In 2011, during what was dubbed the “Arab Spring,” protests, uprisings and armed rebellions broke out in numerous Arab nations.
In Syria, beginning in March, the protests escalated and were met with increasingly lethal force by the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad.
By 2012, it had devolved into a full-out civil war.
At that time, Ismail Alismail was working in Lebanon as an electrician and travelling back and forth to the Syrian capital Damascas to visit his family.
But by 2013, it had become so bad in Syria, he and his brother Mahmoud made the decision not to return to their homeland and registered with the United Nations (UN) in Lebanon as refugees.
“It was very hard,” he said. “Maybe you’re walking in the road [and] you die, they kill you.”
He said it has been heart-wrenching to leave everything behind.
“It’s my home, my family, my friends, I’ve not seen my family now six, seven years,” he said.
Other members of his family, including his father, mother and sister also fled the country in 2014, ending up in Turkey. His mother has since died.
Things were not much better in Lebanon where animosity toward refugees was high. For three years Ismail lived with the uncertainty of not knowing when he would be able to leave or where he would land if he was.
By 2015, UN statistics estimated there were more than four million Syrian refugees in various countries around the region. In September of that year, the shocking image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, drowned and washed up on a beach in Greece brought the crisis into the living rooms of the Western World.
During the Canadian federal election in the fall 0f 2015, Justin Trudeau promised, if elected, his government would resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.
That proved too ambitious. In November, when the new Liberal government announced its actual program, which would resettle the 25,000 through a combination of government-assisted and private sponsorship, the date had been pushed back two months.
Smithers immediately stepped up to the plate. A group of people in town formed the Bulkley Valley Refugee Sponsorship Group and raised $80,000 to bring two families to the Bulkley Valley. Mona Awil and Akram Khalil, a Syrian couple who immigrated here in 2004, personally sponsored two more families.
All four of those families arrived at Smithers Regional Airport during the second week of February.
By the end of February, Canada had achieved its goal and set its sights on bringing 50,000 more Syrians to Canada by the end of 2016.
Among the second wave were Ismail and Mahmoud, who arrived in Smithers in September.
Ismail said he was warmly welcomed to the community, but the transition was challenging.
“It feels very good,” he said. “When coming to Smithers, it’s a little bit hard to me because of the language, but after, I love it here and people, the community, are very, very good to help.”
That help included invitations to dinner, assistance getting a job and people providing recreational opportunities such as skiing. He currently works for Dan and Sam’s Concrete finishing concrete.
The language barrier ultimately proved to be a benefit. Through mutual friends, Ismail met now-girlfriend Bronwyn Hobson.
“I met her and she liked to learn Arabic and I helped her and we stayed together,” he said.
Laurie Cooper, who was honoured with a human rights award last year for her extensive work resettling refugees, struck up a friendship with Ismail on Facebook before she and her husband moved to the Bulkley Valley.
When they were moving into their place just outside of town, Ismail, Mahmoud and Bronwyn came to help.
“While we’re unloading, all of a sudden she’s turning to Mahmoud and speaking Arabic and I’m, like, ‘you speak Arabic?’ and she said, ‘yeah, a little bit’ and I thought, where have I landed where girls from Smithers speak Arabic,” Cooper said.
Now Cooper, along with Kathy Spiro and Pauline Mahoney, is spearheading an effort to bring Ismail’s sister and her family to Smithers.
Aisha, her husband, Mohamad, and their four children Nadim (9), Nahla (7), Nour (5) and Hamza (3) – are currently living as refugees in Istanbul, Turkey.
Ismail has never met his two nieces and youngest nephew and has not seen the eldest since Nadim was two years old. He said it would mean everything to him to have them here.
On one hand, Ismail is glad they are in Turkey.
“Turkey is better than Lebanon,” he said.
On the other hand, while the conditions may be better they are not good. Because they have no status in Turkey, Ismail’s sister and brother-in-law can’t work, the kids can’t go to school, the family has no access to health care and they’re basically just scraping to get by.
“They’re not legally allowed to work so a lot of employers will take advantage of them, like they’ll pay them cash under the table and they’ll pay them very little, or sometimes they’ll work for weeks and not get paid, so it’s a real hand-to-mouth existence,” Cooper explained.
The other issue is because Turkey has not allowed the UN into the country to process refugees, they can only get here through private sponsorship.
“I’ve sponsored several people who were living in Turkey and they don’t have the official papers, but when they go through the application process to come to Canada, the government assesses whether they are legitimate refugees,” Cooper said.
She said they are working on the application and raising the necessary funds both through a GoFundMe campaign and an account at the Bulkley Valley Credit Union, but the real key is finding a federally-sanctioned sponsorship agreement holder. The way the program now works in Canada only these organizations — mostly churches and community not-for-profits — can make the application and must provide resettlement support once the refugees arrive.
Cooper said they are in discussions with local churches to help.
“We will raise all the money, we will do all the support after the people arrive, unless the church wants to be involved,” she said.
If it all works out, there could be sweet things in Smithers’ future.
In Damascus, Mohamad’s family owned a chocolate factory where Ismail worked at one time.
“My secret plan is I think they should start a chocolate factory in Smithers,” Cooper joked.
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” Ismail responded.
The GoFundMe campaign has so far raised more than $5,000 at: gofundme.com/f/bring-a-refugee-family-together-in-smithers.
The Bulkley Valley Credit Union is also accepting donations.
“It’s better if [donors] do that because GoFundMe takes a small percentage,” Cooper said.