‘Long journey’ peacefully ends in London

Syrian refugee Maha sits on the porch of their new London home with her children, clockwise from top left, Muntaha, Nour, Aya, Sidra, Mohamad and Bushra. They are the first family brought to London through the Western Social Science Refugee Sponsorship Fund.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsSyrian refugee Maha sits on the porch of their new London home with her children, clockwise from top left, Muntaha, Nour, Aya, Sidra, Mohamad and Bushra. They are the first family brought to London through the Western Social Science Refugee Sponsorship Fund.

As Western professor Victoria Esses walked hand-in-hand down the street with 3-year-old Syrian refugee Bushra, it was difficult to imagine that same playful child hiding in fear as bombs exploded around her home just under a year ago. Nevertheless, such was everyday life for Bushra and her family before the Western Social Science Refugee Sponsorship Fund helped bring them to London in recent weeks.

Led by the Faculty of Social Science, in partnership with the London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, fundraising began last summer in hopes of collecting $30,000 to bring a Syrian refugee family safely to London. Just this past month, mother Maha and her six children: Muntaha, Nour, Bushra, Mohamad, Sidra and Aya, landed at London International Airport to a warm welcome.

“It was really exciting being able to meet them at the airport,” said Esses, who joined others with signs welcoming the family. “Even though it took them almost three hours to clear customs, it was great to finally see them in person. We knew who they were through photos, but seeing them for real was the best.”

According to the United Nations, 13.5 million people inside Syria need urgent help, including 6.5 million who are internally displaced. More than 250,000 people have died in the conflict, with hundreds of thousands more wounded. Almost 4.6 million Syrians have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Leaving her husband in Syria, Maha and her children spent seven months in Turkey after fleeing their home. Today, she is thankful to be somewhere “without fear.”

“It was very nice to finally arrive here after such a long journey. We are much more secure than back home,” Maha said through an interpreter. “My kids like the feeling of being here, the feeling they are home. We are happy to be here.”

Two of her children attend nearby Eagle Heights Public School and their excitement was evident, despite the language barrier, to be around other children and learning in the classroom.

“Next year, another one goes to school, and she (Bushra) is the most active one. Then I can maybe have some time to rest,” Maha laughed. “My children were so happy to get to go to school. They are excited each day.”

Fund organizers surpassed the initial fundraising goal of $30,000, which would help the family arrange housing, schooling, documentation, language assistance and general settlement for the first year. With Maha and family safely in London, the group are now working on bringing another family to London.

From November 2015 to February 2016, the Federal Liberal government focused on resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. In the three months since the government reached that target, another 2,500 Syrians have arrived in Canada as part of those ongoing efforts. Since December 2015, more than 1,000 Syrian refugees have landed in London.

Esses applauded volunteers who worked to make all this happen, not to mention the support received from the Western community. However, with Canada’s commitment already met, things are in “wait-and-see mode” for the next family, Esses said.

“Number two (family) is in the works. We have the family ID’d and are working on the paperwork, but it will be longer since the government has reached its maximum,” she said. “But they will be here sometime in the near future.”

Between Esses, and numerous others who have made the sponsorship funding a success, someone usually stops by every other day to check on Maha and the children.

While the Syrian crisis may no longer be front-page news, the problems remain as thousands of refugees seek a safer existence. “It’s not quieting down for us,” Esses said. “We want to keep encouraging people to help because there are so many more families, so many more individuals who continue to need our help.”

While Maha misses her husband and other family members remaining in Syria, she is optimistic the war will end one day, allowing her to visit her homeland once again. However, she stressed, Canada is now home for her family – the place where her children will grow up and come to call their home.

“I like the Canadian life. The best thing is the security for myself and my children,” Maha said. “After such hard times, and hiding from the bombs, the kids don’t have to live through that again.”

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NEED YOUR SUPPORT

You can support the Western Social Science Refugee Sponsorship by visiting canadahelps.org/dn/9556 and selecting ‘Western Social Science Refugee Sponsorship’ from the dropdown menu. For more information on the program, contact Victoria Esses at vesses@uwo.ca.