Refugees line up for ‘million dollar ticket’ to Canada but the odds are heavily against them

BEIRUT — People chosen to resettle in will be getting “the million-dollar ticket,” said Mohammed Hamadi as he helped marshal into the UN High Commissioner for ’ headquarters for appointments Thursday.

Only half jokingly, the security guard at the compound added, “Don’t talk about what Canada is doing too loudly because if these people hear of this, they will go mad. They want to leave here. They ask for this every day.”

Mustafa Sharawi, who with his wife and six children fled the rebel-occupied Syrian city of Idlib four years ago, said until he was asked about it he had not heard of the Trudeau government’s decision to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year.

“You ask me what I know about Canada and my answer is that I cannot even tell you what Syria is like any more. I had a restaurant there and here we have nothing,” Sharawi said. “I used to sell sweets but had to stop because of high blood pressure. My young sons support us by restocking shelves in a grocery store.”

Matthew Fisher/National PostMatthew Fisher/National PostMustafa Sharawi, in back row, with his wife and five of their children.

The eight Sharawis were living “a very difficult life” in two small rooms for which they paid $400 a month in rent. The family patriarch expressed uncertainty about whether going to Canada might be a good idea. but he was quickly drowned out by his wife and his children who shouted “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”

“That Syrians might go to Canada is the most exciting thing that any of us have heard for a long time,” said Aadel Khaled Ktiman, 42, who arrived in Lebanon with his wife and four children from the shattered hillside village of Ma’loula where residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

“What I understand is that Canada offers everything and that it respects people. Maybe we have a chance.”

The odds are heavily against either family winning the “million dollar ticket” to resettle in Canada, as they are against all Syrian refugees.

Canada is to take 35,000 Syrians, including 10,000 the Harper government agreed to accept earlier this year. But there are one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and even more in Turkey and Jordan, where Canadian officials are also planning to process applications.

Matthew Fisher/National PostMatthew Fisher/National PostSamir Khadija Alkarim Al Latif, his wife, Khadija and their five month old son Samir. “We are ready to go this minute” if accepted for resettlement in Canada, he said.

About 30 Syrians showed up Thursday at the Canadian embassy in Beirut to try get information about how to get selected for resettlement. They were referred to the UNHCR, which is preparing lists of prospective candidates for Immigration Canada.

While delighted at the Canadian initiative, several UN staff expressed surprise and anxiety over the tight timeline the new government had imposed for getting the refugees to Canada.

“That is very quick and Canada has not yet really told us what they want,” said one official. “Families chosen for resettlement are very carefully selected. There are a lot of stones that have to be moved out of the way.”

One of the difficulties for UNHCR officials was Canada has not yet told the agency the number of refugees it will accept from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

“We don’t have the Canadian allocation yet,” said Dana Sleiman, the UNHCR’s spokesman for Lebanon. “There is no quota established. We are working on this with the Canadians.”

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Information from resettlement interviews is collected on a database, with files reviewed by senior staff before decisions are made. Then Canada can accept or reject  the recommendations.

Diplomats at the Canadian embassy said no one there was authorized to speak with journalists. Media requests were referred to Ottawa.

Ali Alali, 36, was one of many Syrians milling around outside the UNHCR compound. He arrived in Beirut two years ago with his wife, Meyadi, and their two children after their  hometown Deir El Zour was overrun by the Islamic State for Iraq &  the Levant.

“People are starting to speak about Canada. I don’t really believe it. It sounds to good to be true,” said theformer culture ministry clerk.

“The day (ISIL)  came, we ran,” he said, recalling his family’s harrowing last hours at home. “There was no reason for us to stay. Our house was already destroyed. We had nothing.”

Matthew Fisher/National PostMatthew Fisher/National PostA country like Canada could hold the key to the future for me,” said Simon Farhad, a 28 year old pharmacist who escaped heavy shelling in the Syrian city of Homs.

Alali gets work from time to time carrying stones and sand on building sites. Such jobs pay $20 a day, not nearly enough to cover the $400 a month rent for their one-room apartment.

His priority is to find a country that would “educate my children and offer them a good life. Here in Lebanon they can’t go to school because going to school costs money.”

Education was also a priority for Simon Farhad, 28, a pharmacist from Homs where Christians like him were targeted by ISIL.

“I would love to go to Canada to take my master’s degree in pharmacology and then work in a pharmacy or for a company that makes drugs,” he said.

“A country like Canada could hold the key to the future for someone like me. I can’t go back to Syria because the future there is nothing,” he said, his voice tailing off in despair.

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