By Laura Rodgers, Abbotsford News
When an artillery shell exploded next to the market stall where he was buying a cucumber, Hagop Khetcho knew he had to leave his city, and perhaps, his country.
Khetcho’s sister Lena Farra, who lives in Canada, had been encouraging him for months to leave Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and take his family somewhere safer. The Middle Eastern nation, with a population of more than 20 million in 2010, has been enmeshed in a violent civil war since 2011 that has killed about a quarter of a million people and displaced more than 10 million.
They both knew the violence wasn’t going to end soon. But this close call – the second in just a few weeks – made up Khetcho’s mind.
“The man who sells the cucumbers, he just said ‘Take it! It’s free! Not a problem! Take it!,” he recalled. “That’s when I said, ‘Just leave … okay, I’ll go.’ ”
It took over a year from that moment in 2014, but the middle-aged pediatrician, his wife Lena Nahabetian, and their teenage son Souren ended up making it safely out of Syria, temporarily to Lebanon, and then to the Lower Mainland. Staff from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) of British Columbia, an Abbotsford-based Christian humanitarian aid group, helped them get here.
The complicated war between Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and a variety of rebel groups, which began in 2011, has caused a global refugee crisis. Eleven million have fled from their homes, and four million have left the country. Many have sought asylum in Lebanon, a neighbouring country to the west. Canada, as a developed country far from the conflict with plenty of room, is seen as an attractive resettlement destination.
Differing opinions about how the Canadian government should respond to these refugees’ needs have created a national debate.
As unrest in Syria grew, the Khetcho family were living in constant fear. On one occasion, Souren and his mother spotted a sniper outside just as they were leaving their house, and they had to carefully sidle along a wall to keep from being seen. When Nahabetian’s father had a heart attack, and the family were visting him in hospital, a bomb exploded just 40 meters away in the building’s courtyard.
The fighting reached Khetcho’s clinic and the family feared for his life. Forced abductions were common, and his medical skills would make him a valuable target.
In Canada, Farra used to call “just to make sure that they were still alive.”
Living in Surrey and working as a cable network planner for Shaw, she began to reach out to local groups that could help her sponsor a refugee application for her brother’s family.
MCC’s refugee services branch acts as a sponsorship agreement holder. They guided Farra through the process, making sure all the proper information about Khetcho and his family was submitted to the right place.
“Obviously, there was an urgency, because people like him would be targeted,” said Jennifer Mpungu, the Abbotsford-based refugee program coordinator for MCC BC. “So we got into an agreement where [Farra] took the commitment to bring them to Canada.”
The family travelled from Aleppo to Taalabaya, a village in Lebanon’s central Zahleh district, in mid-2014. The journey could’ve been made in four hours by car on a clear highway — but with the frequent checkpoints and detours to avoid active fighting, it took them close to 20. They found a place to stay, grateful to be further from the centre of the conflict. And they waited.
A refugee application is complicated. Unlike many other routes of immigration to Canada, acceptance as a refugee confers permanent resident status without a prior visa period. There are countless forms to fill, questions to answer and tasks to complete.
Farra was granted approval as a sponsor by January 2015, which left a final step in the process — whether Citizenship and Immigration Canada would accept, or deny, the Khetcho’s application. Finally, by mid-March, there was a call. They were approved.
Having helped with many other refugee applications, Mpungu knew the processing of their claim was unusually quick.
“That’s a record. I think God loves you,” she remarked to Khetcho.
In late August of this year, they flew from Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, to Cairo, Egypt; then Toronto; then Vancouver. It was a 28-hour itinerary, which they found astounding after having spent nearly as long just making the 300-kilometre journey to Taalabaya.
They’re now staying with Farra in her Surrey home. They share it with her husband and her two children – luckily, the house is big. Khetcho hopes to complete the certifications he’ll need to again practice pediatric medicine. Souren has started high school, and Nahabetian will volunteer at MCC’s Surrey thrift store to acclimate to the new culture.
They’ll have time to return to their hobbies here. Hagop, an avid reader, loves historical fiction from celebrated French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. Souren, who played basketball for years in Syria, hopes to return to the sport at his new school — when he’s not working at his other favourite pastime, computer programming. Nahabetian, a talented cook, has been sharing her recipes with Farra’s family.
“Canada is a safe place, a very wonderful place,” said Khetcho.
“We hope that in this place, we will live better than in Syria. There is no war here … it’s a free country.”