It was an emotional reunion at the Vancouver International Airport Tuesday. Marwa O'da, a young Palestinian refugee escaping Syria, had just arrived on an early flight, when she spotted her fiancé, Wissam Nassar, from the top of the escalator.
Marwa ran down the steps, past the other passengers, into the arms of her soon-to-be husband. There were tears and smiles.
"I feel big happiness," said Marwa, 26, grinning from ear to ear and clutching two bouquets of flowers. "(I'm) very happy because I'm with my fiancé," she added, giving him a hug.
Wissam, 26, was also beaming.
"I'm very excited and very happy," Wissam said. "I can't believe my eyes."
It's been more than two years since the two last saw each other. The couple met in Syria and became engaged but were separated when the Nassar family was privately sponsored to come to Canada as refugees.
Coquitlam residents Ian and Heather Macdonald led the efforts to sponsor the Nassars, and a few months after the family of four arrived in Canada, Wissam mentioned he had left his fiancée back in Syria. Heather decided to bring Marwa to Canada, too, and the sponsorship process started in November 2011.
"Then, of course, everything went wrong in Syria, and we were biting our nails, wondering if she would ever get out," Heather told the NOW.
After a long journey from Syria to Lebanon, Turkey and Toronto, Marwa finally arrived safe and sound in Vancouver, and the timing couldn't be better. U.S. President Barack Obama has been calling for military intervention in the conflict-torn country, where at least 100,000 people have died and thousands more, including children, perished in a recent chemical attack.
Syria has been mired in civil war for roughly two years, and Marwa is part of a mass exodus. Syria's population is approximately six million, and on Tuesday, the day she landed in Vancouver, the United Nations put the total number of refugees at two million.
At the Vancouver airport, Marwa checked in with a non-profit group welcoming other refugees, also from Syria, but Heather said their numbers are next to nil, because it's so difficult to get out now.
Canada's visa office in Damascus has been closed since last summer because of the escalating conflict, and there's no place in Syria to apply as a privately sponsored or government-assisted refugee. (Heather had to arrange for Marwa's departure, long distance, through Beirut.)
Wissam's mother and father were also happy to see Marwa arrive.
"I'm happy (that she's) come to Canada and that my son will marry," Waleed said.
"I'm very happy," said Wissam's mother Suhair. "I can't believe she's here."
After Marwa collected her bags, the plan was to head home to Burnaby for a reception. The couple hopes to marry soon, and they are already looking for a free wedding hall.
According to Heather, people from Burnaby and beyond have supported the efforts to sponsor Marwa by giving money, helping organize a benefit concert and donating good furniture for the young couple's new home.
As private sponsors, the Macdonalds are responsible for the first year of Marwa's stay in Canada. They are obligated to provide a level of help that's comparable to social assistance. Heather estimated that it costs roughly $15,000 to sponsor a refugee in Canada. After the first year, they are on their own.
"We're the only country in the world that does it," she said. "Private sponsorship it's called, and I'm very proud of Canada for doing it."
Marwa worked as a nurse in Syria, and Heather is hoping she will retrain in Canada and continue on her career path. Marwa's immigration paperwork was processed in Toronto, before she made the connecting flight to Vancouver, and she is now a permanent resident.
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