After three long years apart, two Syrian sisters have now been reunited.
Last Wednesday, Lacombe’s Al Omar family matriarch, Naema Zein-Eddin, finally got to wrap her arms around her sister, Khadija Zein-Eddin, and her two children Mohammed, 13, and Marwa, 11, after they landed at the Edmonton International Airport, and breathe a sigh of relief they were finally safe – and finally home.
“I’m so happy. We’ve been waiting for her for three years now,” said Naema, who arrived in Lacombe with her husband Bashar Al Omar and their four children Ghazeye, Jouliet, Ibrahim and Mohamed, in 2016. “I’m so very happy.”
Khadija’s first reaction, after greeting those who welcomed her and her family and giving her sister a lengthy embrace, meanwhile, was to ask if everything was real.
“She’s really excited – thrilled. She even told Bashar to pinch her to make sure she’s not dreaming,” said Rasha Dleikan, who acted as a translator. “She says it feels like a really nice dream, but it’s real life.”
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Both families fled Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border when conflict between anti-government protesters and President Bashar al-Assad escalated to bombing campaigns and chemical weapon use during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Bashar found a job raising chickens on a farm outside of Beirut, the Lebanese capitol. The farmer there allowed the entire family to stay on the property while Bashar worked there, but when the Al Omars came to Lacombe in 2016, Khadija and her family were forced to leave.
With her husband losing his job, followed by a divorce, she had to navigate raising her two kids alone, unable to work herself, and not able to send her children to school.
They found refuge in what she called a semi-camp, living under a tin roof in a single room that contained not just sleeping quarters, but the kitchen and bathroom. Internet and other services like electricity were extremely spotty, and while there was some solace in being able to stay in touch with Naema via WhatsApp when the services worked, it was far from the place she wanted her family to be.
“Where she used to live in Lebanon, it’s really scary – there’s lots of problems, lots of troubles,” she said. “She didn’t allow her kids to go outside to play by themselves. If she went to the supermarket, she took them all with her. She was really worried about the kids over there.”
The Lacombe Community Refugee Effort submitted application to bring Khadija and her family over in Summer 2017. By April 2018, they were just waiting for her to be interviewed by Canadian authorities. That finally took place in January, and they underwent medical testing in February. Finally, in July they received their permanent residency papers and were just waiting on flights.
The news couldn’t have been more welcome, as the sisters then learned their 22-year-old brother was severely injured in the ongoing conflict in Syria and fell in a coma. He died of those injuries shortly after Khadija received clearance to come to Canada.
The urgency to leave Lebanon only increased as their foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, claimed there were no longer safety and security threats in Syria and began advocating for the deportation of Syrian refugees. Thousands have been forcibly sent back to Syria already, and going back would’ve meant the very likelihood her son, Mohammed, would’ve had just over a year before he was forced to fight for either the rebel forces or the al-Assad regime.
“When she was going to the airport, she saw that they’re gathering the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and sending them back to Syria,” Dleikan said. “She’s really thankful her paperwork was done on time and she came here before they forced her to go back – it’s not safe there.”
Two full days of travelling later, she and her children finally landed at the Edmonton International Airport, where they were welcomed by about 20 people from the Lacombe Community Refugee Effort – and of course, lots of hugs from the whole Al Omar family.
After a bus ride back to Lacombe, where her kids tried Timbits and quickly caught up with their cousins, they were warmly greeted by even more refugee effort members and fellow central Albertan families who hail from middle eastern countries with a supper at the Al Omar’s home on the city’s south end. Khadija and her family will stay there for the next two months or so, before moving into a place of their own.
Plans are for her family to work on learning English as soon as possible, and once her kids are ready, arrangements have been made for them to go back to school for the first time since 2014. Khadija, meanwhile, also wants to refresh and develop her own skills so she can go back to work herself.
“She used to be a makeup artist and hairdresser, so she wants to go back to her old passion and career,” she said. “She tried to find jobs (in Lebanon) but they wouldn’t hire her because she was a Syrian refugee. She once found a job, but they didn’t pay her what she deserved – sometimes she wouldn’t get paid at all.”
For now, however, she’ll focus on settling into the community, and reconnecting with Naema.
“She’s very relaxed and happy,” said Dleikan, still translating. “She feels at home.”