Two local churches have reached their $60,000 goal to reunite a family of Syrian refugees with their relatives in Bracebridge. Now, with the war in Ukraine, that might not come for some time.
It’s been just over five years since Hassan and Berivan Khaled arrived in Bracebridge with their then one-year-old daughter Pella, Kurdish refugees from the Syrian Civil War.
Hassan now works full-time at The Pines Long Term Care Home as a Resident Care Aide, while Berivan takes care of the kids. Both were sworn in as Canadian citizens in December. Pella, now six and attending school, has been joined by two Canadian-born siblings, three-year-old Fares and two-year-old Nancy.
Sometime this year, the Khaleds had hoped to welcome Ghazwa and Ardawan Janbali, as well as their four children, into their home. Ghazwa is Berivan’s aunt, whom she calls her best friend, and the children, one of which is an infant, are her cousins.
Bracebridge United Church (BUC), which sponsored the Khaleds in 2017, partnered with Knox Presbyterian Church to raise the $60,000 required by the federal government to bring the Janbalis over.
While the two churches have reached that goal, other factors have stayed progress. Although the Syrian War is ongoing, Hassan says the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shifted priority to Ukrainian refugees, with the COVID-19 pandemic complicating matters further.
“They are left in limbo, they don’t know when their papers are going to move, for how long the papers will be on the shelf. Is it going to be a year, or two? We have no word at all,” says Hassan.
In the meantime, the family is sheltering in Erbil, Iraq, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. They fled Syria because of both the war and their oldest son’s impending 18th birthday, at which time he would have been drafted into the Syrian military.
“[My aunt] was so scared, because when a young man goes to the military, [they] never come back. It’s too dangerous,” Berivan says.
While the family is now slightly safer in Erbil, Berivan says they still face many challenges. Missile strikes and instability in the region have escalated in recent months.
“It’s a hard life there too, for refugees, it’s not easy,” says Berivan. “Life is expensive for new refugees. They are trying their best to stay [in Iraq] until the papers are done here.”
The Janbalis aren’t the only family the couple has abroad– Hassan says much of his side of the family has remained in Syria. He will fly overseas to see them near the end of this month, after more than a decade apart.
He says he sees the same situation unfolding in Ukraine.
“War is war. It’s terrible everywhere, no matter if it’s in Ukraine or Syria. There’s a lot that I feel now about the Ukrainians, and I know what they are going through because I went through it myself. I [wouldn’t] wish it to anyone, not even to my enemies,” says Hassan. “I kind of try to not look back at all, but this crisis in Ukraine brings it back to me, makes me think about what I have gone through. It opens up my wounds. It’s not good, I don’t wish that for them, and I hope this ends as soon as possible.”
Similarly, Berivan says she misses having Syrian friends and relatives in her life and has felt isolated and lonely. She says bringing the Janbalis over would help her greatly.
She floats the idea of opening a Syrian restaurant with Ghazwa in Bracebridge. Ardawan could repair appliances. Kanaan, 18, wishes to become a hairstylist; Ahmad, 15, to play soccer; Roula, 14, to study medicine in Canada; and baby Emma is two years old.
“The kids are so excited, especially the oldest one. He is so excited to come to see Canada and start a new life. They saw a really bad life.” says Berivan. “Every day they ask me ‘please, do you have any news, good news?’ I say ‘no, no news.’ [They say] ‘we’ll keep waiting.’ I say ‘you have to be so patient’.”
In the meantime, the BUC / Knox Refugee Partnership has raised their fundraising goal to $80,000, to further help the Janbalis with expenses when they eventually arrive.
The partnership will continue to sell books and chocolate bars from refugee-founded Peace By Chocolate to fundraise. Painted birdhouses from local artists will be sold at Walk A Mile In Her Shoes on May 27 in Memorial Park, the BUC Spring Marketplace on June 11, and at the Gravenhurst and Rosseau Farmers’ Markets through the summer. Donations can also be made directly on the partnership’s website.
The Khaleds say they’re still hopeful.
“With the support of the community and support from my family directly, I think they will come to love it here,” says Hassan. “Muskoka is a great place to be, to work and live and have fun,” he says. “In summertime, not winter,” adds Berivan with a laugh.