WINNIPEG — Mohmmed Darweesh feels he is one of the lucky ones.
After fleeing his native Syria, where he says he was threatened with death and harassed by police, it was only a few months from the time he first approached the Canadian embassy in Lebanon to when he first touched down on Canadian soil.
“Ninety per cent of my friends have been killed. I still have one. He fled … to Turkey and he will go to Germany,” the 33-year-old says sitting in his Winnipeg apartment.
“Nobody is safe.”
Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has become a major issue and The Canadian Press has been reaching out to Syrians, who arrived as refugees, to tell their stories. Since civil war broke out in 2011, more than four million Syrians have fled their country.
Darweesh, a teacher by training, says the civil war was not the only threat he faced. He was in danger because he refused to join the army and had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The latter, he says, prompted a visit by the police.
“The police threatened me and they hit me — maybe three times — and they said to me, ‘Don’t write it again. Maybe next time we will put you in jail.'”
Darweesh also faced the prospect of being jailed for refusing to join the army, so he left the country for Lebanon last year, but was not allowed to stay permanently.
His girlfriend, Reem Younes, joined him after a close call with gunfire near the school where she taught. They married in Lebanon and applied for refugee status in Canada, where Darweesh had a sister in Winnipeg.
His sister’s church, along with the Mennonite Central Committee — a non-profit organization with a long history of helping refugees — sponsored Darweesh and Younes and the couple arrived in March.
Even the flight out of Lebenon had its scary moments.
An engine exploded as they took off from Beirut, forcing the pilot to turn around. The departure was pushed back one day.
The couple has been receiving help from church members, volunteers and neighbours.
The Manitoba government and some other provinces have recently promised to increase funding for such sponsorship of Syrian refugees.
Darweesh was surprised at how fast everything happened. He expected it might take a year or more.
He and Younes are hoping to resume their teaching careers.
They have both worked at manufacturing jobs and are taking English courses — neither spoke more than a few words when they arrived. Younes recently got a job in child care.
Darweesh would like to bring his mother and brother to Canada as well, but he has been told he cannot sponsor them.
Still, both he and his wife express gratitude for the help they have received.
“Every day, many people visit us and make us feel we are not strangers,” Darweesh says.
“They treat us, for me, like my family,” Younes says.
“Sometimes I cry. How can these people consider us and help us without knowing us? They treat us like humans, without any conditions.”
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press