VANCOUVER — Hanan Alawwad had already escaped killings, kidnappings and bombings in Syria when her son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The mother of five sought refuge with her family in Lebanon, where little Ayman became ill in 2013. His medical costs were not covered in the neighbouring country, so Alawwad began travelling home with her boy once a week for his treatment.
“In the hospital, we would be hearing the sound of bullets and explosions,” recalled Alawwad, speaking through a translator. “I would cross the border and I’m not sure if I will come back.”
The family of seven now lives in Surrey, B.C., after arriving in Canada last December as government-assisted refugees. Seven-year-old Ayman spent the first four months in hospital and is now recovering.
As the rambunctious little boy played with his brothers and sisters outside a newcomer centre under construction, Alawwad said other refugees deserve the same chance to start a new life in Canada.
“Right now, everybody has high needs. Syria, the situation there is unbearable,” she said. “Those who are healthy, now they have sons who are crippled (from bombings).”
The family was among several dozen refugees visiting the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.’s Welcome House, a $24.5-million housing and support facility set to open in Vancouver next June.
Alawwad’s husband, Samer Aldhmad, said they were originally from Daraa, among the first cities where Syrian forces violently suppressed protests in 2011.
Refugees to Canada must pay for their travel and are sometimes offered loans by the federal government. Although Aldhmad had to take out a loan of about $7,000, he said he didn’t mind.
“It was kind of a dream for me to come here, because the education is free for the kids,” he said through a translator. “The government helped us in many ways as well.”
The newcomer centre, funded with support from the City of Vancouver and Vancity credit union, will include 18 housing units with up to 130 beds, a health clinic and adult education classes.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said he has joined mayors in Toronto and Calgary in urging the federal government and cities to do more for refugees.
Robertson said he will ask council next week to support a motion calling on Canada to increase the number of government-assisted refugees to at least 20,000 per year by 2020.
“Undoubtedly, we have a crisis right now with Syrian refugees,” he said.
“Many people in this city want to help. Many people across Canada want to help and are frustrated by our federal government’s lack of action.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced harsh criticism about Canada’s immigration policies since a photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach emerged last week.
On Thursday, Harper hinted that the government might shift its plans for refugee response in the near future. So far, he has vowed to bring in 11,300 Syrians over the next three years.
Majd Agha, a 22-year-old Syrian college student who settled in B.C. last summer, said outside the newcomer centre that the Canadian government has been generous to him, but it must do more.
“We have the resources, and we have the wealth, and we have the ability,” he said. “We have the very generous people to do more for these refugees who are stateless and waiting hopefully.”
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Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Samer Aldhmad’s last name.