Two dozen North Shore residents clutched Kleenex in their hands while they waited for the Abdulhafiz family to walk through the arrivals area at Vancouver International Airport on Jan. 15.
“And then we all cried,” said Cynthia Bunbury, who belongs to a refugee sponsorship group comprised of multiple North Shore churches.
This meeting has been four months in the making for the benevolent Canadians, and four years longer for the weary refugee family.
A huge sense of relief washed over Said and Honada Abdulhafiz and their children, Nour, 18, Ahmed, 12, and Ibrahim, 11, as the wheels of the plane carrying 400 Syrian refugees lifted off from the ground in Beirut en route to Toronto two weeks ago.
When the parents received approval for resettlement in Canada — with one day’s notice — they broke down crying in disbelief. Honada had almost given up hope and was debating returning to war-torn Syria because of dismal conditions in the refugee camp.
“It was so difficult in Beirut. It’s like a jail and there are fences around the whole area. And you are not allowed to leave that camp,” described Honada, through a translator.
The Abdulhafiz family spoke to the News last week from their temporary accommodation in the British Properties. They are tired but overwhelmed with gratitude for the kindness shown by the North Shore community.
Honada put out dried fruits and homemade sweets similar to baklava, as a welcome gesture. Her smile masks the unfathomable ordeal she has endured to make it to this point.
Four years ago Honada and her family were living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, in a house that Honada had saved money for 18 years to buy. One month after they moved in, the house was bombed.
They fled Damascus on foot amidst all the “killings, bombings and shootings” and travelled for four hours to make it to a refugee camp in Beirut. As Honada carried her youngest son in her arms the whole way, she tried to avoid stepping on the dead bodies of refugees who didn’t make it and were caught in the crossfire.
Living in limbo in the Lebanese refugee camp for the past four years was dreadful for the Abdulhafiz family. There was no money to buy even water or medication for the kids. Honada, meanwhile, suffered through a debilitating kidney condition without proper medical attention.
Occasionally fireworks would go off in the night for special occasions, sending the younger son for cover under a blanket. All three Abdulhafiz children knew classmates that were killed in the Syrian conflict.
When the family thinks about the loved ones they left behind, there are tears.
“They are waiting for death – it’s really bad,” said Honada.
Stepping foot on Canadian soil was surreal for Honada and her family, who thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all Canadians for welcoming them.
“Canada is the country that was really beside the Syrians,” said Honada.
Honada has normal hopes as her family starts a new life in this country: “To be able to sleep safely, for the kids to be able to go to school and get an education, to be able to eat and live a simple life.”
In a couple weeks the family will move to Blueridge where a homeowner has offered a full house for two Syrian refugee families at below-market rent. The generosity of North Shore residents towards the refugees has been palpable during the past couple months.
The local refugee sponsorship group, with members belonging to upwards of 10 North Shore churches, as well as Sutherland secondary, have pooled their educational and medical resources to support the family.
On Jan. 24 the Abdulhafiz family was officially welcomed by 150 North Shore residents with a big potluck dinner at Gloria Dei church. The most emotional moment for Bunbury was when the group spontaneously broke into a harmonized version of “O Canada.”
“It’s a remarkable experience all around,” said Bunbury of the refugee family’s road to Canada.