Seven years ago, Julie Angus and her husband Colin embarked upon a 7,000 kilometre journey, cycling from Scotland to Syria, where they stayed at her uncle’s home in Aleppo.
Filled with at least 2,000 years of history, Angus recalls the Syrian sights and countryside was beautiful, and the pair were touched by the hospitality of the people who were celebrating the end of Ramadan. Some invited the Angus’ into their homes to take part in a great feast.
Syria is home to at least six Unesco world heritage sites, but many have been damaged or destroyed by the ongoing civil war. Looking at photos of the places Angus visited during her trip is heartbreaking.
“Our family’s apartment where we stayed, it’s gone, it’s been bombed,” said the 41-year-old. “All those people we met on the street that welcomed us in for dinner have been terrorized and they no longer have a home.”
Last March, the family of Angus’ uncle (his wife and three children — a boy aged 19 and two girls, ages 10 and 14), fled the war-town country by paying a smuggler to take them across the border into Turkey. It was a dangerous journey, noted Angus, with check points and mine fields along the way. Even though they arrived at their destination safely, their new life hasn’t been easy.
According to Angus, the region where the family is living is very dangerous with constant gunfire and bombings. It’s a no-man’s land fought over by government forces and various rebel factions with civilians caught in the crossfire.
Their neighbours who lived across the hall in the apartment building they are staying were killed when their building was bombed in January. The only reason Angus’ family survived is because they happened to be out at the time.
“It’s quite difficult for them to live there. They don’t really have any money, so it’s been difficult for them to pay for accommodation and food.”
“They aren’t able to work because they don’t have a work permit and they don’t speak the language,” said Angus, noting her uncle has a degree in English and lived in Canada briefly. His wife is a hairdresser.
“There’s no future for these refugees in Turkey and they need to find a home.”
After hearing about her family’s situation in Turkey, Angus felt compelled to help. Thus the Fairfield Refugee Sponsorship was born.
The group of 12 strangers has come together to raise funds to bring the family to Victoria. They’re navigating through the process with the help of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria and need to raise about $55,000 to support the family of five during their first year in Canada. So far, about $28,000 has been raised.
The process involves about 100 pages of paperwork, detailing everything about the family’s personal history, education, work experiences, organizations and associations they belong to, and the reason they are fleeing. Once they arrive, the group plans to help them adjust to life in Canada by providing assistance with housing, start-up supplies like furniture and clothing, school enrolment, English as a second language training, employment and whatever else they need.
“More than 200,000 people have now been killed. Many have lost friends, acquaintances, neighbours and family members, so we want to know how best to help them deal with those issues when they arrive here,” said Angus, who keeps in touch with the family through Facebook Messenger whenever they find an Internet connection.
Fairfield Refugee Sponsorship is among a number of groups that are trying to help Syrian refugees get to Victoria.
The Canadian government has committed to bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year. Some premiers, however, have raised concerns about the Justin Trudeau’s timeline and measures for security screening.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has been working with refugee organizations and mayors across the Island, and is waiting for word from the federal government as to if and how many refugees could be coming to the city. During a workshop on the issue in Vancouver earlier this week, Helps said Victoria and Vancouver were both mentioned.
Jean McRae, executive director of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria — a non profit group that offers support to immigrants — is also waiting to hear what the federal government has planned. At this point, she said there are about a dozen sponsorships on the go and she expects more to come.
“Before the end of the year, we might have 20 sponsorships. I’m not quite sure,” said McRae, who isn’t aware of any Syrian refugees recently arriving in Victoria, but noted the Syrian community in the city is very small.
“I think that Canada has a lot to offer and we can offer assistance to people who clearly need a lot of help. We’re very excited that we’re able to do that. The timeline is short, so that really is the biggest part of the challenge. Other than that, we’re happy to have people come.”
So far, McRae has seen a lot of support for Syrian refugees from the local community, including groups such as Fairfield Refugee Sponsorship.
For Angus, helping Syrian refugees is a moral obligation. Her father came to Canada from Syria when he was a young man and didn’t speak much English. But he managed to build a career with the military, serving in Afghanistan and a number of war-torn areas, and provide Angus with opportunities she never would have had otherwise.
“I know there are people who will make the most of their new lives in Canada and contribute to our country,” she said.
“Syria was a peaceful country throughout their whole lives until the war broke out four years ago. It’s very hard for them to adapt and to know that their home is gone. It will never be the same. They will never be able to return, they’ve lost everything they have…It’s heartbreaking.”
On Friday, Nov. 20, the Fairfield Refugee Sponsorship will be hosting Sweet on Syria at the City Light Church. The event includes desserts, non-alcoholic drinks and live music, as well as a silent auction and multi-media presentation on Syria. For more information visit fairfieldrefugeesponsorship.com.