‘Get out and we’ll figure out the details later’: A Syrian family’s arduous journey from Aleppo to Montreal

This is the first in a series to be published over the next year as the Gazette shadows the Hamalians — Anna and Ohannes, their children Palig and Harout, and grandmother Sita — as they start a new life in .

Until the very moment the bomb exploded, the Hamalians thought they could stick it out, even as life in got harder and harder.

In early 2013, Anna, then 29, was making do with preserves of sun-dried peppers and eggplant, though the family often went without bread for weeks at a time, and had already taken to burning the kitchen cabinets and chairs to boil water and heat their home.

Palig, 9, and her brother Harout, 6, were still going to school, at least in the early morning — before the daily shelling began.

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Sometimes, they would see a dead body or a severed limb on the way to school. Anna would tell them there had been an accident.

And until his office was ransacked, in the summer of 2013, Ohannes was still working as a diamond setter and jeweller, though business had dropped off considerably.

In Aleppo, the economic hub of pre-war , cafés and restaurants normally bustled until midnight. But 18 months into the siege of ’s largest city, caught between Assad forces on one side, ISIS on the other, and myriad rebel insurgents completing the triangle, no one dared venture out onto the broken streets after 4 p.m. (The car battery, now useless inside the car, was brought inside the Hamalians’ home, to fuel Internet access.)

Then, one stifling hot day in July 2013, Ohannes and the children stepped out onto their third-floor balcony to get some air when a handmade bomb hit the building.

The explosion blew out the wooden door to the outside, and through the gaping hole Anna saw the balcony disappear into a giant cloud of white dust.

“They are all dead!” she gasped, and immediately collapsed.

The children and their father stood up, picked the bits of rock from their hair and dusted themselves off before turning to see Anna on the floor, immobile. “She’s dead!” they, too, surmised, running inside.

Ohannes lifted his wife onto the sofa and tried to comfort her as she regained consciousness.

“We are OK, everyone’s OK, don’t be afraid,” he said, as she shook and sobbed, her dark eyes now wide open. But she could not hear him. The explosion, likely aimed at a girls’ school across the street where civilians had recently sought shelter, had also blown out her eardrums.

The first- and second-floor neighbours, whose homes were now levelled, had fled weeks ago. The Hamalians knew they had gotten lucky this time, but they could not wait any longer.

It would be the start of a long, arduous journey out of Syria and all the way to Canada.

I — Aleppo to Beirut

In January 2015, the United Nations estimated some 220,000 people had been killed since the start of the civil war in 2011, half of them civilians. It has since stopped counting.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group with activists across Syria, the dead include almost 12,000 children and 8,000 women caught in the crossfire — 23,000 people in the province of Aleppo alone.

Add to that another 11 million people displaced by the conflict, inside or outside the country.

Into those statistics would fall Ohannes Hamalian and his family.

Some 8,600 kilometres away in Laval, Ohannes’s sister Nelly watched and waited nervously from her comfortable living room as schools and factories, mosques and churches became targets of barrel bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), while government forces and rebels took turns leading offensives and counter-offensives on the streets of her childhood.

Nelly, who is two years older than Ohannes, moved to Quebec 11 years ago with her husband and two children.

There’s another sister, Talar, in Australia — she’s been there 17 years. Their mother, Sita Chirugian, 65, is the matriarch of this tight-knit Armenian-Syrian family, and has lived with Ohannes since her husband passed away 19 years ago, a month after Nelly’s son was born.

Over the years Sita travelled from continent to continent, keeping them all close despite the vast distances between them.

As the war in Aleppo intensified, Nelly wanted her little brother and his family by her side.

She urged Ohannes, “Don’t stay, I don’t see a bright future, and it is getting worse and worse. . . . Get out, and we’ll figure out the details later.”

But Ohannes, who lived in the predominantly Christian and Armenian district of Sulaymaniyah, still under government control, thought President Assad was strong; any day he would regain control of the rest of the city, he told himself and his family.

He didn’t want to leave his home. Until his home was gone.

Now, on either side of the Atlantic, the siblings got to work on a plan.

In Aleppo, Anna had heard from a Lebanese friend about an Armenian Christian group in Montreal, Hay Doun, that was helping people sponsor their Syrian relatives.

What’s wrong? Why is it taking so long? Why are others being accepted and not us?

Armenian-Syrians, many of whom had fled to Syria to avoid the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, made up about three per cent of the population of the city of Aleppo before the war (or 60,000 out of about 2.1 million).

Now, thousands are heading back to Armenia or to Europe by any means possible; others are trying to get to Canada.

Nelly went to see Hay Doun at its office at St-Gregory the Illuminator church in Outremont. But Hay Doun said it could only help official refugees — that is, those who had already left Syria.

So after making a harrowing three-hour trip on foot through Aleppo to get their passports, in December 2013 Anna and Ohannes packed a few belongings, mostly clothes and documents, leaving all their baby photos and wedding gifts behind.

They bought five tickets on the next bus to , but were told they’d have to wait another week: the buses on that route had been targeted by ISIS. It wasn’t safe.

Then at 5 a.m. on Dec. 8, they shut the door as if they were going to the corner store, but they knew they might never be back.

In the pre-dawn darkness, they crossed the city by taxi as the sky lit up overhead with the red flashes of artillery shells.

They tried to ignore the bullet holes in the sides of the bus as they boarded.

The bus was full of other families, as well as single travellers, all clutching what was left of their lives in Aleppo and anxious about what they would find on the road to Damascus.

Some of the roads had been destroyed, and others went through rebel-held areas too dangerous to cross, forcing the bus to take a circuitous route around the country. Through the ancient city of Palmyra, all the way east toward the border of Iraq before heading west to Lebanon, the signs of pitched battles were everywhere. The trip to Beirut normally took five hours. This time, it took 23.

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Every couple of hours the bus would be stopped by heavily armed men in camouflage — they turned out to be Assad’s forces, checking identity papers and looking for rebels. Out the window of the bus, Anna could see the craters in the pavement, the bullet holes in the village walls, and sometimes a body, or part of one, left on the side of the road.

She would quickly close the thick burgundy curtains and tell the kids, “It’s OK. Everything will be OK.” But they knew these were no accidents.

As they approached Damascus, they got a good look at Harasta, once a well-to-do suburb, with its wide avenues and luxury-car showrooms.

Ohannes fought back tears. Harasta had been flattened, and it was deserted.

Just outside of Harasta, the bus came under fire. Taka taka tak. The passengers panicked, and ducked down under the seats, keeping the children crouched below the windows as the bus picked up speed.

Thank God they didn’t hit the wheels, Anna thought to herself.

No one dared speak a word until they reached Damascus.

When they arrived at the Lebanese border, they joined a long line of people in cars, taxis and buses trying to get out. The luggage in the cargo hold was riddled with bullets now, too.

II — Limbo in Lebanon

In happier times, Syrians would flock to Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, to go shopping or spend the weekend, much as Montrealers might head to Plattsburgh or Burlington. Just a two-hour drive from Damascus, you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border.

But by December 2013, the traffic was thick, and all one-way, with cars passing underneath one of the ubiquitous billboards of a smiling President Assad on their way out.

Again, the Hamalians had luck, or the god of timing, on their side.

By April 2014, Lebanon would register its millionth Syrian refugee, and with a population of just 4 million, boast the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

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And by January 2015, Lebanon would impose entry visas on Syrians — for business, tourism, medical reasons or short-stays — and soon stop taking in refugees altogether, as competition for jobs and space grew more and more fierce.

But in December 2013, the Hamalians could still make their way relatively easily to Anna’s cousin’s house in Beirut, where they attempted to start a new life.

Palig and Harout went back to school, joining the ranks of other Syrian refugees who now outnumbered the Lebanese children enrolled in public schools.

The welcome was frosty at first, as students and teachers looked with disdain upon the new arrivals.

But after a few months, both children — Harout with his infectious desire to catch up on lost play time, and Palig with her international, preteen sensibilities — managed to make friends and feel accepted. Still, sometimes they would cry to their parents. They wanted to go home. They missed their bedrooms, their toys, their friends.

Ohannes, for his part, found work as a jeweller. Only without a work permit, he earned half as much as his Lebanese counterparts, and with so much demand for housing causing rents to skyrocket, his wages didn’t go far.

Dario Ayala / PostmediaDario Ayala / PostmediaFamily Support Services Hay Doun director Narod Odabasiyan, right, and colleague and program coordinator Khajag Aghazarian, left, speak on the phone at their offices in Montreal.

After two months at the cousin’s house, they found a one-bedroom apartment for the equivalent of $650 a month — about eight times the normal rate.

But they were safe, and they were together and they were spared the squalor of the camps.

Anna, who hadn’t worked outside the home since the children were born, volunteered at one of the UN’s increasingly crowded refugee camps, full of Syrian children who couldn’t go to school and had no space to play.

“In Syria, education was free, even university. Everyone went to school,” she says. She herself has a degree in banking. “But in the camps, some of the children hadn’t been to school in four years.” According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, out of about 520,000 refugee children in Lebanon in 2014, 310,000 were not going to school — Syria’s lost generation.

“It was very sad, and so overcrowded. So many sick people, living in tents.”

For the Hamalians, however, a new normal settled in while they waited for news from Canada — even if they still felt the side-effects of living in a war zone.

They celebrated Orthodox Christmas in Beirut that January, Harout’s seventh birthday in June, with sparklers on an Angry Birds cake, and went on summer picnics with friends, posting their smiling photos on Facebook for the rest of the family to see.

Hassan Ammar / APHassan Ammar / APA Syrian refugee woman hangs laundry at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.

But Ohannes was constantly looking over his shoulder, and he couldn’t shake the siege mentality, the feeling that he needed to be home and hunkered down by 4.

New anxieties began to keep them awake at night.

What if Canada didn’t accept them? What if their savings ran out and they had to go live in a refugee camp? What if they were sent back to Aleppo?

With help from Nelly and Hay Doun in Montreal, the Hamalians sent in their application for private sponsorship as refugees in Canada in January 2014, a month after arriving in Beirut.

They knew it would be a long process, but they had reason to be optimistic. While Canada as a whole had accepted only about 1,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 by September, in that same period Hay Doun alone, with its one full-time employee but significant community support, had brought about 600 to Montreal.

But a year after they applied, the Hamalians had still not received an answer, and started to panic as they watched other families from Syria come and go, on their way to Canada. Friends would ask them, “What are you still doing here?”

Ohannes, in turn, would call Nelly: “What’s wrong? Why is it taking so long? Why are others being accepted and not us?”

Finally, in February 2015, they were convened for an interview at the Canadian embassy in Beirut, where they were asked why and how they left Syria, and what they knew about this or that weapon, and how to use them.

As Sita’s only son, Ohannes was not obliged to do military service in Syria. They answered the questions and left. And then they waited some more.

With questions raised during the federal election campaign, we now know that the Prime Minister’s Office temporarily halted Syrian refugees’ entry into Canada last June, out of concern that some of these refugees could pose a risk to national security. (Those concerns proved unfounded.)

Around that time, the Hamalians were emailing the Canadian embassy in Beirut for an update on their status, but got no response. Then they went to the embassy in person. They were refused at the door.

Finally, in late June, they got the call they had been waiting 16 months for: They were officially accepted as refugees to Canada. They almost ran to the travel agent to book their tickets.

The next available flight was in three months.

III — A New Life in Montreal

On Sept. 22, as Nelly waited at the international arrivals gate at Montreal’s Trudeau airport, she wondered what her brother’s children would be like. She hadn’t seen Ohannes in 11 years — not since Palig was born.

She’d seen pictures, of course. But that’s not the same. Were they sweet or sly? Sunny or dark? Outgoing or reserved? And how had the war in Syria changed them? Ohannes had told her they were showing “symptoms” of trauma — but what did that mean?

On the other side of the gate, Ohannes was marking time differently: 21 months in Beirut, eight hours in Istanbul, 11 hours on the plane to Montreal, and three hours clearing Canadian customs.

Canadians take their time, he remarked. No one’s in a rush.

Allen McInnis / Postmedia Allen McInnis / Postmedia Nelly Hamalian, right, hugs her sister-in-law Anna, when the Hamalian family finally arrives at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport on Sept. 22, 2015.

“How long will we be in Canada?” Palig asked her parents. “Are we going to leave again?”

“No, this is our final destination,” Anna promised.

When the Hamalians finally walked through the automatic doors, Nelly ran up to each of the weary travellers and hugged and kissed them, one by one. Sita was the first to burst into tears, smiling all the while. It had been a long wait.

Sitting in Nelly’s living room in Laval three weeks later, they looked back on that epic family reunion as the beginning of their new life in Canada.

“In Aleppo, I worried that I would never see my sister again. You never knew when you would be hit by a sniper or by a shell,” Ohannes says, with Nelly acting as his translator.

Palig and Harout have started school at Sourp Hagop, the private Armenian school off Highway 15 in Ville St-Laurent. They are in one of two “classes d’acceuil” or welcome classes, set up in response to the arrival of so many Armenian Syrians in Montreal over the last year, including — to their surprise and delight — some of their old friends from Aleppo. The school is waiving its fees for refugees for the first year, and is paying half the cost of the uniform.

The children are beginning to learn French — Harout now watches Bob L’Éponge (SpongeBob SquarePants) in French at home, between his favourite reruns of Tom and Jerry.

In Montreal, he can be a child again

The Hamalians have had to navigate Quebec bureaucracy to get medicare cards and social insurance numbers, and their first appointments with a family doctor. But they’ve also gone apple picking and trick-or-treating — Palig as a witch, Harout as a sultan, both terrified by the ghoulish decorations but eager for the candy — and played tourists in Old Montreal.

There, as Harout bounced up and down with glee in an inflatable playground usually popular with younger kids, it occurred to Anna that Harout had missed out on much of his childhood, spent in a war zone.

“In Montreal, he can be a child again,” she said, smiling shyly.

As for Anna and Ohannes, new challenges lie ahead.

Both are eager to begin their own French classes — offered free to refugees by the Quebec government as part of settlement services — but have yet to be given a start date. In some cities in Canada, there’s a six- to 10-month wait for language classes. Before coming here, Ohannes knew only a few words, most of them related to driving, left over from the French colonization of Syria in the 1920s and ’30s — words like “rond point” (roundabout) and “deuxième vitesse” (second gear), he says proudly.

Allen McInnis / PostmediaAllen McInnis / PostmediaOhannes Hamalian with his wife, Anna, and their 11-year-old daughter, Palig, at Montreal’s Old Port.

They also want to get the lay of the land; to know where they are, and how to get from A to B on suburban roads that all look the same, and are often lined with identical townhouses.

But Ohannes’s No. 1 concern is finding work — steady work — to be able to provide a home for his family after so much upheaval.

Until further notice, they are all sleeping in Nelly’s living room: Anna and Ohannes on one mattress, Harout and Palig on another, with the dining room table placed between the two mattresses to give the parents a sense of privacy. Sita sleeps on the couch.

Ohannes has already found a few contracts as a diamond setter, and is working on a plan to set up a workshop with a fellow Armenian in Montreal.

But the worry is plain on his face. The unemployment rate for immigrants in Montreal is 11.3 per cent (for non-immigrants, it’s seven per cent). And there is no shortage of stories of qualified doctors and lawyers, perhaps even diamond setters, driving cabs to make ends meet.

Nelly’s own husband — once an expert jeweller in Aleppo — is now a long-haul truck driver.

“We will find work. We have no choice,” Ohannes says. “We can’t stay here forever.”

Allen McInnis / Montreal GazetteAllen McInnis / Montreal Gazette Left to right are Lala Barsemian, Sita Churugian, Nelly Hamalian, Harout Hamalian, Georgik Barsemian, Ohannes Hamalian, Anna Kouzouian, Palig Hamalian and Wanes Barsemian.
Anna wants to find work, too, maybe in a bank, though she knows that’s a long-term goal.

She has downloaded a language app on her phone, to which she is glued every morning.

She wonders whether she could work with refugees here, as she did in Beirut.

But so far, she has only found work lifting boxes in a warehouse. She quit after a few days, feeling guilty and dejected, at Nelly’s insistence when the physical strain became too much.

With all nine of them living together in a two-bedroom apartment, there are moments of tension. But Nelly sees the bright side.

“It’s difficult at times. But my kids get to live with their grandmother, and I have my niece and nephew with me,” she says warmly. “Where we sleep and everything — those are just details.”

She thinks about aunts and uncles and friends still stuck in Aleppo. “I wish I was rich, and had a big building. I would sponsor everybody.”

“If other immigrants can survive, we will survive too,” Anna adds. “We will face the challenges. And we thank God we are here.”

For a family forced into exile, this is just the beginning, and they all know it could be much worse. The Hamalians arrived just three weeks after Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey, just one of so many Syrian children who have died in the search for a safe haven.

His family also wanted to come to Canada.

“If we didn’t have the opportunity to come to Montreal, maybe we would be in Turkey, too,” Ohannes says, “or on a boat to Europe.”

About Catherine Solyom, Postmedia News