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Fady Meera proudly waves the Canadian flag as his mother Landa and two of his siblings, brother Rani and sister Vahlia, look on. Photo by Michael Swan

Iraqi refugees finally beat the odds

  • April 21, 2013

TORONTO - The Meera family have endured two wars, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution and a lot of bureaucracy, but with the help of a Catholic parish in Brampton, Ont., the six Iraqi Christian refugees have fought their way into Canada.

The Meeras arrived at Pearson International Airport April 8 after seven years living as refugees in the poor Jermannya neighbourhood in Damascus, Syria. The big surprise waiting for them at the airport was a noisy, excited welcoming delegation from St. Anthony of Padua parish, the Meera’s sponsors.

“We never thought there would be that love, that support,” said the Meera patriarch, 57-year-old Habeeb Meera.

The Meeras beat the odds over and over on their way to Canada.

The family was nearly on a plane to Toronto in December when an exchange of shells between the Syrian Army and rebel forces closed the airport. Two days later their medical exams expired and Canadian officials would not let them fly without another set of X-rays and signatures from doctors.

When the new medicals were ready, officials in Ottawa issued new visas but sent them to Paris. The St. Anthony refugee committee had to phone their MP, Conservative backbencher Bal Gosal, and Citizenship and Immigration officials to get the visas from Paris to Damascus.

But then Canadian officials decided the police background checks and medicals did not entitle the whole family to travel. Two of them could come, but the remaining four would have to stay in Syria. The St. Anthony refugee committee and the Office for Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto swung back into action, reviewing 120 pages of medical exams and police checks page by page with Immigration officials to prove that there was no reason to break up the family. Getting out of Damascus has become more difficult ever since Canada closed its Syrian embassy at the beginning of 2012.

With civil war raging, Canadian officials in Jordan communicate with refugees through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office on the outskirts of Damascus.

It’s an awkward system because the Christian refugees concentrated in the Jeremannya neighbourhood have to make a treacherous, time-consuming journey to reach the UNHCR office.

Though they will not comment on individual cases, Citizenship and Immigration Canada media relations staff claim the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration does all it can to get Iraqi refugees with Canadian sponsors on their way to Canada.

“To date, some 12,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in Canada. Canada remains committed to its 2009 and 2010 pledges to resettle up to 20,000 Iraqi refugees in need of protection by 2013,” CIC staff said in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

The Meera’s experience with expired medical exams is at odds with the CIC’s stated policy.

“In the result that medical examination results expire before the refugee is able to depart, if they are less than three months old CIC grants an extension and no additional medical examination is required. If a new examination is required, it’s generally done within a month,” said the CIC staff. “We are aware of the hardships experienced by these refugees and understand the concerns that their sponsors may have. Rest assured that CIC is doing all it can to help.”

The Meeras have been lined up with their Canadian sponsors since 2010. Scant communication from Canadian immigration officials meant the family relied more on the St. Anthony refugee committee and the archdiocese’s professional ORAT staff for information about their case. Every Thursday St. Anthony pastor Fr. John Mullins or lay pastoral associate Pauline Murphy would phone the Meeras. The family was so starved for information and reassurance they would often wait hours through power outages, bomb attacks and the general chaos of the Syrian civil war for the call on their cellphone.

When the Meeras arrived in Damascus in 2005 they thought they would be joining a relative in Australia within a year. Through several applications, the Australians kept finding reasons to reject the family. By the time the family was accepted into Canada, it was no longer their second choice.

But seven years is a long time to live as refugees in Damascus. The Meeras saw many of their Iraqi friends give up hope and restart their lives in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

The Chaldean Catholic family entrusted its fate to Mary. Habeeb would walk twice daily to church despite serious risks. One day Habeeb met an Iraqi friend at the church at the 9 a.m. Mass, but when he returned for the 3 p.m. Mass he saw his friend’s picture posted inside the church — the man had been killed by a bomb earlier that afternoon. It is illegal for Iraqi refugees to work in Syria, but they have to eat. Some Syrian employers take advantage of the situation employing refugees at cut-rate wages and turning them in to authorities when they’re done with them.

Twenty-six-year-old Fady found an “honourable employer” who put him to work as a welder working on pedestrian bridges, fences and general construction. He eventually became the supervisor of a crew of Iraqi workers.

Nineteen-year-old Rani worked through most of his years in Damascus, first as a restaurant bus boy and later as an electrician’s helper.

With the glut of cheap refugee labour in Damascus, it’s impossible for older men to find work. Habeeb and his wife, 49-yearold Landa al-Qsyonan, found themselves dependent on their young sons. The daughters Dahlia, 22, and Vahlia, 24, have spent much of the last seven years indoors, unable to wander the streets without male accompaniment.

Canada is a revelation to Dahlia. “Today is absolutely positive,” she said. “I am walking with my sister outside without any fear.”

Life in Damascus wasn’t easy, but the Meeras were grateful for the welcome they received from their Syrian hosts before the outbreak of civil war. Once the Assad regime began to wobble and Syria’s economy ground to a halt, “The whole thing changed,” said Habeeb. “It was like black and white.”

“There was huge fear from that moment. We were not able to leave the house,” added Fady.

Local gangs began kidnapping children for money, bringing back memories of the Meeras’ experience in Baghdad.

As a teenager, Fady was already helping his father in a successful business wholesaling soft drinks. His success made him a target. Fady was kidnapped and held for a $100,000 ransom. The family managed to scrape together $40,000 and was lucky enough to get their son back.

The kidnapping was only one factor in the Meeras’ decision to get out of Iraq. As Dahlia was entering high school and Vahlia was finishing her last year, the girls faced constant harassment in the street and at school. They were pushed to convert to Islam. School officials wouldn’t allow them to write exams without wearing the hijab.

Their frightened mother eventually decided her daughters would wear the hijab to try to fit in. But it was never enough.

The middle class Dora neighbourhood, which had been largely Christian and secular before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, was emptying out. The Meeras were getting anonymous phone calls warning them they didn’t belong in Iraq — promising dark consequences if they stayed.

Today Dora is down to two or three per cent Christian. The Christians who remain are too old and too poor to leave. The Meeras’ ancestral village of al-Kosh near Mosul is half empty.

Nobody wants to go back. There’s no prospect for a truly democratic or pluralist society in Iraq, said Habeeb.

The Meeras are the second Iraqi family St. Anthony of Padua parish has brought to Canada. Despite long delays, frequent frustrations, rising costs and the government’s decision to withdraw basic medical insurance from refugees — leaving the committee holding the buck for everything from glasses to prescription medications — nobody is talking about redirecting the parish’s social justice commitment to another cause, said Mullins. Many St. Anthony parishioners experienced religious persecution before they immigrated to Canada. Though they may not have come as refugees themselves, they understand why people need refuge in a properly democratic country.

The weekly Thursday calls to the Meeras have been an opportunity for St. Anthony of Padua parish to be Christian. For most of the calls there was no news — no practical information. But Habeeb would rush out of the church to answer his cellphone in the courtyard.

“All we talked about was sharing hope. It was just hope,” said Mullins.

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