When Kelowna couple James and Wendy Scorgie saw three little pairs of shoes lined up at a doorway of an apartment they’d arranged to stay at in Turkey this June, they breathed a sigh of relief.
They immediately realized that their friend and her three little boys had a shot at a life free of the horrors of the Syrian war.
“It was pretty moving,” said James. “We didn’t know if they were there. We got on the plane to Istanbul and had no idea if they made it to the small apartment we’d arranged for them. But they did.”
It’s only one step in the long effort the Scorgies have put forth to help their friend Marwa and her three children, find safety as the country they once knew was torn apart by war.
They’re hoping Kelowna can come together even more than they’ve already done and help them get one step closer to real security.
The Scorgies met Marwa in 2001, when they worked together at a private school in Aleppo, Syria. In better times Wendy Scorgie worked there in the library and James was the head of the school.
Back then it was a country filled with beauty and kindness, James said, but it was clear years ago that those times would come to an end.
“For months we listened to old friends talk about what it was like to see their home erode,” said James.
“But when things started to get bad in Syria, you could tell…people were fretting, and getting desperate.”
Students and others they knew who once had wealth in businesses and homes, lost it in the war and started to make provisions for a life outside the one they knew with what they had left.
“But the people who were cleaners, the secretaries and the assistant teachers—they weren’t making as much, and didn’t have the means to get up and go,” he said.
“So we put out this thing, saying, ‘We know people are trying to get out, if we can help, let us know.’”
That’s when Marwa became their focus.
“She initially didn’t want to leave…she thought like everyone did…the conflict will end soon and things will go back to normal. The war was in Damascus, to the south, but it kept creeping north.”
As it did, the Scorgies saw images of beautiful scenery they once knew well, turned to rubble, and they kept encouraging the family to leave.
It wasn’t until a year or two ago that Marwa said she’d like to take them up on their offer to visit.
“We tried to get her and her boys into Canada on a visitor’s visa,” he said.
A first attempt didn’t work, so they went to MP Dan Albas who offered some ideas on how to get the visa approved. He told them to include letters of support and an explanation that Marwa had a life in Syria that she had reason to return to.
They sent in the package, and within 24 hours the application was denied a second time.
“There was no explanation… just ‘no.’ So we continued to encourage her to leave and get refugee status,” he said.
It’s a difficult process. One that requires fleeing your country of origin.
“At that point she was still making a living,” he said. “She wanted to leave but she didn’t want to run. So we said there isn’t much we can do.”
They stayed in touch, speaking occasionally on Skype, until things got so bad that the alternative she was avoiding became the only choice. Marwa’s husband and son wanted to make an illegal escape, which is both dangerous and expensive. The Scorgies said they wouldn’t help with that option due to the risks.
So, Marwa’s husband went alone. He made it to Germany, and is currently housed with several other men in a small suite.
He’s applied to have Marwa and his children join him. Thanks to the Scorgies, they’re in a better position to do that.
She initially was going to flee the country by boat, but her paperwork was problematic, as is the case for many of her peers due to a broken bureaucracy, so she had to go back and try again.
She and her children eventually got the paperwork needed to fly to Turkey. Getting there was no easy feat, however. “She got there by bus,” James said. “It used to be a four hour drive, now it’s an 18 hour drive where a guy collects extra money, because there are checkpoints by this group or that group along the way.
“During that bus ride, she told us, a number of young men were pulled off the bus and forced into military service for one group or the other…nobody knew who.”
From Damascus they flew to Beirut, then they were bused to Istanbul. Her three boys, ages three, seven and eight, were in a place they could go outside for the first time in their lives, but it’s not exactly safe.
Marwa speaks English in addition to her mother tongue, not Turkish, and she won’t be able to find work. She’s been ousted from the small apartment that had been arranged for her, in favour of someone who will pay higher rent. In the meantime she’s moved in with her sister.
“Marwa is driven…she’s stuck in Turkey. As a single woman in that part of the world, you don’t have a lot of authority,” James said.
“It’s still difficult, but better than Aleppo.”
Now the Scorgies want to reunite her with her husband.
“Germany is safe and we just want her to be safe,” said James, adding that they’d want to help her come to Canada, where she could work and contribute in the way they knew she would want to.
With that in mind, they have a Gofundme page named Rescue Marwa collecting donations that will go to helping the family.
“There are a lot of people who weren’t over there with us, who have helped with this,” said James.
The page, to date, is three-quarters of the way toward a $10,000 goal to help the family get on their feet.
It’s something that the Scorgies are pleasantly surprised to see come together. “How many times you can donate to something and you know that your donation is affecting the entire future of a family,” said Wendy.
“You donate to the Red Cross, or anything, you don’t know how much is going to administrative costs, or whatever. This money goes directly to help those little boys and they need help.”
The Scorgies said they realize that Marwa and her boys are lucky compared to the many more who haven’t had any help.
The sad horror of young Alyan Kurdi’s death on the beaches of Turkey has brought a renewed global attention to the plight of millions of Syrian refugees.
“It is heartening to hear everyday Canadians pleading with our government to streamline the process to help some of these people find refuge in Canada,” they said on the GoFundMe page.
“To hear though, that only nine families are currently on the list of those who have been vetted and found to be suitable for private sponsorship within Canada, seems incredible.”
For more information go to GoFundMe.com, type in Rescue Marwa.