Long wait ends as Syrian refugees arrive in North Van

For more than two years, the family waited.

Like millions of Syrians, the Abdulhafiz family saw protests erupt as rebels aimed to unseat President Bashar al-Assad. And they saw the violence that came after.

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They family chose to flee, eventually finding a place to live at Nahr el Bared, a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

It was there that they waited, surviving on a $150 food voucher and the money their eldest son made working in a bakery.

“I didn’t think I was coming to Canada,” recollects family matriarch Asmaa Abdulhafiz.

Her brother-in-law, Said Abdulhafiz, had made it to Canada, settling in Blueridge in 2016.

Asmaa was happy for them, she says. But she didn’t think it would happen to her.

But shortly after arriving on the North Shore, Said had a conversation with North Vancouver financial adviser Gulnar Carlisle.

“Said said: ‘My brother is there, they’re in really dire straits . . . would you please, please consider them?’” Carlisle recalls. “I thought: ‘Why not?’”

She eventually travelled to Beirut, passing military checkpoints and observing the homes people made for themselves amid bombed-out buildings and pothole-laden streets.

She met widows, saw devastated families, people living in containers.

But she also bonded with the family, becoming closer with Asmaa, her husband Ahmad, and their children Ouday, Hadi and Joudi. They lit candles together. They prayed.

“The Lebanese government does nothing for them,” Carlisle said in 2017. “It’s amazing that they have survived for so long.”

Discussing her time in Nahr el Bared, Asmaa talks about “‘ahlam,” an Arabic word that roughly translates as dreams, although it can also mean something you imagine and perhaps strive for.

Using Carlisle’s old iPad she looked at Vancouver and was taken by its beauty, by how clean the streets were.

The only time Asmaa’s smile appears to contract is when she discusses Lebanese officials.

She tried to get exit visas for her family, making a three-hour trip to the office four times, she says.

“Every time, trouble,” she says.

“The process is horrible because there is no communication at all from the Canadian government, from the embassy,” Carlisle says.

Asmaa says she remembers submitting papers over and over and eventually beseeching an official: “Please tell me what you want?”

What they wanted was essentially a bribe, according to Carlisle. She sent the family $1,400 U.S. Their got their visas the very same day, she recalls.

And on Tuesday, April 17, their wait ended when the family touched down in VYR.

The emotions of getting off the plane and seeing Carlisle are difficult to describe, Asmaa says.

“Maybe crying, maybe happy, maybe sad. Everything in the moment because I see my children are very happy,” she says. “Everything for me changed.”

Greeting the family, Carlisle recalls saying: “pinch me, pinch me.”

The family seems weary but joyful in their new home near Phibbs Exchange. Joudi, 10, sports a sparkly shirt with a Canadian flag and Ouday, 14, smiles as he talks about his first time swimming in a North Vancouver pool.

Hadi is as quick to grin as his siblings, but he also experiences pain in his hand. There are two bumps, he explains, one from Syria and one from Lebanon where he was injured by shrapnel while diving to avoid a gunshot.

Asmaa brims with gratitude for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and for anyone who prayed for her family. But mostly, she’s thankful to Carlisle.

“She gives life anew,” she says. “She gave me everything good.”

Asmaa shakes her head slightly, gesturing that she doesn’t have the words to thank Carlisle properly.

“I don’t believe what’s happened. I’m here now, but I don’t believe this,” she says. “I tell Canadians: ‘Please be careful with your country. It is wonderful.’”

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