Syrian refugees in Fort McMurray flee from 'fire to fire'

About six families of Syrian refugees resettled in the city in recent months

As members of Fahed Labek’s family from war-torn Syria fled the inferno engulfing their adopted Alberta hometown, he recalls them staring back at the flames in Fort McMurray.

“They said, ‘OK. We left the fire and now we saw another fire. From fire to fire,’ ” said Labek, 43, who fled the approaching wildfire on Tuesday.

Labek lives in Fort McMurray with his wife and two children. He helped relocate his mother, sister, brother-in-law and their two children to his home in late February.

They are among about six families of Syrian refugees that resettled in the city in recent months.

All the families are believed to have evacuated Fort McMurray safely, said Amany Darwish, president of The Canadian True Power, a non-profit organization that has helped some refugees get familiarized with the community.

“I’m sure it will bring back memories for them,” said Darwish, who was reached Thursday in Fort McMurray where she and her husband remained to help firefighters. “They will be terrified again and I’m sure they are very worried.”

Her group provided some refugees with items to help them restart their lives, but she said “they already lost it again because the evacuation was very quick.”

Labek and his family left in a rush for oilsand workers’ camps to the north of the city, expecting a 45-minute drive. Instead they drove for eight hours and when they arrived, apologetic aid workers told them no beds were available.

The family, including his 68-year-old mother who is in a wheelchair, set off again for Edmonton.

When their car broke down they were picked up by other evacuees in two different vehicles. Labek was awake for 42 hours before everyone reunited in Edmonton at about 6 a.m. Wednesday.

“Now we have another story. I have to find a place to stay, I have to find some food,” Labek said Thursday.

“We don’t have clothes for my kids, we don’t have milk. For my kids, we don’t even have diapers.”

He’s stressed about the cost of hotel expenses after they had no luck finding free shelter.

Labek said his family from Syria understands the disaster is a “different fire” than what they saw in their homeland, but he’s concerned they may endure additional trauma to their experiences in the Middle East.

They have taken some solace in Canadians assisting those whose homes have burned to the ground.

“What (my relatives) saw here is that the people are very helpful. They can’t imagine how helpful are they.”

Darwish said she is sad that refugees who migrated here for shelter and safety have been caught up in more upheaval. But she has faith in the generosity of Canadians, such as those handing out free gas and food to evacuees.

“I’m sure they have support and love from family and local community like Canadians here, everybody helping them,” she said.

“I’m sure they will be OK. I’m not worried about them as they were in their country, in Syria.”

The fire has left Labek with a new level of empathy for what his relatives endured.

“I have now the same feeling as them. I have my own house in Fort McMurray. I left everything. I just left with my clothes that I wear,” he said.

“The same thing they felt when they left Syria and they came here. They came with the clothes as they wear.”