Editorial note: This article was originally published in the Kingston Heritage in January 2017.
As Jamal Saeed was ushered into an awaiting bus after landing at Pearson International Airport, he turned to his friend, Ray Argyle, whom he’d met just moments before.
“Thank you for this gift,” Saeed said, referring to Canada, the country he and his family can now call home.
“We’re the ones receiving the gift,” Argyle responded.
Just weeks earlier, Saeed had received word he and his family had been approved to immigrate to Canada as refugees – but they had to be in Canada by December 30 in order for that approval to remain. The family, sponsored by the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee, had mere days to tie up any loose ends in Dubai, and the Committee had the same little time to secure flights for the whole family of four and get everything set up for them here in Kingston. The Committee booked the last four seats on an Air Emirates flight scheduled to land in Toronto on Dec. 28. Although Saeed, his wife, Rufaida al Khabbaz, and their two sons, Ghamr, 16, and Taim, 14, would have liked more time to close bank accounts, package any personal belongings and say goodbye to the friends they’d made in the two years they’d spent in Dubai after fleeing Syria, the whole family was excited to finally be making their way to their new home and the people who’d spent the past year trying to get them to Canada.
“They’ve astonished us, really. I think they saved our lives.” Rufaida al Khabbaz
Both Saeed and al Khabbaz worked in literature and language in Syria, a commonality shared with the members of the Committee sponsoring them here in Kingston.
Saeed obtained his Bachelor of Arts from Damascus University where he studied English literature following his release from prison. A poet and writer, he published a collection of short stories in 1992 and also translated a number of books from English to Arabic, worked in editing, book design, translating and publishing.
Having studied English at a private linguistics institute in Damascus, al Khabbaz also received her Bachelor of Arts through the English Department at Damascus University. She, too, built a career in poetry and translating, with her poetry published in many Arabic journals and newspapers. The couple both worked as translators for a logistics company once they arrived in Dubai.
It’s those impressive careers in the written word that brought Saeed and al Khassaz to meeting Argyle, who serves as the chair of the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee. The Committee, made up of a number of notable local writers, began working last February to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.
A member of the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters (FACL), Argyle approached the foundation a year ago to see what he could do to help. The Committee was granted $40,000 to sponsor a refugee family, with one condition: That money had to involve bringing a refugee writer to Canada.
The connection between the family and that mandate is obvious, and only strengthened by the fact that both Ghamr and Taim seem to have inherited their parents’ talents. While still in Syria, Ghamr won first place in a children’s poetry competition in 2009, and, while in Dubai, Taim won first prize in a short story competition through Oxford University.
Finally landing in Toronto just days before the end of 2016, and with the drive to Kingston ahead of them, the end of a tumultuous journey was closer than ever before. In reality, a three-hour drive along Highway 401 is like peaceful slumber is to a nightmare when compared to more than 14,000 km the family has traveled over two and a half years. And that’s before one even considers the oppression and fear that marked their lives prior to their decision to leave their homeland.
Originally from Syria, the family felt forced to flee in 2014 after a failed kidnapping attempt on Rufaida and the boys. It wasn’t the family’s first brush with the widespread desolation and uncertainty plaguing their country, either.
In 1977, government intelligence agents raided Saeed’s family home. Just 18 years old at the time, Saeed managed to escape, and he lived underground for the next three years. Then, in 1980, Saeed was arrested for his membership in the Syrian Labour League and for expressing opposition to the government. He spent nearly 12 years imprisoned under the former al-Assad regime.
As the current war in Syria continued to leave much of the country in devastation and uncertainty, the family felt threatened by militias of both the current al-Assad regime and opposing Islamic groups, and lived under constant surveillance. While they lived in an area of Damascus under control of the regime in “better circumstances than many other people,” daily life was a fearful struggle, Rufaida expressed.
“We lived all kinds of wars that the regime launched against people in Syria. We lived bombing, we lived besieged, we lived fear… we lived all kinds of fear: Fear about our relatives, our friends,” she said.
“We lived [with] lack of everyday needs, like electricity, water, bread… sometimes, we ran out of bread.”
The roads leading up to the their mountainside home were cut off by checkpoints, so the family had to climb the steep terrain by foot to reach their door. But that paled in comparison to the constant fear and agony that came with living in a warzone.
“War. Death. Anger… so much anger. We didn’t feel angry, but the others…” Saeed said, his voice trailing off in thought.
“It was a kind of hell.”
And with two young men as their children, the fear the couple lived through was compounded by the fear of their sons being conscripted into one of the militias, or harmed during their daily commutes.
“I [swore] many times ‘this is the last time that I allow [the] boys to go to school,’ because of bombing and shouting and anger,” Saeed expressed, noting that he and al Khabbaz faced difficult decisions daily when their sons wanted to go to school or the gym they trained at.
“I don’t know what’s the right thing – to keep them indoors, or to allow them to go.”
Now, in Canada, in the apartment the Committee has set up for them, the couple is happy to see their boys going out and exploring the city. Both Ghamr and Taim, who studied English while in Dubai thanks to the foresight and financial sacrifice of their parents, are currently students at LCVI, and they’ve already gone out to take in some of the activities available to them here, such as exploring Kingston City Hall and taking in a Frontenacs hockey game.
The youngest Saeed, arriving back to the apartment with some basic supplies like soap and hooks to hang some pictures, said there are some major differences to adjust to, like the weather and the number of people, he’s settling in well.
“Even before we came here, everybody was like ‘You’re going to Canada? The people are lovely!’ And everyone is really kind,” Taim said.
Looking to the future, Saeed and al Khabbaz are working with KEYS to expand their vocabulary and language skills and hoping to find work as soon as possible. The boys are looking forward to getting involved with sports, and getting to know their classmates. And the Committee is hoping the community can help in bridging the financial gap left in covering all the costs associated with getting the family here safely – another $10,000 is needed, Argyle explained, and both the family and the Committee are incredibly grateful for any contributions made.
To contribute, cheques can be made out to the Foundation for the Advancement of Letters, which was founded by Argyle, and sent to 1319 Waterside Way, Kingston, Ont., K7K 7J8.
It’s been a whirlwind of changes, obstacles and mixed emotions for the family over the past few years, but the couple point to the Kingston Writers’ Refugee Committee for giving them a sense of security they’ve not experienced in many years.
“They’ve astonished us, really,” Rufaida said. “I think they saved our lives.”