By Kate Dubinski, The London Free Press
Iraqi Saifan Istefan, his Syrian wife, Talar Donian, and their son, Zenos, 2, have fled violence in their homelands for the safety of London, where they share a home provided by sponsors at King’s University College with another refugee family from the war-torn region. (CRAIG GLOVER, The London Free Press)
The road from Saifan Istefan’s home in Aleppo, Syria, to possible safety at the Turkish border was about the distance from London to Sarnia.
But the journey was nothing like any trip within Canada.
You don’t know who’ll stop you on the way, shake you down, rob you, or worse.
You pass burned-out cars.
“The road is 100 kilometres. We see death about 1,000 times. When you pass through these things, you hope other people don’t see what you (have seen). All of us refugees hope people don’t see what we see,” Istefan said.
The 37-year-old Iraqi, who first fled that war-torn country for Syria, where he met his wife three years ago, got to London less than a month ago from Turkey.
Watching the unfolding human drama on TV and social media, Istafan said he worries for his wife’s family in Syria.
“Leave them alone,” he wants to tell those fighting to keep refugees from safer borders.
“They see a lot of war. A lot of dead. Leave them to see the peace. You leave your country, your house, you go (to) another country. It is difficult,” Istefan said.
He and his wife left Syria in 2012. By then, they’d moved three or four times within the city of Aleppo, trying to find a home that was safe from bombing.
“My house in Aleppo, it was the government on one side and the freedom fighters on the other side. We were in the middle. No place safe.
“When I left (Syria), that was 2012. What’s it like now?”
Istefan, his wife and their two-year-old son, born in Turkey while the couple was waiting for a country that would take them in as refugees, were sponsored though King’s University College, one of several individuals and families the school and its associated parish has taken in.
“When folks are fleeing a conflict, they’re not coming here to find a better job. They’re fleeing because they’re being shot at,” said Rev. Michael Bechard, director of the campus ministry at King’s and main chaplain at Western University. He’s been helping the family adjust to life in Canada, as well as figure out basics such as accommodation and documentation.
Istefan said he knew people who got on boats, trying to make their way to Europe, much like the little Syrian boy and his family that drowned earlier this month, drawing the world’s attention to Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
“I want my family safe, my child safe,” Istefan said. “I see how many dead. I won’t risk it for my child.”
Eight months ago, the family got word that they’d be going to either Australia, the U.S. or Canada. Their situation is complicated by the fact that Istefan is Iraqi, but his wife is Syrian. They are Christians and fleeing two separate conflicts.
“I studied in Iraq, I built a life, but I had to leave. I built my life in Syria, got a home, got work, had to start from zero,” Istefan said. “Then I built in Turkey, got work, had to start from zero. Now I am here. I don’t have the (strength) to go anywhere else. I want to stay in London.”
With help from Bechard, Istefan has landed a part-time job with the city at a community centre.
Western University has said it would accept refugee students and give them free tuition, an appealing prospect for Istefan, who finished four years of a five-year engineering degree.
He has no transcripts from Mosul, the Iraqi city now controlled by ISIS, where he was studying.
“There are no phones, there’s no university to call to get a transcript,” Bechard said.
Talar Donian, Istefan’s wife, and their son, Zenos, are studying English so she, too, can get a job.
“We need to streamline the process for refugees. People already traumatized,” said Bechard, who has spearheaded King’s sponsorship of people from Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
“We need to give them a soft cushion. We need to help family reunification, to re-establish a sense of community.”
Donian’s family remains in Syria, uncertain how to flee and to where. Even if the family left, it would be at least two years before they might be reunited.
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WHAT’S GOING ON
Four million people have fled Syria since civil war began in 2011, with a death toll estimated at more than 100,000 people.
Pressure on Canada to do more to help refugees intensified after a photo of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy boomeranged around world.
In what’s been called the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, more than 330,000 refugees have poured into Europe this year from the Mideast and North Africa.
POLITICS OF REFUGEES
Conservatives: Promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees by next September. Recently said they’ll waive required UN refugee documentation to speed up refugee sponsorships.
Liberals: Promise to let in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1.
NDP: Promise to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1.
Fanshawe: Offering free tuition to 10 Syrian refugees who settle in London.
Western: Fundraising to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of five. Goal is to raise $30,000. Covering tuition and living costs for up to 10 Syrian refugee students. Able to play host to Syrian scholars at risk in their own country. Affiliated colleges have taken in several refugees.
City of London: Working with London Muslim Mosque, Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, Muslim Association of Canada London Chapter and the Metropolitan United Church to raise money to sponsor refugees. $72,500 raised.
Others: Church groups and other community organizations are also collecting donations and sponsoring refugees.
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Libro Credit Union branches in London; e-transfers at Lifeline@libro.ca
London Muslim Mosque, 151 Oxford St. W., 519-439-9451
Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, 951 Pond Mills Rd., 519-668-2268
Metropolitan United Church, 468 Wellington St., 519-432-7189
St. Andrew Memorial Anglican Church, 55 Foxbar Rd., 519-434-5281
Byron United Church, 420 Boler Rd., 519-471-1250
St. Aidan’s Anglican Church of London, 1246 Oxford St., 519-471-1430
Western University: http://ssc.uwo.ca/refugee_sponsorship_fund.html
Fanshawe College Foundation, (519) 452-4464
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We spoke to Randall Hansen, of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, about the world refugee crisis, Canada’s response and the dangers of doing nothing
Q: Is there a danger to putting people in refugee camps while conflicts in their countries sort themselves out?
If we leave populations of young men rotting in refugee camps there will be more terrorism than if we let them in and allow them to live a normal life. Paradoxically, the security situation that is keeping them out will be worse if they stay out.
Q: Should Canada and other countries open their borders and let in refugees without screening?
(No. The process should be quicker, but) they’re coming from a part of the world where terrorism is a real threat (and) the health of the (refugee) system depends on successful screening. Governments hide behind that and it’s shameful. Few people can claim that the terrorist issue is not a valid one, and it’s framing everything in security these days.
Q: Why are some Canadians reluctant to let in these Syrian refugees?
This (Canadian) government doesn’t like refugees and they don’t like Muslims. There is no doubt that many Canadians are less than thrilled about letting in more people from the Middle East.
Q: But we’ve let others in in years past. Are we a more closed society now?
We let in Chinese computer programmers and Indian engineers but there is a dominant Islamophobic discourse in the West. There are degrees of difference and people from the Middle East are more ‘other’ than groups of people who are more established here, whose communities have been here for years.