Editorial note: This article was first printed in the Kingston Heritage on October 13, 2017.
“Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” – Robert Frost
When Jamal Saeed and his wife, Rufaida al Khabbaz, were still living in their native Syria, their youngest son, Taim, who was 12 at the time, brought a kitten in off the streets.
Within the year, the cat gave birth to four tiny kittens.
“When she [felt] that there is something danger[ous] for the small kittens, she moved them from place to [an] other place,” Saeed recalls in a video posted to YouTube.
“We are the same. We feel that everything dangerous for the life of us and the life of the boys, and then we have to move.”
It is such a simple sentiment, but one that can resonate with anyone, anywhere around the world: When the lives of our young are in danger, we move them. And that’s exactly what the Saeed family did.
But for the Saeeds, moving wasn’t as simple as grabbing their children by the scruff of the neck and transporting them to a quiet, soft place. Having already spent 12 years imprisoned in Syria after handing out pamphlets on democracy in the country – including six years at the infamous Tadmor Prison – Saeed was already well aware of the corrupt and powerful regime that could see anyone imprisoned at any time. The war in Syria was escalating daily, and Saeed had already managed to evade the kidnapping of his wife and two sons, Taim, now 15, and Ghamr, now 17. The two boys hadn’t shown much fear in the face of war around them, Saeed recalled, but one day, when the bombings and shootings surrounding their home in Damascus actually shook their house, it was Ghamr who approached his father and told him that the family had to leave.
Over the next two years, the family fled Syria and ended up in Dubai, where Saeed was able to connect with the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee. The local group of writers in Kingston was looking to sponsor a Syrian family that wanted to settle here in the city, and they arranged for the Saeeds to be flown out of Dubai and into Toronto. Readers may recall the Kingston Heritage’s coverage of the family arriving in Kingston this past January.
Now, the family has been in Kingston for over eight months, thanks to the support of the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee. They are settling in, both Taim and Ghamr are excelling in their studies, and both Saeed and al Khabbaz are working diligently to ensure they can return to the former careers in a new place – Saeed, a writer, painter and English scholar from Damascus University, is currently working on two possible book projects; al Khabbaz, who worked as a translator in both Syria and Dubai, has completed her English as a Second Language courses through KEYS Employment Centre and is currently working two jobs to pay for her online studies so she can become a registered and certified translator. And when al Khabbaz isn’t working, she is volunteering with another Syrian family that is settling into Kingston.
The family is warm, inviting and easy to speak with. Their modest apartment has changed a lot since they first moved in – there are shelves stocked with books, throw cushions on the couches, and the walls are decorated with paintings, many of which were done by Saeed. But they are also very honest. And, although life in Kingston hasn’t been easy, it is a new life they all express sincere gratitude for.
“I can never forget our first week here in Kingston,” al Khabbaz said, her voice soft yet strongly convicted. For the first week the Saeed family was here, they lived alongside Ray Argyle, chairman of the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee, and his wife, Deborah. There was certainly some fear within each of the family members as they entered a new country, a new city, and then the home of two people they’d known for a matter of hours.
“But as soon as we arrived, as soon as we put our steps in their place, oh my gosh,” al Khabbaz said, the sweet expression of relief dawning across her face.
“I can still smell it… I can still smell the love in that house.”
“Honestly, those days were some of the warmest in my entire life… I felt like somebody is hugging me the whole time,” Ghamr agreed.
“That was just amazing.”
From the warmest experience to some of the coldest, the Saeed family braved their first taste of Canadian winter. They’ve experienced a couple of instances of racial intolerance, once on a city bus and once while walking downtown, but in both situations, they experienced some good at the same time. On the bus, a man began shooting dirty looks towards them before he decided to speak up and tell them they’d come to Canada to take jobs from the people who already live here. A group of other people on the bus immediately jumped up to defend the Saeeds, hugging them and telling them that the man did not properly exhibit what it means to be Canadian. On the street, when a man stopped Saeed and al Khabbaz to talk to them, the conversation took a similar turn with the man accusing them of stealing jobs from others. This time, al Khabbaz spoke up herself.
“I told him ‘we’re coming from a war zone country, would you be happy or glad if we were killed or killing?’” she recalled, her warm voice contrasting the harsh story she was telling.
That man later apologized.
“He was angry,” al Khabbaz said, chalking the whole situation up to it being a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ situation.
“He was just mad at something and met us at the same time.”
She laughed a little before her husband picked up where she left off, without missing a beat.
“Yes, the bad thing was that we had to stand there for a long time… and it was snowing!” he said, laughing off the occurrence.
“Those are the only exceptions, but all the other times, we are welcomed,” al Khabbaz agreed.
For the most part, the family describes the people of Kingston as “warm,” “welcoming,” “kind,” and “lovely.” They’ve begun to network through KEYS, the committee, and other friends they made around the city. They’ve discovered a new life and new interests, and the boys are both enrolled at LCVI. Ghamr, now in grade 12, took courses over the summer to help him prepare for university, and has found himself enthralled with mathematics. In particular, Ghamr is interested in calculus, physics and quantum physics, he explained with a little humble laugh, and his brother, Taim, has thrown himself into athletics at school. Both boys are focused on ensuring their places in universities, as are their parents.
“That is my number one goal right now,” al Khabbaz said.
“That is why I work so hard. I want both of the boys to be able to go to university, to study what they like to, and I don’t want money to be a reason that they cannot.”
It is for that reason the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee has begun a GoFundMe campaign to raise more funds to support the Saeeds as they settle in. The group plans to hold fundraising events in the future, but right now, they just want to ensure they can continue to support the family for the remainder of the year, Argyle explained.
“Having this money just means that we can fulfill our obligation for the rest of the year, and anything more that we can raise in different ways to help, next year we’re going to do that,” he said of their $6,000 fundraising goal.
“We want to do anything we can to support them until they’ve reached a place where they can support themselves. And I know they’re going to do really well.”
Both Saeed and al Khabbaz smile as Argyle compliments their hard work ethic and determination. For them, seeing their sons continue into post-secondary is the main goal, but they’d also like to begin their own translating company once al Khabbaz has finished her studies. And, of course, Saeed continues to do the thing that united the family with the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee in the first place: write.
He offers up a story that explains his own story beautifully:
“Once in Damascus, after I get out of the prison, I spent about 72 hours alone in a small room,” he said of his first hours of freedom in his tiny rental unit.
“I was alone. And then I felt that I need to see people,” he said, explaining that he left his home, and found there was no one around. He took a bus, where he saw no one, and went to Mount Qasioun, which overlooks the city of Damascus.
“I look at the city and say to myself ‘I have a lot of friends in this city. There is only a small problem: that I don’t know them,’” he recalled. At that point, Saeed returned to his rental.
“In my house, there was a map of the world on the wall. I look at the map and I said to myself ‘I have a lot of friends all over the world, but there is a small problem: that I don’t know them,’” he recalled, a knowing smile spreading across his face.
“Now, I begin to know more of those friends in the world… in Canada.” The GoFundMe campaign is less than $500 from its goal, news that comes as an absolute delight to the Saeed family, who expressed such gratitude to the people of Kingston who have helped them settle in, especially those with the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee, Kingston WritersFest, where the family were guests of honour for an event on refugees in Canada, and realtor Mary Campeau, who has worked with al Khabbaz to keep her employed for the short term until she can find full-time employment. To find out more about the campaign to help support the Saeed family, or to view the moving YouTube video of them telling their story first hand, go to www.gofundme.com/12-years-a-prisoner-in-syria.