Naval family helped bring Syrian family to Canada

Jan Nelms and LCdr (Retired) Bruce Nelms (right), sponsors of the Kaiyali family, helped bring the Syrian refugee family to Canada.

Jan Nelms and LCdr (Retired) Bruce Nelms (right), sponsors of the Kaiyali family, helped bring the Syrian refugee family to Canada.

Rachel Lallouz , Staff Writer ~

Writer’s note: This interview could not have been completed without the help of Hanadi Ponsford, translator. In light of the translation process, quotes have been edited for clarity.

In mid-February Zaki and Muzna Kaiyali, along with their 10-year-old daughter Rama and five-year-old son Farouk, touched down at the Victoria International Airport. The Syrian family had made the long journey from Lebanon after fleeing Syria in 2011 and spending almost five years in limbo as refugees.

The Kaiyali family spoke no English, only Arabic, and while they had left behind a familiar community they felt far from alone.

As the Arrivals door opened, the family searched the crowd for familiar faces. Welcoming the them was a small throng of Syrian relatives, including Hanadi Ponsford, a close cousin of the Kaiyali’s who was instrumental in completing the family’s immigration documentation. Also waiting eagerly on the sidelines was LCdr (Retired) Bruce Nelms, now a civilian Formation Comptroller for Maritime Forces Pacific, and his wife Jan, a member of the Cowichan Intercultural Society (CIS) – the organization responsible for sponsoring a Syrian refugee resettlement program in the Nelms’ home town of Duncan.

The Nelms are one of many families who agreed to sponsor a Syrian family. This has meant sharing the responsibility to ensure the housing, funding, and other transition assistance to the Kaiyali’s for one year.

“The more I learned about the situation of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, the more my eyes and sense of understanding was opened to the travesty of life that many people exist in,” says Jan, who studied cultural anthropology in university. “In contrast is the privilege we have been blessed with. But with that privilege comes responsibility. It is our responsibility to do what we can, one person at a time, one family at a time.”

In Syria, the Kaiyali family led a typical life before political violence erupted in 2011. Muzna, a stay-at-home mother, took care of their rented home in the Aleppo area, while Zaki worked long hours as a veteran carpenter of more than 20 years.

But their lives began to crumble when the Syrian government reacted to peaceful protests for freedom with violence.

“The government began shooting people right away, there were bombs going off, people dying. The turmoil in our own community really began to scare us,” says Muzna.

As the violence progressed, the home of Zaki’s mother was destroyed by a bomb. The family then fled to Lebanon looking for refuge.

“We did not feel safe at all, and we knew it was not an appropriate place to raise our children,” says Muzna. “We dreamed of coming to Canada – we didn’t have a choice. With the turmoil we had to get up and go.”

Ponsford, who had been aware of the escalating danger her extended family was in, reached out to CIS in August 2015 when she had heard a group was interested in sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.

After presenting CIS with a file on the family’s situation, the group agreed to begin the long process of completing documentation to move the Kaiyali’s to Canada.

Natives to Syria are automatically granted refugee status in Canada, but that didn’t lessen the workload of the Kaiyali sponsorship team led by CIS member Barb Kruger.

“Ultimately, we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into,” says Jan, of the three-month long process to immigrate the Kaiyali’s. “It took on a life of its own, evolved and the process became very organic.”

Ponsford took on the responsibility of filling out immigration documentation for each member of the Kaiyali family, translating all documentation into English. Kruger worked many hours a day researching contacts and resources for the family upon their arrival, and the entire CIS team worked on gathering information on schools for the children and medical documentation.

“It was truly a labour of love,” says Jan. “There were also mixed feelings – the feeling of excitement as each little piece would get completed and we’d be getting closer, but also feelings of frustration about the paperwork.”

Temporary housing was found through an original member who served on the CIS board who offered up their Duncan basement suite to the Kaiyali’s for a year.

“The immensity of the behind-the-scenes work cannot be underestimated in its importance, commitment, and downright gutsy ‘stick to it’ nature,” adds Jan.

As work was underway in Canada, Muzna and Zaki prepared to leave Lebanon, and ultimately Syria, the community they had been born and raised in.

“It was an extremely difficult decision to make,” says Muzna. “There is a lot of psychological damage that takes place when you are living in the midst of war – feelings of being unsafe and afraid. We were living that.”

The most difficult part of fleeing Syria was leaving behind the rest of their family members in an unknown situation, says Muzna.

“The Kaiyali family wishes they could be back in the time before war,” says Ponsford. “That was life as it should have been for them. They miss the culture, the people, the food. There’s no way to describe it. They miss home.”

Now situated in Duncan, the family’s primary goal is to learn English.

“We want to be able to learn the language so that we can genuinely say ‘thank you’ to all of the Canadians who have helped us start a new life,” says Muzna.

Zaki has found part-time work as a carpenter working in a cabinet making shop.

“Our future hopes for our family are to have security for our children, for them to have a good education, and for all of us to have a good, new start on life – a life of peace,” says Muzna.

The CIS team is currently working to bring more Syrian families to Canada who are trapped in refugee camps.

“The more we know, the more we are responsible to affect positive change,” says Jan. “If one child, one family’s life has been elevated, then we have done our job. What will be your own legacy? That is the question.”

For more information on the CIS or to donate to help bring more families to Canada email Barb Kruger:

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