The struggle continues – Haitham needs our help

Haitham’s neighbourhood being bombed

The refugee crisis is not over.

Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. Families and individuals have fled bombing, witnessed murders, and endured forced military service while they evade radical groups that are terrorizing their region. Many have lost everything. They had jobs, careers, homes, communities, stable lives, and friends. Those things have been destroyed.

Haitham is one of these people. His neighbourhood, in his hometown of Damascus, was destroyed by bombs. His family has been displaced and his community destroyed. His home is now a pile of rubble.

Searching for survivors in Haitham’s neighbourhood

Haitham’s neighbourhood – destroyed

Haitham fled when he was forced to choose between serving in the military or being killed. While his family fled to Egypt, Haitham followed a job lead to Turkey. The job did not materialize, and he spent the next couple of years scrambling to survive. Work was rarely available, and when it was, it was often underpaid or stolen. He found himself sleeping in parks and eating only eggs for months on end. Starving and unable to get enough to live on, he returned to Syria where he was immediately arrested and sentenced to hard labour.

After several months of labour, he managed to escape to Lebanon, crossing the border at night. There, he again lived under very difficult circumstances; beatings were common for Syrians living there.

Finally, after borrowing from every resource available, his parents were able to bribe officials to let him into Egypt. They were reunited for a short time. His family then had to leave him behind when were accepted into Canada as government sponsored refugees. Haitham has been struggling in Egypt ever since.

In the past couple of years, the United Nations has recorded the highest number of refugees in history. Over 12 million people from Syria are displaced or seeking refuge, in addition to over 8 million people from Africa, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world. At the same time, the voluntary return rates—a measure of how many refugees can safely return home—are at their lowest levels in over 3 decades. Never before has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion, and support for people who have lost everything. For many of these people, getting enough to eat is a daily challenge, abuse is common, and there is little hope for a better future.

Haitham and his newly born son

In 2016, the outpouring of support in Canada for Syrian refugees was tremendous. People from Victoria came together and sponsored dozens of families. The Federal Government matched this effort by bringing nearly as many families to Lower Vancouver Island.

Since then, a lot of people have been busy helping these new Canadians set up their homes and settle into a new life. But there is more to do. There are more people to reunite with their families and more people to give a chance at a safe and secure life.

Haitham is such a person. Now that he is married and has a baby son, life has become even more difficult. He and his new family desperately need our help to resettle near his parents, who have recently arrived in Canada.

I have been helping newly arrived refugees for the past two years by receiving and distributing donated household goods and furniture to help them completely furnish and set up their new households thanks to the help of Victoria’s generous donors and volunteers.

Now, I want to do more. I want to sponsor Haitham. But, I cannot do it alone. It will take a small committed multi-skilled group, pulling together to do, over a 12 month period, all that needs to be done to resettle Haitham’s small family ..from housing to health, ESL and much more, so as to help them integrate and become self sustaining. And, this group will have to raise the money required to do all this, as other groups have done before us.

Contact me at or call 778-433-0337


From Syrian refugees to business owners in 1 year

Syrian couple who came to Victoria, B.C., as refugees open new business making food

By Gregor Craigie, CBC News
Posted: Jun 13, 2017 3:01 PM PT           Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017 3:01 PM PT

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar came to Canada as refugees in 2016. They now make Syrian food and have a food company called Saraya Hot Bread in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

A Syrian couple who came to Canada as refugees last year are the new owners of a fledgling food business they started with the help of new Canadian friends.

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar make several types of Mediterranean food with traditional Syrian recipes, such as Baba ghanoush, Dolma, lentil fingers and stuffed hot bread.

They now sell their food under the name Saraya Hot Bread at a deli in Victoria, B.C.

Making food comes naturally to the family but starting a new business in a new country with a long list of licences and health requirements did not. So, the couple relied on the help of volunteers from a local refugee sponsorship group.

Karen Short is a volunteer with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society, which is working to sponsor Hajibrahim’s sister to come to Canada as a refugee. In six weeks, Short and other volunteers helped the Syrian couple set up a sole proprietorship, obtain necessary licences, and find an accredited commercial kitchen.

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar stand with Lisa Buchan, the deli director at the Red Barn Markets, and Karen Short, with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

Ibrahim Hajibrahim, Ranim Khochkar, Lisa Buchan, and Karen Short
Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar stand with Lisa Buchan, the deli director at the Red Barn Markets, and Karen Short, with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

“Ibrahim said do you think people would buy our food if we had a restaurant?” Short recalled. “There isn’t a Syrian restaurant in Victoria and startup costs for a restaurant are huge. And I said, well, I think people would buy your food if you could think of a way to sell it without the expenditure of setting up a storefront operation.”

The food is now sold at one of the Red Barn Market grocery stores in Victoria, B.C.

The deli director of Red Barn Markets, Lisa Buchan, said it was an easy decision to sell the product.

“Well, I tasted it,” she said, “and that pretty much sold itself.”

The Saraya Hot Bread foods are now only sold in one location, but Buchan said “we’re hoping to expand to other locations soon.”

Hajibrahim and Khochkar are hopeful their new business will help them make ends meet in their new hometown.

Rent is expensive in Victoria, and they have four young children to support, as well as Hajibrahim’s mother.

A new business and a new life in Canada

As was the case with so many other Syrian refugees, the couple never planned on leaving their home.

But when armoured vehicles surrounded their neighbourhood in the city of Latakia, in 2013, Hajibrahim feared for his safety.

He is a pharmacist and had provided medicine to many people in the community during the fighting. He worried that he might be arrested as a result, so he fled to Turkey.

Hajibrahim hopes to work as a pharmacist here, eventually, but first he will have to recertify and learn more technical English. That is likely to take three years, but in the meantime he said the family’s new business venture has made him feel like his family belongs.

“So, we feel now like we are not refugees,” Hajibrahim said. “We are settled people.”

Haida Gwaii Sponsorship Joys and Sorrows

We are totally grateful to the generosity of Haida Gwaiians and folks from all across British Columbia, Canada and even the United States. Your donations have helped the Sirhans with dental treatments and medical trips to Vancouver. Thank you all from the bottom of our hearts!

Successful Dental Surgery
With the assistance of our local dentist, we flew Aya, Shahid and Alaa out to Vancouver in early February to have their dental surgery with a paediatric dentist. After almost nine hours, the dentist fixed a total of 38 cavities, some gum disease and infected teeth.

New Leg for Douaa
On January 12, Douaa flew to Vancouver with Hassan and she received her new walking leg! Here’s a video link to the day she was fitted her new leg.

This little 5-year-old girl is determined to walk again. Since her return to Haida Gwaii, she is able to participate in dance classes, PE and independently check out the equipment at playgrounds.

Our Next Steps
Shahid will fly off again to Vancouver as she now has a medical appointment with an orthopedist at BC Children’s Hospital on March 27.

Both Shahid and Douaa were injured in Syria when the rocket hit their house. According to the doctor, Shahid needs multiple knee surgeries to correct her bone growth till she is a young adult.

Douaa will also need to eventually head off to Vancouver for her paediatric dental care in the next few months. Hassan and Lama had undergone a few dental treatments to fix cavities and infections.


Our sincere condolences to Hassan, his parents and siblings who are still in Syria. His older brother Abdullah and another White Helmet volunteer died on March 20 when their vehicle was hit by a missile.

Abdullah was the Director of the Syria Civil Defence in Dara’a. He and hundreds of White Helmet volunteers work so hard in saving lives. Abdullah left behind his wife and five young children.

Here is White Helmet’s tribute to Abdullah on the Syria Campaign page. It is sad to see that the civil war in Syria has impacted many innocent lives.
If you would like to learn more about The White Helmets, you can check out their website or view the 40-minute documentary “The White Helmets” on Netflix. This documentary recently won an Oscar in February. Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khatib was denied entry to the U.S. to attend the Oscar ceremony.

Hassan’s heart wrenching interview about his brother Abdullah was aired this morning on CBC’s Daybreak North. Here’s the link to the web story and sound recording –




Copyright © 2017 Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii, All rights reserved.
Thanks for supporting our new Syrian friends.

Our mailing address is:
Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii
Box 807
Queen Charlotte, BC V0T 1S0

Add us to your address book


The Best Thank-You from Haida Gwaii

A donor has chosen to share with us the most beautiful thank-you from a sponsorship group to which she contributed: Refugee Sponsors Haida Gwaii:

Amazingly, not everyone agrees with Trump’s “Me First” version of compassion and grace towards Muslim refugees, but there was a piece in the local paper about the efforts made by residents of the Islands Haida Gwai (just off the coast of BC) who had sponsored more refugees than they could comfortably handle and so they were appealing for financial assistance.  I joined in with others to send them help and the below lovely photos show gratitude returned ten-fold.


rshg01 rshg02 rshg03 rshg04 rshg05





Private sponsorship groups in B.C. want Ottawa to do more to ensure refugees arrive

Wendy Stueckorshalomsyrianrefugeeinitiative

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 8:14PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 8:17PM EST


Private sponsorship groups in the Lower Mainland are calling on the federal government to do more to ensure Syrian refugees get to Canada, saying they feel shortchanged by a process that matched them to refugee families and then appeared to grind to a halt.

“We were told that our families would arrive, at the latest, by December or January – and we still don’t know what’s happening,” said David Berson, co-chair of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugee Initiative.

Mr. Berson and representatives from other sponsorship groups spoke Friday at a news conference held to highlight concerns over processing times.

Or Shalom and a dozen other Lower Mainland churches, synagogues and community groups have applied to privately sponsor refugees from Syria and submitted their paperwork before March 31. The federal government has said it would do its best to ensure applications submitted before that date were processed by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

Read more: New report offers glimpse into lives of British Columbia’s Syrian refugees  

Read more: Senate committee calls on Ottawa to do more for refugee integration 

Read more: One year after arrival, Syrian refugees continue to face employment barriers

Despite that reassurance, the groups are worried that processing could stretch into late 2017 or beyond. The applications involve about 100 people – all of whom have family members or friends already living in the Lower Mainland – in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

“Some of the Syrian refugees are wondering if Canada is going to make good on its commitment to resettle them,” NDP MP and immigration critic Jenny Kwan said at the news conference.

“This is not a message we want to be sending to the international community.”

The government could do more to ensure privately sponsored refugee applications are processed in a timely fashion, Ms. Kwan said, including seeking assistance in conducting interviews from other agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms. Kwan said.

In a recent e-mail to The Globe and Mail, an Immigration Department spokeswoman said, “the commitment to process privately sponsored Syrian refugee applications submitted up to March 31, 2016 has always been by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

“This deadline has not moved and we are on track.”

As of Nov. 20, 84 per cent of privately sponsored applications submitted by March 31, 2016 were in process, which means that they “were under review or had been finalized,” the spokeswoman said.

An Immigration Department spokeswoman also said “operational planning is under way for a follow-up trip into northern Iraq, during which we hope to schedule these [privately sponsored refugee] cases.”

Sponsor groups that have been in communication with people in refugee camps say those people have not been interviewed and are struggling with health and safety concerns.

Private sponsors agree to support refugees for 12 months after they arrive, which typically involves helping families with food, housing and other support, including medical and dental care.

Senate Report on Refugees Hits the Mark

Canada4Refugees broadly and enthusiastically supports the recommendations made this week by the Human Rights Committee of the Senate, aimed at better meeting the needs of refugees coming to Canada.

The report outlines the way forward for the Trudeau government on issues relating to refugees: better support for private refugee sponsor groups; shorter processing times for refugee claims; greater transparency by government and better support for refugees already arrived in Canada.

The committee’s report says government-assisted refugees (GARs) currently receive inadequate financial and social supports. It also says that settlement agencies claim to be underfunded, with the result that services to assist refugees’ success in Canada are too limited.

The Senate Committee also recommends that the federal government pay refugees’ airfares to Canada, rather than requiring refugee families to start their life in Canada thousands of dollars in debt. Canada4Refugees has advocated this position since the government stopped paying airfares for refugees earlier year.

The report notes that many sponsorship groups are frustrated because the Syrian refugees they are sponsoring have not arrived after many months of waiting, and also by reports that the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) department agrees that the `demand’ by sponsorship groups to host refugees “significantly exceeds supply.”

The chair of the committee is Senator Jim Munson. The deputy chair is Senator Salma Ataullahjan.

The full report is here: Senate Committee Report.

Canada4Refugees will be writing to the government and members of the Parliamentary Committee to push for the quick adoption of these recommendations.

We urge sponsor groups to write their Members of Parliament, asking them to support the recommendations and also indicate their support to Mr. McCallum.

Titled `Finding Refuge in Canada: A Syrian Resettlement Story’, the Senate report reiterates many of the problems sponsorship groups have been pressing for months. It proposes a dozen reasonable recommendations, which the government should enact right away.

Among the committee’s recommendations:

  • The IRCC should improve processing times and be more transparent about processing of refugees.
  • More resources should be provided to settlement agencies and programs such as ESL (and child care for those participating in ESL), for youth and for mental health needs.
  • The government should provide better support for sponsor groups, both those wishing to choose refugee families for resettlement, and those wishing to help so-called Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) refugees, which are assigned to sponsor groups by the government.
  • The government should cover transportation costs rather than requiring refugees to pay them.
  • Programs to keep extended refugee families united should be improved.

(On the same day the report was released, IRCC Minister John McCallum announced that the time for family re-unification of non-refugees will be cut from 24 months to 12 months, and the re-unification guide will shrink from 150 to 75 pages. No similar measures have been announced for refugees seeking to keep their extended families together.)

John Sewell for

Settling In – The Qualicum RSG Experience


Kyin Thaung with Mayor Westbroek at the family “Meet & Greet” in September

I have been out of communication for quite some time now so wanted to send you all a little update on how things are going. The family is doing wonderfully and continue to amaze us with their adaptability and their eagerness to make the most of their new life here. The four oldest children are all in school full time now while the youngest is in play school. Mom and dad are attending formal language training 5 mornings per week in Nanaimo as well as working part-time. There are also additional tutoring sessions with everyone throughout the week and of course all of the normal extracurricular activities like soccer, dance, basketball, swimming, etc. Just like any other Canadian family with 5 kids it’s a VERY busy household!


Eh Nyaw Paw enjoying the toys at daycare

We recently received some exciting news from Knox United Church in Parksville. They have decided to fund raise with the goal of repaying the family’s travel/medical loan! With the exception of Syrian refugees who arrived to Canada within a specified period of time, all refugees to Canada are required to pay back the cost of their travel expenses as well as medical examination fees and other administration fees. In the case of the family we sponsored that load amounts to almost $10,000! Starting a new life in a new country is stressful enough without that extra debt hanging over them so it’s wonderful that Knox United has stepped up to the plate to help! Please support their efforts by spreading the word and helping out in other ways if you can.


P’yo Yo in shop class at KSS

Our volunteers continue to be involved in many ways, from driving and tutoring to help with shopping and cheering on the children’s soccer games. If you are interested in checking out any of the soccer games you can find the schedules and other information here:
Oceanside Youth Soccer
Harbour City F.C.


Kyin Thaung, Ta Paut Mu, Myint Oo, Pyint Thu Zar and Hla Nainq Oo on the 1st day of school


Ah Dee working at DemXx

The teams are Youth Regional League U18 Boys Oceanside, U15 Boys Oceanside 1, and U12/13 Girls Oceanside 1. All are color yellow. The youngest boy is on the U8 Boys (Pony) team #4 that plays Saturdays, 9:00 am at the Parksville Community Park.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued efforts and support!


Carol Doering
Chair, Qualicum RSG

Newcomer Arrival -The Galiano Experience

newcomersOur greeting group were so happy with how plans turned out at the airport and getting back over to the Island. The four newcomers completed their border checks in record time and were in the International Arrivals Lounge before we even knew it! There they were… lovely R in fashionable black puffy parka and cornrow braids, E taking easy charge of his little sister, and serene and grateful M. They had been traveling since Sunday and so were exceedingly tired. We opened up the clothes bag and were grateful for Anna’s provisions for all. The scarves they wrapped around themselves immediately – staying warm will be a challenge!

Setting out, we stopped at the outdoor vegetable market in Steveston where M elected to get out of the car and have a look around while E helped pick out familiar-looking vegetables. Then all rallied with a trip into Winners for shoes, socks and other necessaries. The ferry line-up proved a good place for the two women to catch short naps in the car while E and Bruce shared some Chinese food in the concourse.

Once back on Galiano, Diana and I went in to orient them somewhat to the house. It will be perfect for them and what a wonderfully well-stocked kitchen Janice has provided! Before we left for the night, M put on her long patterned African skirt, gathered R, D, Diana and me into a circle and said a prayer of thanks for their safe arrival and their warm welcome. What a wonderful day!

Tomorrow Jan and I will go over in the morning and Quetzo and Janice will go over in the afternoon. A schedule will develop as we begin to see their needs and how each of us with our unique skills can fill these needs. Stay tuned!

Thanks to everyone for the parts you have played in ensuring our progress thus far. Lots of learning still to do but we are so happy the start of their time here has gone so very well!

by Marian Lowry

Preparing for newcomers – The Galiano experience

Public Meeting, September 18:

Newcomers Coming!

As Galiano anticipates the arrival of four newcomers to this island, preparations are underway to make their integration into island life as easy as possible. With many questions to be answered about how all this might work, a public meeting was held on September 18 at the South Hall where presenters gave updates to islanders about the four people about to join our community. They are coming from west Africa, from Cote d’Ivoire. The two women, one of whom has two small children, will be living in the suite in a house near the school.

The main issues of language and cultural integration were a focus of discussion; as well, Janice had on display a variety of food items that will be stocked in the house for the arrival of people who more than likely will not be familiar with some of the packages they will encounter on our grocery shelves. The more than forty attendees at the meeting were made aware of the degree of preparation to date, and the fact that while we know who is coming our way, we don’t yet know very much about them. For example, we can only guess at their clothing requirements, coming from equatorial Africa at this time of year.

We can at least anticipate that their transition here will be challenging in some ways, easy in others, and with the guidance of the counseling team we are working to co-ordinate our efforts and make it the best possible experience for these newcomers. The practical challenges of transportation for medical appointments and shopping, using our currency, dealing with household appliances, building trust and getting to know individuals on the team, and language acquisition are all factors we have to take into account. And there are more, no doubt: the best laid plans should have a back-up, and the team has done a lot of thinking and projecting in order to minimize the surprise factor for ourselves.

It should be interesting!


Team Training, September 20

Following the public meeting, Tuesday saw the Support Project assembled at the Lions’ Hall for a half-day training session with two presenters from the diocese in Victoria. Malcolm and Betty took us through scenarios typical for new arrivals and their sponsoring groups, and small group discussions allowed everyone to express a point of view and brainstorm solutions. It was easy to see how relevant the scenarios presented were to our anticipated experience, and it was a valuable exercise in creating dialogue and sharing concerns.

It was reassuring to come away from the afternoon knowing that we had already done a lot of pre-thinking over the previous months. The issues of respecting the personal needs and rights of the newcomers—of giving them ownership of their experience—became a significant theme in our discussions. We are there to offer guidance and encouragement, and to move them toward the goal of eventual self-sufficiency over a twelve-month period. We are there to help make the right things happen for them in what will be a totally new environment, and to help them see beyond the mandated time of sponsorship.


Teaching English when ESL classes are not available

Be they government assisted or privately sponsored refugees, they have 12 months to become self-sufficient. For many refugees, the biggest hurdle to becoming self-sufficient is learning English. The problem is ESL classes are backed up and must be booked months in advance (Update: The situation may not be so dismal. See Millions worth of free English classes for Syrian refugees going unused).

Phyllis Fatt, a member of St. Michael’s Anglican Church. She used the following tips/tricks to help the mother of a refugee family learn English. She provided the ESL exercises in the family’s home because it worked best for the mom. Phyllis reports that the mom found these exercises in her home very helpful, and gave her a start. They helped prepare her so she felt more confident when she finally was able to attend official ESL classes.

This is what Phyllis did, in her own words:

When I first started I introduced myself saying:

My name is……..

And, your name is …….

I talked a lot about money and took money samples with me, coin as well as bills. For example, $1, 5c., 10c., 25c., and how they make up a dollar. While doing this, we counted in English.

I used grocery ads with pictures illustrating what you buy for how much money and let them figure out the costs.

I had a book called “Market Math” which I bought at the teacher’s store on Douglas St.

I used flash cards saying the words and getting them to respond, also learning A, B, C…

Some days I took toy dishes and pots, illustrating setting a table, e.g. I am setting the table, You are setting the table, and We are setting the table, etc.

I went to the library and got kindergarten books with pictures to read together.

I would make up a story. One sentence lines, e.g. Today the weather is good. They would copy this and I would correct it on the next visit. (i.e. their homework)

I had a calendar, and took it each time I went. Then I could indicate when I would come again.

Tried to explain the make-up of Canada, the provinces, etc. Need to take a map.

I did not do all of the above each time I went. I gradually felt my way along.

Occasionally, I would take a fruit or something seasonal, perhaps a vegetable, and we would talk about it.

I think you have to figure out where there interest lies and work from there.