A couple with five children who are among the Syrian refugees already in Canada hope the relatives they left behind in a Lebanese refugee camp will soon join them.
The Bakour family has been in Toronto since early December, sponsored by a church congregation. Days later, with their five children, ranging in age from three to 10, laughing and playing in the background, Hussein and Wahida Bakour seemed overwhelmed with gratitude as they sat down with CBC News in their new home in the city’s east end.
“Once we found out that we were coming to Canada, we were so happy and we thank everyone in Canada for that,” Hussein Bakour said, speaking through a volunteer Arabic interpreter.
“I feel so grateful and thankful for Canada,” Wahida Bakour added, gesturing to a plate of cookies on the coffee table. “Without Canada having welcomed me here, I wouldn’t even have this cookie to eat.”
The Bakours’ three-bedroom house, rented for them by the Metropolitan United Church, is a drastic change from the tent they called home in a crowded refugee camp since fleeing Syria four years ago.
“Muddy, dirt, like the life was not pleasant at all,” Wahida Bakour said.
“There were rats all over the place when we were sleeping … like all around us,” said her 10-year-old son, Ali.
Then there was the never-ending hunger.
“My father used to go to the trash and pick … like bread and feed those kids,” Wahida Bakour said.
Fled soon after civil war began
The family left Syria soon after the civil war began four years ago.
“I left Syria because they catch people in the street and put them into jail,” Hussein Bakour said. “They did this to me. They … put me in jail without any crime that I have ever committed.”
After three months, Hussein Bakour left the prison a broken man, saying he was “like a crazy person.” While he was locked up, the rest of the family lived in terror.
“Me and the kids were hiding under the stairs because we were afraid that they would take us, too,” Wahida Bakour recalled.
The couple took their children and fled Damascus, travelling from town to town in Syria. But they couldn’t escape the conflict that raged on throughout the country.
“There were planes dumping bombs and fire,” Wahida Bakour said. After a house belonging to family members was levelled, they headed to neighbouring Lebanon.
Other family members face waiting period
The Liberal government has been working to get thousands of refugees into Canada over the past several weeks.
The Metropolitan United Church congregation formed a committee to sponsor a Syrian refugee family months ago, said Rev. John-Joseph Mastandrea.
The 22 committee members worked on everything from finding a home for the Bakours, to picking them up at the airport.
Many people wanted to donate items or help in some way, Mastandrea said. “I would call it nuclear compassion without any boundaries or limitations.”
Committee member Sandra Hellyer said that when church members finally met the Bakours, it was very emotional.
“It was so exciting. We were all crying,” she said with a laugh. “[We were] trying not to because of the children. But it was wonderful.”
The Bakours agree.
“We didn’t even expect …to find someone welcoming us at the airport,” Wahida Bakour said. “We were surprised. People were holding banners.”
The family kept that banner, which says “Welcome” in English and Arabic, to display in their home.
“I can’t tell you how much we are happy,” Wahida Bakour said. “We are eating, we are sleeping, we are smiling and laughing … the kids [are] trying to learn English and trying to start writing their names.”
But the absence of her father — the man who dug through the trash to get food for his grandchildren — and her stepmother, two brothers and sister casts a shadow on the family’s joy. They are still in the refugee camp, waiting for the day they too can find asylum.