Omar Alghabra never got a chance to say goodbye to his father or attend his funeral in Syria.
In March, 2015, Mr. Alghabra woke up in his Mississauga, home to a condolence message from his uncle in Damascus. The devastating news was compounded by the knowledge he could not go home to lay his father to rest.
Mr. Alghabra hasn't been back to Syria in a decade. The ongoing civil war has kept him from visiting his relatives in the place that is home to some of his warmest memories. Phone calls and text messages have been the only lifelines to his family, especially during the height of the conflict, when bombings and attacks laid waste to parts of Damascus.
"Syria has not been an attractive place to visit, so it would have been a very difficult thing for me to go. It's a high risk," Mr. Alghabra said.
His story is shared by millions of Syrian families divided by the conflict – but his perspective is informed by the fact he's a senior member of the Canadian government.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Alghabra, the only Canadian MP of Syrian descent, opened up about the war's effect on his family. He said his experience has helped him relate to the difficult consular cases that come across his desk as the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
"I am in a position where I have to interact with families who have loved ones in troubling situations. And I can certainly relate to the level of anxiety and the angst they feel because I know what it's like."
Mr. Alghabra's path to Parliament Hill was shaped by his immigrant experience in Canada.
Born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family, he says he always questioned his identity. His father, an architect, moved his family to Saudi Arabia in 1968, a year before Mr. Alghabra was born. He remembers living a sheltered life there, attending private school and travelling to Syria in the summer.
"In Saudi [Arabia], I was known as a Syrian. In Syria, I was known as a Saudi. And in Canada, I'm a newcomer as well," Mr. Alghabra said. "All of my life I've lived in some form or another as the other."
Those identity issues were further complicated when he moved to Toronto at 19 to study mechanical engineering at Ryerson University. Unsure of where he would eventually call home, he didn't put down roots for years. He said it took him five years just to buy a fork.
"When I settled, not only physically but even psychologically, that's when I started thinking about other things," Mr. Alghabra said. "The questions of belonging, the question of multiple identities."
He says he felt the need to take ownership of his identity after 9/11, when he started fielding questions about Islam. In an effort to promote a better understanding of his religion, he got involved in civic organizations in his community, including immigrant and multicultural groups.
In 2005, while working at General Electric, Mr. Alghabra decided to run for the Liberals in Mississauga. He was elected in January, 2006, and served as the immigration and natural resources critic until 2008, when he lost to Conservative Bob Dechert.
He ran for office again in 2015 and won. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed him to the consular affairs file. The busy portfolio oversees more than 250,000 cases a year, most of which are routine matters such as lost passports.
The most complicated cases come across Mr. Alghabra's desk. He works alongside consular officers at Global Affairs Canada – who provide him with daily briefings on active cases and weekly briefings on the overall file – and with the family members of affected Canadians. On difficult cases, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mr. Trudeau may get involved.
The consular file has seen a number of highs and lows since the Liberals formed government. For Mr. Alghabra, the kidnapping of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall in the Philippines was a particularly challenging case. The men were captured by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in September, 2015. After demands for ransom were not met, the terrorists beheaded Mr. Ridsdel the following April. Mr. Hall suffered the same fate two months later.
Knowing the Canadian government's no-ransom policy, Mr. Alghabra said he spent many sleepless nights trying to come up with ways to save the men.
"That case literally kept me up at night because the terrorist group was giving deadlines. And I do recall a few nights being glued to my phone wanting to hear what happened," he said. "These are moments full of anxiety, maybe sometimes a sense of helplessness, because there are limited options to what the government of Canada can do."
He said his job can also be rewarding, though, especially when complicated cases are resolved.
For instance, he pointed to the recent release of Canadian Joshua Boyle, his American wife Caitlan Coleman and their three young children by militants affiliated with the Taliban. The couple was captured by the terror group in Afghanistan in 2012 and spent five years in captivity. The family was rescued near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in October. Mr. Alghabra was actively involved in the case and was notified of the rescue plan the night before it took place. The family is now safely back in Mr. Boyle's hometown of Smiths Falls, Ont.
Mr. Alghabra also worked closely on the nightmare caused by Hurricane Irma in September. The natural disaster left hundreds of Canadians stranded in the Caribbean, sending Global Affairs Canada scrambling to bring them all home. But the stranded people and their worried families criticized the government for its slow response.
Looking back on his consular work, Mr. Alghabra has a message for Canadians: Always check the government's travel advisories before leaving the country. As much as he misses his family in Syria, he abides by Ottawa's warning against travelling there and encourages his fellow Canadians to follow the government's advice too.
"People think that a Canadian embassy – if they get ill or get caught – that all of a sudden they're going to send a plane and get them out of there. It doesn't work that way," Mr. Alghabra said. "We will do whatever we can, but we have limited means and options at times."