Saturday, February 13, 2016


Mohammad and His Family ...

Three of Our Newest Canadians

by Tyler OLSEN, Abbotsford News

The words that arrived on his phone would forever alter the lives of Mohammad Amostafa, his wife Heba, and infant daughter Jana.

One day last November, Mohammad received a seemingly random text message. A United Nations official had opened his family’s file and put them on track to go to Canada – destination, Abbotsford.

Since fleeing the escalating Syrian civil war, Mohammad (28) had been living in limbo for years. Like millions of his countrymen and women, his previously normal life had been shattered by an evolving conflict that saw a small country torn to shreds by warring factions.

Engaged, but not yet married to Heba, Mohammad had been just two courses shy of his economics degree when he left his country behind in 2012.  His city under bombardment and communication systems out, Mohammad passed through 10 checkpoints – each one with the possibility that the military would drag him out of his car on a whim, or because he shared a name with someone else.

“By the time we reached the airport, it was like a miracle,” he said through an interpreter.

He lived for more than a year with his brother in the United Arab Emirates but, unable to obtain permanent residency, he moved to Jordan along with his parents and hundreds of thousands of other displaced Syrians.

He would later be joined there by Heba. In different times, they would have gotten married in a three-day ceremony and party in the large backyard of Mohammad’s family home. Instead, their two-hour wedding was held in a hotel in Jordan in the spring of 2014. While Mohammad’s family was prominent, only Heba’s sister was able to attend.

Interviewed and registered as refugees in Jordan, Mohammad and Heba had no homeland or long-term prospects. Unable to complete their degrees or find decent work, they lived in a small apartment for more than a year as the war in Syria dragged on. Into this stasis, their daughter Jana was born last April.

As she was taking her first breaths, hundreds of thousands of other refugees were on the move, desperate to escape their homeland, and the images that documented their flight last year would stir the world to act.

In Canada, pressure was growing on the government while, at the same time, local groups were organizing to see how they could help.

October’s federal election saw the Liberals sweep into power, bringing with them a promise to bring tens of thousands of refugees to Canada. Smaller groups were also mobilizing, including the Abbotsford Interfaith Movement, a group of men and women from a range of faiths teaming up to pay for 60 per cent of the costs of a refugee family.

A month later, Mohammad received the text message that notified him that he had been placed on track to move to Canada with his young family. After subsequent interviews, he would later meet a Canadian whom he described as very nice and who gave him the news that his application had been approved.

“It was a relief. I was happy that I was going to change my situation, because I was going to change my life.”

His parents were supportive, even if it meant him flying around the globe.

“It’s a mixed feeling. They were sad I was going to leave, but happy for my new future.”

Getting to Canada wasn’t easy. After an aborted phone call on Jan. 25 promised a flight three days later, a promised follow-up with more details never materialized. On Jan. 27, still with no information, Mohammad drove hours to Amman, the Jordanian capital, to seek some clarity.

There, he got an answer. His flight would depart in a little more than 12 hours.

Mohammad raced back to his apartment, where he had just six hours to pack up some possessions, say goodbye, and get ready to move to a new country.

“It’s impossible,” Heba said, when Mohammad explained their impending departure.

But the next day, the family boarded a plane to Canada. More than 24 hours later, after stops in Montreal and Toronto, they arrived at Vancouver International Airport to the surprise that they were privately sponsored, with a large group of people working to ease their transition.

At the airport, nine people stood eagerly waiting for the family’s arrival, and bearing a sign with their names spelled out in both Arabic and English. The first nights after their arrival were spent with the family of Lynn Gamache, a member of the interfaith group. By the time Mohammad spoke to The News a week later, the group had already helped his family move into a furnished apartment in central Abbotsford.

Since arriving in Canada, everything has gone according to plan, he said.

“When I decided to migrate to Canada, it was my decision to change my life. It’s right. It’s different for me and my family. There are some differences in the house, the lifestyle, but my plan was to change my life.”

Mohammad has lived away from his Syrian hometown many times in his life, and although the distance between Daraa and Abbotsford may be farther than he’s ever experienced, he finally has a chance to build a new home. Just a week into that new life, as he scans a news story about dozens of other refugees bound for Abbotsford, he is already comfortable enough in his new country to consider offering his own unique help to the Syrians following in his footsteps.

“I’m happy because I have a new future in front of me.”

Mohammad Amostafa and baby Jana - home, at last.