Mayson Al Misri was at home in Hamilton when she learned of the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria last month. She immediately texted her best friend, Amal Al Salamat, who lives in that part of Turkey, but there was no response.
The two of them bonded while working together at a women’s union in Syria during the civil war. While sharing advice on how to protect themselves from bombardments, they grew close and now consider each other like family. For years, Ms. Al Misri had hoped she could bring her friend to join her in Canada. The night of the earthquake, she couldn’t sleep.
Ms. Al Misri, a member of the famed Syrian White Helmet rescue group, came to Canada in 2018 along with other White Helmet volunteers and their families – part of an international effort Canada helped to lead. The White Helmets are known for their humanitarian search-and-rescue operations, responding to the destruction wrought by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia.
When she and her husband left Syria – first for a refugee camp in Jordan and later Canada – they encouraged their friend Ms. Al Salamat, who was not part of the White Helmets, to go to opposition-held Idlib, where it would be safer. And from there, Ms. Al Salamat made her way to Antakya in southern Turkey.
For the past few years, she tried to build a life in Antakya, working for a Syrian organization and as a journalist. But Ms. Al Misri remembers her saying she wasn’t fond of the place. “She said she had a bad feeling something would happen. … But nobody knew it would be an earthquake.”
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, a subsequent tremour and aftershocks, which struck Turkey and Syria in February, killed more than 50,000 people. Antakya was one of the cities that was hardest hit, with dozens of residential blocks completely flattened.
Ms. Al Misri finally heard from Ms. Al Salamat days later. Her house had been destroyed, but she was okay. Now, both women are hoping it won’t be long before she can rebuild her life again, this time in Canada.
Shortly after Ms. Al Misri arrived in Hamilton in 2018, she met Julianne Burgess, an educator who has taught English to newcomers for more than 25 years. Ms. Burgess was also part of a group that had privately sponsored a refugee family to come to Canada in the past.
Ms. Al Misri thought she better not ask her new friend for help bringing Ms. Al Salamat to Canada the very first time they met – but she did ask the second time.
“I told her, ‘I have a friend and we need to bring her to Canada because Amal is part of our life, like family,’” said Ms. Al Misri, 47.
Ms. Burgess and a friend contacted every group in the region that can sponsor refugees through the federal government’s private sponsorship program. Ottawa has sponsorship agreements with groups that help resettle refugees in Canada. They’re often religious, ethnic or humanitarian organizations that support refugees they sponsor either on their own, or by working with groups or individuals.
The efforts by Ms. Burgess and her group were interrupted when the pandemic struck and brought travel to a near halt. But last year, they finally found a group that agreed to help sponsor Ms. Al Salamat – Gateway Church in Caledonia, Ont.
The church has been calling it their “faith mandate,” Ms. Burgess told The Globe and Mail.
But now that the earthquake has flattened Ms. Al Salamat’s home, the urgency to bring her here is greater than ever.
Ms. Al Salamat, 46, said in an interview from a friend’s place in Ankara that her home was destroyed and she has nowhere to go. “I don’t have a home,” she said.
Although she has legal documents issued by the Turkish government that allow her to stay in the country, she no longer has a place to live in the province where she is registered and is fearful she will be deported.
“After the earthquake, Syrian refugees, there’s no place for them,” she said.
Ms. Burgess said paperwork for Ms. Al Salamat was submitted to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in December, and she hopes the government will expedite her application.
Ottawa has said it will fast-track visa applications of those in the regions affected by the earthquake.
Stuart Isherwood, a spokesperson for the immigration department, said because of privacy rules, he cannot comment on individual cases. However, he said they are prioritizing temporary and permanent resident and refugee applications from people affected by the earthquakes.
Ms. Burgess said the “clock is ticking on Amal” because of her situation, adding that she is worried about the risk of deportation, and what would happen if Ms. Al Salamat tried to leave on her own.
“We’re really worried that desperate people will do desperate things, like head to the Mediterranean, with horrible consequences,” Ms. Burgess said. “If that happens, the Canadian government will have blood on its hands. And … I think that as caring Canadians, if we stay silent and do nothing, then we too will have blood on our hands.”
For Ms. Al Misri, getting her best friend to Canada is the closest thing possible to reuniting with her own family. She still has some relatives in Syria, but she has disconnected from them because police had continued to ask them about her work with the White Helmets and how she got to Canada.
“I was forced to do that for their safety. I didn’t want something bad to happen to them because I know the Assad regime will do that.”
Ms. Al Misri has had 11 family members killed by regime forces. In 2013, a sniper killed her brother near their family home. She heard the gun shot, but she and her family couldn’t do anything to help him. His death prompted her to join the White Helmets.
She said that Canada helped give her and her husband a second life – and hopes it will do the same for Ms. Al Salamat.
“She’s like my sister, my family … and she needs to be in a safe place,” Ms. Al Misri said.