West Kelowna couple fighting to 'save the lives' of Syrian family
The Arabic term meaning "God willing" is used often in everyday conversations throughout the Middle East.
For years Wendy Porteous Scorgie and Jim Scorgie heard their friend, Marwa Saffaf, speak the phrase. But recently, she has been saying it with increasing desperation.
Wendy and Jim moved to Aleppo, Syria in 2001. At the time, the city was much different than the war-torn scenes portrayed in news stories today.
"The people were happy," said Wendy.
"The whole time we lived there, the Syrian people could not have been more friendly and welcoming to us."
Jim became the principal of a high school in Aleppo and Wendy was a teacher-librarian. She had limited training in the position, but was quickly shown the ropes by her two library assistants—one of whom was Marwa.
It didn't take long for Wendy and Marwa to become friends.
"What I loved about knowing Marwa was she educated me on what it was like being a single Muslim woman," said Wendy.
From discussions of arranged marriages to the dynamics of family life, Marwa gave Wendy a better grasp of Syrian culture.
Wendy and Jim left Syria in 2004. Since then, a lot has changed.
Marwa now has husband, Badreddin Homad, and three young boys: Mutaz, 5, Adam, 4, and Yuhus, 1.
Syria has changed as well, but not for the better.
Over the last two years a nationwide uprising has taken over the country. Recently, the situation has gotten particularly bad in Aleppo.
Wendy and Jim communicated with Marwa over Skype as recently as Thursday morning.
"(Thursday) she said there was somebody who can shoot from very far away—she means a sniper—so she can't go outside the area," said Wendy.
A bakery, a three minute walk away from her house, was blown up the day before. Marwa's family constantly hear the sound of explosions.
"It is dire."
In late January, Jim recorded a Skype conversation with Marwa.
"The street is horrible," Marwa said.
"From six in the morning, soldiers are (near) my house, shouting for the people to stop and get back home, because (they) said they have the right to shoot any time they want."
Wendy and Jim felt they had to do something—they didn't want Marwa to stay and didn't want to see her and her young boys cross the border into a "horrible" refugee camp in Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq.
Through Facebook conversations, the Westside couple encouraged Marwa and her family to apply for temporary Canadian resident visas and offered to put them up when, or if, they arrive in Canada.
Taking Jim and Wendy up on their offer, Marwa and her husband travelled by bus to Beirut to submit their applications, along with a letter of invitation, Jan. 23.
The journey was not an easy one.
"It's about a five hour drive from Aleppo to Beirut. They were stopped, taken off their transport and her husband was put in a room and interrogated as to his political views and that type of thing," said Jim.
He added the trip required Marwa and her husband to travel through several small towns currently engulfed by violence.
Less than a week after submitting their application, they received a letter of rejection.
In a letter obtained by Capital News dated Jan. 28, an officer of Citizen and Immigration Canada wrote: "I have completed my assessment of your application and I have determined that you do not meet the requirements for a temporary resident visa; therefore, your application is refused."
The main reason for the refusal was that the officer was not satisfied Marwa and her family would leave Canada at the end of their stay as temporary residents.
Wendy said Marwa's intentions are not to stay in Canada long-term—she owns a kindergarten in Aleppo and has a house that she hopes to return to.
"Syrians are very proud. They love their country and hope it will be the same as it was before. She would like to go back," said Wendy.
"Whether she has to renew, whether she can't go back to the same place she left—that may be the situation. But she didn't have a chance to explain any of that to anybody, it was just a case of: No.
"That's what we think has been very unfair about the process."
Another concern was that Marwa has family ties to Canada. Wendy noted she has an aunt who lives in Toronto who she "would never think to contact."
Jim said he has brought the issue to Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas, but nothing has been done yet.
"In their application, we did everything we thought was right. We wrote a letter of invitation, saying we would be financially responsible for them here and we wanted them to stay for just short of a year—that's the maximum visa they can get," said Jim, adding Marwa planned to bring a significant amount of money, which he assumed would be looked at as a "good thing" to illustrate less dependancy.
"(Albas) indicated that those are all red lights for people who want to come in and claim refugee status."
Jim said Albas told him Marwa needs to get evidence from prominent Syrians, such as mayors and doctors, who indicate her family is likely to return home before the expiration of a temporary visa.
"The trouble is, she's out there trying to do that, but nobody wants to put pen to paper.
"It's all broken down to the point where…your primary focus is you. They (hesitate) at the thought of doing anything that could jeopardize their own safety."
Capital News attempted to reach Albas Thursday; however, he was unable to comment because he was preparing to board a flight from Ottawa to the Okanagan.
Wendy and Jim have encouraged Marwa to keep trying to attain letters that may help her cause, even though "she's having a great difficulty getting them."
They've also asked Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney to reconsider approving the rejected application.
Wendy referenced the tale of the old man and the starfish to illustrate the impact she feels Minister Kenney can have on Marwa's family.
In the story, an old man walks along a beach where thousands of stranded starfish will surely die from the sun, throwing the odd starfish in the water. A younger man passing by asks why he's wasting his time and suggests he can't possibly make a difference. The man picks up a small starfish, throws it into the water, and says, "I made a difference to that one."
"Minister Kenney can't save the world, but he does have the power to save this one family," said Wendy.
In the meantime, Wendy and Jim continue to do what they can while losing sleep worrying about their friend.
And, while stuck at home between power cuts and Internet failures, their friend Marwa continues to connect with them via Skype, hoping something will change to allow her family into the safe haven Canada can provide—Insha'Allah.