Wissam Nassar hasn't seen his fiancé, Marwa, in two years. He left her behind in Syria, after a former Burnaby pastor and his wife sponsored the Nassars as refugees. Now, they are working to sponsor her as well, and reunite the young couple in Burnaby.
Wissam Nassar, 26, watches his former home go up in flames on a flat screen monitor in his Burnaby apartment.
The shaky YouTube video shows a scene of panic at Al Tanf, a refugee camp in the middle of the desert on the border of Syria and Iraq. One of the khaki tents has caught fire, and within minutes, the flames and billowing black smoke spread to adjacent tents. Men shouting in Arabic fetch water, desperately trying to squelch the rising inferno. Somewhere in the chaos are Wissam and his brother.
"The people tried to put the fire (out), but they can't," Wissam calmly explains. "We just bring water, ... to control the fire. ... It was really hard. It's hard to describe. In that time, I was scared for my family."
No one died, and his family's tent was spared, but fires like this were all too common at Al Tanf, a camp set up in 2006 in Syria for Palestinian refugees escaping Iraq. They had nowhere else to go. No country would take them.
Wissam is from Palestine, but he's never seen his home country. In 1948, Israelis asked his grandfather to leave - just for one week, then he could return.
"We are still waiting," Wissam says with a laugh.
Wissam and his 29-year-old brother, Wassem, were born in Iraq, as were their parents. As stateless refugees, the Nassar family held no passports. As Palestinians, they faced discrimination and persecution in Iraq.
"In that time, we didn't have any rights to study or work. ... everything was not allowed for us," he says, seated on the couch, next to his mother Suhair, donning a hijab.
Then in 2006, they began to leave: first his brother Wassem, then three months later Wissam. They went to Syria, which was relatively peaceful then, Wissam says. His brother, who arrived first, slept in the streets till he found himself an apartment.
"It was hard in the beginning. We didn't know anybody there," Wissam says.
But soon, he met someone. A young Palestinian woman who also left Iraq. Her name was Marwa.
"I knew her brother," Wissam says. "I went to her house, got to know her."
In a couple of weeks, Wissam was in love.
"She's brave, and she likes to study. She's still working now, even in the bad situation there," he says.
In 2008, Wissam's parents also came to Syria, but once the family's three-month visas expired, they were in Syria illegally, and they were rounded up and moved to the Al Tanf refugee camp.
"I refused to go to the camp at that time, because I knew I would separate (from) her," Wissam says. "But I don't have any choice. I have to go."
The two chatted on their cell phones, when Wissam was in the camp, and he was able to see Marwa in Damascus while on study leave as part of a special program.
The Nassars were moved to a second refugee camp, and eventually the United Nations Refugee Agency declared the family refugees, but because they were stateless, they were not eligible to come to Canada as government-sponsored refugees - private sponsorship was the only way to get them out. A Canadian Embassy visa officer connected the Nassars with a sponsor family - Ian Macdonald, a Coquitlam man and former pastor at the South Burnaby United Church, and his wife Heather, along with the Westminster Presbytery of the United Church and the B.C. Muslim Association.
"We didn't know them. We never met them. We did (an) interview with Canadian Embassy," Wissam says. "It's unbelievable. We feel like on the top of the world at that time."
But leaving Syria meant leaving Marwa.
Their families held a small, engagement party, unofficially acknowledging the two as betrothed, but when they would marry, nobody knew. Then it was time for Wissam to say goodbye to Marwa.
"I promised her I will keep in touch, and I promised her I will marry her," he explains, somewhat bashfully.
Marwa cried, and told Wissam not to forget her for some Canadian girl.
"She was jealous," he adds, with a laugh.
When the Nassars arrived in Canada on June 20, 2011, there was a two-bedroom, furnished apartment waiting for them.
"(It had) everything, from A to Z," Wissam says. "We were shocked. In the first few days, we told each other we are in paradise. We are in safe country."
Wissam's family is settling in Burnaby. His father is working in a bread factory, and Wissam is in the process of getting a job as a security guard. His brother works as a cashier, and his mom is studying English.
Meanwhile, Marwa is back in Damascus, working as a nurse in a private clinic.
"She wishes she could come here and hopes to come here," Wissam says.
"She wants to see Wissam," his mom adds.
But Wissam acknowledges it's difficult to get out of Syria. The political instability has worsened since he left. According to a June 13 United Nations commissioned report, the death toll has reached close to 93,000 over the past two years in the ongoing conflict between armed groups and government forces. Thousands of children have been maimed and tortured.
According to Wissam, Marwa was dangerously close to an explosion just a couple of weeks ago. Her leg was slightly hurt, but she's OK.
The Macdonalds are now hoping to sponsor Marwa, just as they sponsored the Nassars. According to Heather, the family was in Canada for about three months, when Wissam sheepishly mentioned his fiancÃ© in Syria and asked what he could do to get her out.
"I knew because I have scads of experience in immigration that he had no way of getting her here, so I thought, 'OK, I'll do one more,'" Heather says in a phone interview with the NOW.
There's no future for Marwa in Syria, she adds.
"She's a refugee. She has no citizenship. Her future is grim," she says.
Heather estimates that it costs $13,000 to $14,000 per year to sponsor one refugee to come to Canada. The sponsor is responsible for cash or in-kind goods that are at a level on par with social assistance. Heather has been passionate about refugee issues for years, and sponsorship was her chance to make a real impact.
"My theory is even if you've made a difference for one person, you've made a difference in the world," she says.
"It changed their life, but it changed my life, too."
But the Macdonalds aren't the only ones helping Marwa get out of Syria. Mount Seymour United Church enabled Heather, as individuals alone can't sponsor refugees.
To help raise money, the Nassars and the Macdonalds are organizing a concert on Saturday, June 29 at the South Burnaby United Church, at 7591 Gray Ave.
The show starts at 8 p.m. and features Ian Macdonald and Gordon Light of The Common Cup Company, a Christian folk group.
Jamie, Rory and Derek Macdonald - Heather and Ian's sons - will be playing with their rock band The Orchid Highway. Pianist Elfren Ordanza and singer Marie Stevens will be performing with The Rumblers. Wissam and Wassem will also talk about their experiences as refugees, and Heather will talk about sponsorship. Admission is by donation, and $10 is the suggested minimum. The Macdonalds are hoping to raise $2,000 to $3,000. Proceeds will go to the fund to sponsor Marwa, and any money left over will help pay for Marwa's plane ticket, retraining at nursing school, and Wissam and Marwa's wedding.
Wissam is waiting for the day when he can see his fiancÃ© again. "Finally! I hope that my dream (will) come true. My mom is waiting as well, my brother, and all my family," he says.
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