Julie Angus of the Fairfield Sponsorship Refugee Group

Syrian refugees embracing new life in Victoria

Julie Angus was tingling with excitement the moment she stepped off her plane and started searching for her Syrian relatives.

Julie Angus was tingling with excitement the moment she stepped off her plane and started searching for her Syrian relatives on a layover in the Vancouver airport.

The first person she found near her gate was her cousin Nour Wafai, who she last saw eight years ago in Syria when he was 12 years old. Emotions went into overdrive once she saw her uncle Bassam, aunt Alia and two other cousins Rawan, 11 and Toulip, 15.

“It was really overwhelming. We all cried and hugged and just enjoyed being in the moment and seeing each other again and knowing that they were here and could have a future again,” said Angus, adding the look on the family’s faces was a combination of sheer joy and fatigue.

“They had been in airports up until that point and suddenly it was, it’s Julie, this is Canada, we are finally here.”

On her way to Cranbrook to shoot a commercial with Survivorman’s Les Straud, Angus bid farewell to her relatives who were bound for Victoria thanks to the Fairfield Sponsorship Refugee Group.

In November, the group of 16 strangers (including Angus) came together to raise the $55,000 needed to bring the family of five to Victoria and support them during their first year.

Angus, who went to Syria eight years ago and stayed at her uncle’s home in Aleppo, felt compelled to help after hearing the family had fled the country due to the war.

In March 2015, the Wafai family paid a smuggler to take them across the border into Turkey — a dangerous journey with check points and mine fields along the way. Even though they arrived at their destination safely, their new life wasn’t easy. Unable to work, they eked out an existence in a small rented home not far from the Syrian border.

“There was just no future for them. They were very much in a holding pattern, hoping for an opportunity to start a new life,” said Angus, noting her uncle has a degree in English and his wife is a hairdresser.

Prepared for the family’s arrival since Christmas, the sponsorship group was anxiously awaiting for the day they’d get to meet the Wafais. It wasn’t until about two weeks ago — and many set backs — the group finally received a firm arrival date, but the celebrations didn’t begin until the family was in the air.

“There was still a tiny part of me that worried something could go wrong,” said Angus, noting the family wasn’t initially allowed on the flight due to a mistake with their exit visa.

So far the family is adjusting well to their new Canadian life in the furnished apartment donated by two professors at the University of Victoria. Many of the sponsors are with the family every day, helping set up bank accounts, get social insurance numbers and assessed for English classes.

Living briefly in Canada 25 years ago, Bassam is fluent in English, but Alia has a limited vocabulary.

Nour already has a job working as a dishwasher at the Old Spaghetti Factory and is making new friends. Even though he finished high school in Syria, he’ll need to upgrade some of his courses before he can pursue additional education. The two young girls are slated to attend an art camp next week.

Bassam hasn’t stopped smiling since he arrived in Victoria.

“You can’t imagine it. It’s like a dream, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I feel now it’s comfortable for the future of my family. Everything here is available. If you work hard, you will be at the top.”

Through their fundraising efforts, the Fairfield group managed to raise enough money to sponsor a second family — a single mother (who’s a chemistry teacher) and her two young children, aged two and four, along with her two brothers, who are both computer engineers fluent in English.

Angus was made aware of the family through a personal connection of her father. Their application is still being reviewed and processed, but excitement is already building for their arrival.

“We felt very strongly about helping this mom because it’s very difficult being a single mom, let alone a single mother Syrian refugee,” said Angus, noting the family likely won’t be here until the end of the year or early next year. “Both brothers are very keen to come to Canada and be able to start or join a company in computer engineering. We feel that they’ll be a great addition to Canada.”

More than 27,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada since November. Locally, Victoria has welcomed more than 28 privately sponsored refugees and 170 government-assisted refugees.