first started, they were throwing rocks," he said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. "Then we started to see fires, burning stores."
As time passed, things continued to escalate. Without missing a beat, Maher can rattle off examples of violence he witnessed: the time he saw rebels kill a group of police officers on the street; or the night a bullet from a sniper gun flew into his apartment, missing his head by about a foot; or the time his cousin was kidnapped for ransom by rebels, tortured and beaten for three months.
The constant sound of bombing and gunfire terrified Maher's son the most. For six months last year, the boy – now four years old – stopped talking completely. "He liked to sing songs and poems, but after that, he wouldn't talk," Sumaia said through an interpreter. "He would start saying words, then just stop."
It wasn't just the violence. Rebels systemically targeted power stations and main sources of water, so for five years the family lived for much of the time without electricity or running water.
For drinking water, they would turn to the local churches, or the Red Cross. And for heat in the winter, they would gather material from wherever they could find – desks from schools, or books from their own collection – to set on fire. During the day, Maher would design clothes at his factory, and at night he would burn the clothes in his own closet to heat the apartment.
It was a desperate situation, he said, but they weren't ready to take the risk that the family of three-year-old Alan Kurdi – the drowned Syrian toddler whose photograph this week sparked international outrage – took in fleeing by boat. "Instead of dying in the water, we said we'll die in our country," he said.
Finally, in February of this year, Sumaia received word that her 2004 application with the United Nations refugee agency – as well as the applications of her husband and another son and daughter – had been accepted by Canada. She was told that Maher would follow shortly.
The next month, Maher was told his family of four had one month to prepare their move. "I was very, very, very happy," he said.
The only explanation she received for the lengthy application process, Sumaia said, was that none of the countries for which they had applied – including Canada and the United States – was ready to accept them. A Globe report earlier this week detailed the long waits and bureaucratic hurdles refugees now face in coming to Canada.
These days, Maher has been working on his English, and looking for a job from his Mississauga apartment. He has enrolled his eldest son – who still flinches each time an airplane flies overhead – in school.
Both he and Sumaia are grateful to Canada for taking them in, but issued a plea to governments and ordinary citizens to do more for those left behind. "I want all of the countries, the political leaders, to know how we feel, how we suffered, how we died every day from this situation," he said. "Help them."