by Janet Nicol
Eyad Sallat’s life took a dramatic turn in 2011. It was a turn that would eventually lead him from his homeland of Syria to Richmond, B.C., where he now lives with his wife, three sons and daughter, ages three to 13.
After the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt had fallen, Sallat’s country of Syria joined the democratic uprising known as the Arab Spring. It was a hopeful time, with a call for freedom and dignity among Muslims and Christians alike. Sallat became involved in a rebel campaign, volunteering as a media activist in the small northern city of Idlib where he lived with his wife and children.
President Bashar al-Assad, whom Sallat now refers to as a “butcher,” was determined to crush the rebels at any cost, he says. The peaceful uprising soon became a military conflict, with Islamist groups (ISIS and JaN) joining the fighting and several countries taking sides. (As it stands now, Iran, Russia and the Islamic group Hezbollah support the government forces, and the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on the side of the rebels.)
Sallat was harassed by government soldiers in the early months of the civil war. Realizing his family was at risk, he sold his small transportation business and travelled alone to Lebanon to find work, planning to bring his family later. While he was away, his family’s home was hit with a barrel bomb, a barrel-shaped metal container containing explosives, along with shrapnel, oil or chemicals.
“The bomb didn’t explode,” he explains with the assistance of translator Adel Tawakul, a family outreach worker at immigrant settlement agency SUCCESS, “but the chemicals from the bomb spilled out.” A fire was ignited and his family barely escaped their home. Sallat’s wife suffered severe burns to her feet. She was treated in a hospital in Aleppo, 59 kilometres away. His family then travelled to join him in Beirut, after a three-month separation.
“I knew I had a chance to work in Lebanon, unlike Turkey or Europe,” Sallat says. He drove a cab in the streets of Beirut and applied to the United Nations for resettlement in Canada through its operation centre. Most Syrian refugees coming to Canada come through the Beirut centre.
Coming to Canada
“I was attracted to Canada,” Sallat says. “It felt like my second country.” Finally in mid-2014, his application was approved, and his family travelled to Montreal. They didn’t stay in Quebec long though, deciding Canada’s milder West Coast weather would be a better environment because of his wife’s injuries. The family spent six weeks at Vancouver’s Welcome House and then moved to Richmond, where they now live.
His two eldest sons are enrolled in public school and Sallat is taking adult education classes. “I hope to get better in the English language,” he says, smiling slightly.
Sallat still believes in Syria’s future, despite the fact that 50 per cent of the country’s population has been displaced. “Syria is not a failed state — yet,” he says, “but the rulers of the world and their policies have failed.”
Crisis in Syria
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed to date and 11 million uprooted from their homes — four million of these displaced people leaving their country. But it was the heartbreaking photograph of a drowned boy lying on the shore of a Greek island this summer that was shared through social media that seemed to waken the world to Syria’s crisis. Of the 2,157 Syrians who have drowned trying to reach Europe, two-thirds were women and children.
“The free world has failed the Syrian people,” Sallat says. “The whole world has watched the massacres happen. The world is silent. Where is the conscience of the world?”
Peace talks continue, the latest in Vienna this October, involving the United States, Russia, Iran and more than a dozen other nations. The White Helmets, a volunteer medical group in Syria, are demanding a no-fly zone to stop the barrel bombing of civilians — bombs that have reportedly killed 6,500 civilians. Two United Nations resolutions have called for the Syrian government to stop barrel bombing and to stop the use of the chemical weapon, chlorine gas. Both resolutions have been ignored.
Was the uprising for freedom worth it?
“Nothing in the world is worth what has happened,” Sallat answers with intensity. “No, the Arab Spring is not worth killing children, women and men.”
When the refugee crisis in Syria became critical, Canada’s doors were not wide open in the way they had been for other similar refugee crises like the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, which welcomed 60,000 refugees in 18 months.
Canada receives three categories of refugees: refugee claimants, government assisted refugees (GARs) and privately sponsored refugees (PSRs). GARs receive settlement services and income support for one year through the national humanitarian Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP). PSRs are provided settlement and financial support by their private sponsor.
Once a top destination for refugees, federal changes in laws in 2012 led to a significant drop in refugee claimants. In 2014, refugees accounted for nine per cent of overall immigration to Canada in comparison to 1980 when refugees accounted for 28 per cent.
The new Liberal government, however, is working to take in 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees before the end of the year.
There are 36 refugee reception centres across Canada that provide the initial transitional housing and first language resettlement services to all government assisted refugees. Immigrant services groups across the country are planning for an increased demand for housing, medical services, interpreter services in Arabic and Kurdish, and school enrolment. Many Syrian refugees may require trauma-focused support as well.
Chris Friesen, chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, raised concerns about the settlement sector’s ability to handle this number of refugees in such a short amount of time, but said in a recent statement, “Preparations have begun in refugee reception centres across Canada in response to the Government of Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement plan. We are now on standby, putting in place significantly enhanced reception services to welcome an expedited increase of Syrian refugees.”
Hope for the future
As for Sallat, he continues to follow news reports about the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, watching Al-Jazeera television and other Middle-Eastern media for news. He still has extended family members in Syria, who have endured the civil war now for four-and-a-half years. Sallat communicates with these relatives through internet and social media. “They didn’t have a chance or ability to leave,” he says of his relatives still in the war zone.
For his immediate family, Sallat sees a positive future in Vancouver. “Canada is a beautiful country,” he says. “The people are very nice. We hope to do good things here and to pay Canada back for what it has done for us.”
Reprinted from Canadian Immigrant magazine, December, 2015
and on-line at – http://canadianimmigrant.ca/