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Refugee families dream of hope for their children in Canada

Syrian refugee Khitam, from the Daraa province, left her home along with her husband and two children after their neighbour's house was hit by a missile Nov. 28, 2015. Khitam broke down into tears over sadness at what she's lost and anxiety over what's ahead in Canada.

Annie Sakkab/Annie Sakkab

Ali is saying how thrilled he is that his family – five Syrians struggling with refugee life in Jordan – might be moving to Canada. Then his wife starts to cry.

"I'm worried," Khitam says when the sobs recede. There's so much she doesn't know about life in Canada, so much she's not quite ready to leave behind.

"Women are always more worried," Ali says, a smile fixed on his stubbled face. He reaches for a cigarette as the couple's eight-year-old son, Naim, scrambles to find an ashtray.

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"Women are worried because we use our brains and our logic," Khitam retorts (last names are being withheld to protect identities during the resettlement process). "Canada is far away and we don't know what will happen in the future."

"You're being emotional," Ali chides her, more gently this time. They're both 39 years old, and they've been married for almost 15 years.

Fourteen-year-old Hadeel, the eldest of three children, watches in silence as her parents debate. Then she weighs in: "I'm scared, too."

It was less than 24 hours since the family of five had been told they were on a list of some 10,000 names that the Jordan office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is preparing to recommend to Canadian authorities for potential resettlement. The Liberal government has promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February. That doesn't mean Ali, Khitam and their children are on their way to Canada just yet – the family has a final interview with Canadian government officials scheduled for Dec. 5 in Amman – but the possibility suddenly feels very real. And it's all happening very fast.

The family's questions are many, and the information they've been given is scarce. Where will they live in Canada? Where will the children go to school? Will they get financial support when they arrive? Does anyone in Canada speak Arabic? Are there women there who wear the hijab, as Khitam and Hadeel do?

None of the family speaks any English or French. None can name a single city in Canada.

Ali draws a line under all the worrying. "It has to be better than here," he says, referring to life on the fringes in Jordan, where the family survives on whatever he can earn as a labourer paid black-market wages because he lacks a work permit. Much of what Ali brings in goes to paying the rent on their sparsely furnished two-room home.

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"We just want the best for our kids. I don't want them to be like us, I want them to be better than us."

Hundreds of Syrian refugee families who found out over the weekend they'd made the shortlist for a move to Canada clung to the same mantra – it will be better for the kids – even as they braced themselves for the culture shock of a possible move.

That lost opportunity to give something better to the next generation stung for those left off the UNHCR list.

"We were so excited to change our situation, to go somewhere better. The kids were so happy, asking, 'When are we leaving? When are we leaving?'" said Fayza, a 34-year-old mother of two who was invited for an interview by UNHCR, but was disqualified because she didn't have documents to prove she was legally divorced and allowed to take her children out of Jordan.

Fayza says her husband left the family a year ago, and he has remarried and has a child with his other wife (under Jordanian law, men can be legally married to up to four women at the same time). "I guess my fate is not to travel now."

Ali, Khitam and Fayza all hail from Daraa province in the south of Syria, an area that in 2011 saw the initial, peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That uprising turned into a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes. Many from Daraa are now en route to Canada.

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Before the war, Daraa was known for its olives. But for the past four years, the region's biggest export has been an outflow of traumatized people – and a generation of kids who haven't been inside a classroom for years.

Among Ali and Khitam's neighbours in Irbid are Kamal and Nisreen, the heads of a family of 12 that also made the UNHCR shortlist for a possible move to Canada. The family would number 13, but their oldest son, Hassan, was shot in the neck by a sniper as he was leaving school in Daraa in April, 2011. The family fled Syria soon afterward.

"I'm really happy we're going to Canada because there's no going back to where we came from, it's not safe," said Kamal, a 47-year-old who also works as an occasional labourer in Jordan.

Like many of the other refugees on the UNHCR's list, Kamal and Nisreen acknowledge they know little about Canada. They can't name a single city.

Hala, their 13-year-old daughter, injects some hope with a few words of English she learned back in school in Syria: "Hello. Good morning. How are you? What is your name? My name is Hala," she recites, as her parents smile with pride.

But Hala, who dreams of being a doctor, hasn't been to school since the family reached Jordan in early 2012.

"I'm embarrassed to admit that only this boy, Ali, is going to school," Kamal says, gesturing at his seven-year-old son. "The girls were first in their class in Syria. … But the school for Syrians here is far away and the bus costs [$28 a month per child]. We can't afford that."

Asked what he hoped would be different in Canada, Kamal gives a quick answer: "An education."

His wife, Nisreen, silent until now and heavily pregnant with another child, interjects. "And security."

Kamal nods. "Safety and security. And education."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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