Even after he boarded the plane in Lebanon, his seatbelt buckled, Mostafa Rajab didn’t quite believe what was happening. He was certain someone was going to barge down the aisle and order him to get off, insisting there’d been a big mistake. Only when the jet made a stopover in Portugal did reality start to sink in: his family—six Syrian refugees among so many millions—were on their way to Canada. “I realized then,” Mostafa grins, “that nobody could send us back.”
Today, a few weeks after that life-changing flight, the 46-year-old father of four is sitting on a maroon couch in his new apartment: a spacious, three-bedroom unit in Toronto’s east end. His wife, Souheila, is on the cushion beside him, directly underneath a poster of a Canadian flag. “Welcome Rajab family!” it reads (in Arabic and English.) “When we reached here, we found the best people ever,” Souheila says, speaking through an interpreter. “I’ve never seen more kind people in my life.”
“Even the pizza delivery man!” her husband interjects. “He knew we were Syrians so he gave us a bottle of Coke for free.”
Their eldest son, Mohammed, smiles at the anecdote, one of countless acts of kindness heaped on the Rajabs since they arrived in early January. “Even if we become 200 or 300 years old, we will never forget this story of what people have done for us,” says the 19-year-old, wearing jeans and a grey T-shirt.
“This story is going to live on,” his father adds. “It’s going to be told from one generation to another.”
The bigger story—Canada’s monumental effort to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in record time—is still being written, planeload by planeload. As predicted, the Trudeau government’s ultra-tight timeline (25,000 by the end of February) has put enormous pressure on the front-line agencies rolling out the plan. In some parts of Toronto, Syrians are arriving so quickly that hundreds remain holed up in hotels, unable to send their kids to school because they don’t yet have fixed addresses. In the meantime, security concerns (real and imagined) continue to linger. Earlier this month, a U.S. Senate committee convened its own hearing on “Canada’s fast-track refugee plan” to examine the potential, however slim, that Islamic State operatives are among the newcomers, determined to sneak across the southern border.
But as more Syrians touch down every day (at last count, the tally tops 19,000), it is the individual stories of escape and survival that best explain the urgency driving the Liberals’ refugee strategy. The Rajab family in particular—who literally sprinted for their lives when civil war reached their doorstep—exemplify the kind of people Canada is welcoming: the most desperate, the most willing, and the most grateful. “I want to give Canada back what they gave to us, through hard work and goodwill,” Mostafa says. “Living here is a huge difference, absolutely.”
Huge doesn’t even begin to describe it.
When Maclean’s first met the Rajabs in late November, they were living in a tiny, metal shack in the hills of Faraya, a Lebanese village 100 km from the Syrian border. By then, the family had been there for nearly two years, all six of them squeezed into a room no bigger than a typical backyard shed. They slept on the floor, side by side, night after night. “What can I tell you?” said Mohammed, sitting on the floor, the rest of his family beside him. “We’ve had little hope. We look to tomorrow, and we always knew that tomorrow was going to be worse than yesterday.”
Before Lebanon, home for the Rajabs was the Syrian village of Ikko, in the northwestern province of Latakia. A construction worker in his younger days, Mostafa built his two-storey home with his own hands. He later became a teacher, but was forced to quit after undergoing open-heart surgery. “Before the war, it was OK,” he said. “We weren’t rich, but we were living.”
The exact date—the moment everything changed—is seared in their memories: March 21, 2012. Without warning, a horde of armed “Shabiha” (the state-sponsored militia dispatched by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to crack down on anti-government protesters) swarmed the small village. Mostafa counted at least 156 carloads. “I was 16 years old,” Mohammed recalled. “I still remember everything but I’m trying really hard to forget.” As hundreds of residents ran toward the surrounding hills, helicopter gunships swirled overhead, firing at will. “A lot of people were dying; two of my friends were killed,” Mohammed continued. “We have lost so many people that I have no tears anymore.”
Abdel Hamid, Mohammed’s younger brother, was 15 when they fled the house. Hala, his little sister, was 9, while the youngest boy, Yahya, was only 7. “We left with just the clothes on our backs,” their father said.
The Rajabs spent the next two months on the run, hiding in forests or being sheltered by strangers in neighbouring communities. What little savings the family had were soon spent; when they decided their only choice was to cross the border into Lebanon, Mostafa had to borrow US$300 from a brother to pay the requisite bribe. “When we first ran away from Syria, we were saying, ‘We will come back after one week, or one month,’ ” Mohammed said. “But after that, Syria became a theatre for the whole world to war.”
They received word, about one year later, that the house Mostafa built had been reduced to rubble. “The military airplanes bombed it flat,” he said. “There is nothing left.”
A wealthy district 40 km from downtown Beirut, Faraya is the Whistler of Lebanon, famous for its posh ski chalets and ritzy homes. One mountaintop famously features a Hollywood-style sign: FARAYA. But in a country that has absorbed nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the violence first erupted next door, even upscale Faraya has seen its share. At first, the Rajabs rented a house in the region, all on credit. But by the end of 2013, Mostafa had another offer: one local homeowner said the family could live in his “concierge quarters” free of charge, as long as Mostafa took care of the exterior of the house (maintain the garden, shovel the snow, etc.) The shack was designed to sleep one, not six. “What was I going to do?” Mostafa said when Maclean’s interviewed him there late last year. “It’s better to live here than to live in debt.”
In the winter, an old diesel stove was the only defence against the cold. Come summer, the metal interior would get so hot and stuffy that they’d dump water on the roof to try to cool it down. The kitchen, not much larger than a closet, featured a hot plate and two wooden shelves.
Like many Syrians in Lebanon, the Rajabs received a small subsidy from the World Food Programme, approximately US$100 a month. “Can you imagine that being enough for a whole family?” Mostafa said. Asked if his kids had enough to eat every day, he did not answer right away. “Yes, we have stayed many days without food,” his wife finally said. “When it comes to mind how we used to live and how we’re living now, it’s tough. The most important thing for me is just to leave this room.”
Souheila’s prayers were eventually answered. The United Nations refugee agency, which identifies the most vulnerable cases for potential resettlement, ﬂagged the Rajabs’ file for Ottawa. After Canadian ofﬁcials conducted all the necessary interviews and security checks—“They asked me everything,” Mostafa said, “they didn’t leave anything out, from when I was a child until right now”—the family was matched with a private sponsor in Toronto: Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Mostafa spoke by phone to some of the church volunteers, for the first time, just a few days before Maclean’s visited Faraya.
“It is an unbelievable opportunity, the stuff of dreams,” he said. “In the name of all Syrian people, we thank the Canadian people, and anyone in the world who holds out a helping hand for Syrians. Even if we didn’t get chosen to go, we would thank them for what they are doing.”
Though equally thankful, Mohammed was also nervous. ISIS had just attacked Paris, murdering 130 people, and he worried that some Canadians may look at him—a young Sunni Muslim—and assume the worst. “I want Canadians to understand,” he said. “If I want to carry a weapon, or if I am a terrorist, I would have gone back to Syria.” His ultimate dream, he said, is to be a journalist.
When his sister, now 13, spoke about her dream—to become a doctor, so she can earn a “good income” and take care of her parents—Mohammed’s eyes began to well up. “A person our age is not supposed to live this kind of life,” he continued. “It’s not only me. It’s my whole generation who had the same bad experience.”
While the Rajabs waited for news about their flight details, the Eglinton church group—9,000 km away—prepared for their arrival. They secured the apartment, a second-floor unit in a Scarborough high rise, and went to work arranging donated furniture. Hala would get her own room, with her name printed on the door in pink letters. The three boys would share another, a bedroom larger than the entire shack in Faraya. The dining room fits a table for six and a wooden hutch. On the wall near the kitchen is an oil painting of children building snowmen.
“It is so heartwarming to be part of this process with so many like-minded people, who are motivated by nothing more than helping the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” says Kristen Ede, the COO of a private equity real estate fund, who volunteered to co-chair the church’s refugee committee. “It makes you realize the willingness there is for people to help. It is totally remarkable.”
When Souheila first met the sponsorship group, at a hotel near Pearson International Airport, she burst into tears. “Once I saw them, and they welcomed us in this way, immediately they entered my heart,” she says, once again trying not to cry. “I felt that I knew them a long, long time ago.”
Mostafa plays the role of tour guide, showing off the apartment room by room. Knowing where they used to live, it’s easy to understand why he can’t stop smiling. When Mostafa reaches his new bedroom at the end of a hallway, he puts his arm around Souheila and kisses her forehead. Their eldest sons, who begin English classes next week, pull out their new cellphones to photograph the moment. Everyone is laughing.
As the clock approaches 3 p.m., Mostafa heads downstairs for his regular afternoon walk: to pick up the younger two children at school. The one-time teacher could not be more thrilled that they’re finally back in a classroom. “We are in Canada to do something,” he says, strolling down the sidewalk, the sun shining. “I really thank the Canadian people for hosting us. What more can I say?”
When the school bell rings, Yahya, now 11, walks outside first, dressed in a blue winter jacket and lugging a backpack. Hala, an eighth grader, emerges shortly after, still dreaming of medical school. “I have never been asked where I’m from,” she says, when asked how she is adjusting to her new school. “They just treat me the same as any Canadian girl.”
“It is unbelievable,” her brother adds. “I cannot describe it. Everyone here just considers me as one of them.”
With their father in between them, the kids cross the road and head toward home.