LONG ROAD HOME: A family starts fresh after a turbulent decade

Stateless refugees settle in Abbotsford after a chaotic life across several countries

The Alshayeb family have recently moved to Mt. Lehman and are working hard to integrate in the community. Back row

It was supposed to be an unpleasant three-hour trip on a dirty, dilapidated boat.

But 24 hours after leaving Syrian shores, the Alshayeb family had run out of food and drinking water, and were still somewhere in the Mediterranean sea, with no land in sight.

Amer and Ibtihal, a married couple in their late 20s, their infant daughter Zaneb and Amer’s mother Najia would spend another two full days on that boat, with fellow passengers sick and dying around them.

Ten years later, Amer sips strong Arabic coffee in a small house on a quiet and green Mt. Lehman property as he recounts those torturous days. Outside, chickens cluck about and the Alshayeb’s four children race around on bikes.

This idyllic setting for raising a family is a vast change from the daily bombings of a war zone, a boat ride from hell, and nearly a decade of languishing in wait for the opportunity to start anew.

• • • • •

The Alshayebs have been stateless people their entire lives. As the descendants of Palestinians who fled to Iraq in 1948, they have never held recognized passports. When militias sprung up in the years following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the family was in constant danger of arrest or worse, simply for being outsiders.

In 2006, Amer, Ibtihal, Najia and baby Zaneb crossed into Syria using fake Iraqi passports. From there they hired illegal smugglers who promised safe passage to Cyprus on a mere three-hour boat ride.

Soon after landing on a dark and empty Cyprus beach, Amer was separated from his family.

He was arrested the next day.

Three days later, he went before a judge who wanted to deport him back to Syria, a country where he had no roots and knew no one. He pleaded his case, telling the judge he could not be separated from his family.

It would be another 10 days before he was released, in Cyprus.

Amer then went looking for his wife, mother and child. He hadn’t seen them in two weeks and had no idea where they were.

With help from his sister, who has been living in Cyprus for six months, Amer found them in a refugee camp.

The family secured an apartment and a monthly allowance from the government to get by. Ibtihal, who it turned out had been pregnant during the harrowing journey, soon gave birth to their second daughter, Asma.

She was followed by another girl, Noor Alhuda, and a boy, Talal, over the next four years, as the family tried to establish some semblance of a normal life in Cyprus.

The Cypriot government could have taken the family’s allowance away if Amer refused work – even if it was hours away, offered poor pay, or was bad for his allergies.

The family saw no future in Cyprus. They hatched an escape plan – again.

They borrowed money from family and friends, and Ibtihal sold her gold jewelry to afford the $20,000 needed for special Palestinian visas and airfare to take them to their next destination: Indonesia.

They enterred as tourists, but once in the country went to the immigration office and declared themselves refugees, earning them a spot in a detention centre.

For the next three months, the seven Alshayebs lived in a subterranean holding cell: a dank, dirty space with dozens of other refugees from various troubled nations. There was no sunlight and bed sheets hung from the ceiling provided the only privacy.

From there, they were placed in a home on the island of Sumatra. They had one task – to wait.

Unable to enrol their children in school or work, the days ticked by as the UN tried to find them a place to permanently settle. After a year and a half, they were told their new home would be Canada.

Najia began researching the country, and her dreams were soon filled with images of a peaceful country full of kind people.

But those images remained only in Najia’s dreams for another two and a half years, as the UN worked on a placement for the Alshayebs.

Meanwhile, 13,000 kilometres away, 22 men and women had formed the Mt. Lehman Resettlement Committee and raised $35,000 to bring a new family into the community.

Najia cried with joy when she arrived at Vancouver International Airport and saw 10 complete strangers with signs and flowers welcoming the family.

The harrowing odyssey to find a home that began when Zaneb was an infant, would end in Abbotsford with the now nine-year-old eager to start school.

The resettlement committee, with assistance from Abbotsford Community Services, set the family up in a home, found bikes for the children and got them enrolled in school.

The family has attended community events, including a potluck at a local winery, where the children met some of their future classmates at Mt. Lehman Elementary.

All four kids are working hard to catch up to their peers at school, with Zaneb fighting the steepest uphill battle. Ibtihal has already attended her first parent advisory council meeting.

Both Amer and Ibtihal are attending English lessons of their own, four days a week, four hours a time. Amer hopes to find a job soon, possibly as a forklift driver.

He is working on getting his driving licence recognized here, while Ibtihal is excited to learn to drive for the first time.

The couple is hoping to bring more family members to Canada, including Ibtihal’s sisters, whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years.

Amer shows a picture of his sisters and nieces, who still live in Baghdad.

In September, the whole family stood on stage under a steady rain as Amer made a short speech in front of attendees of the Mt. Lehman Fall Fair. He thanked the community for being so supportive and told them he would work hard to begin repaying their many kindnesses as soon as possible.

• • • • •

A few weeks later he expressed something he forgot to say on stage.

“Before coming to Canada, I thought I would deal with people – normal people, kind people – and they would help me to [integrate] in the society,” he said.

“But I didn’t find people. I found angels.”

After years of waiting, Ibtihal said her family, and especially her children are finally getting to start over, with their eyes to the future.

“Almost all of our dreams are coming true now,” she said.

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