"All we want to do is leave here. We want to just go to Canada and have a normal life," said Anya Sass, who was born and raised in Calgary.
"We are living in fear every day … I feel like it's not being taken seriously. They are just saying, 'Sorry you are in a war zone — but that's too bad. We have a lot of paperwork to do.'"
Sass said she was travelling through the Middle East three years ago, on a break from post-secondary studies, when she met Habib Alibrahim, fell in love, and married him.
"I never made it further than Syria," she said, with a smile. "It's not easy living here right now — but it's actually a lot harder to be away from him."
Alibrahim is an engineering student who says he is secular and has absolutely no connection to terrorism. He asked Go Public not to publish which sect his family is from, because its members are targeted by both rebels and terrorists.
"I feel my life is in danger," said Alibrahim. "Her life as well. Because we are married. She is married to me. She is married to a person from this religious minority."
Visa applications denied, delayed
He applied for a temporary visa to come to Canada with Sass, but was denied. Sass then applied to sponsor him to come home with her permanently, but has been told approval will take two years.
"In this country we don't know what's going to happen the next hour. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Two years is a really long time," said Sass.
The couple lives in Jeramana, outside Damascus, which they said is under constant shell fire. They said people have been shot dead right in front of their building and bullets have landed right outside.
"I am tired of waking up in fear every day and living in fear every day and having every day some kind of scare — where something really close to us happens," said Sass.
"I just want to have a normal life with my wife — away from sounds of bombardments, away from the sounds of shelling, away from gunfire," said Alibrahim.
In recent days, they said, the neighbourhood was in a panic because of a false rumour that an armed group from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was closing in. ISIS fighters have engaged Syrian rebel groups in nearby areas.
ISIS threat at their door
"They have kidnapped a lot of people — and shot others — so the people of Jeramana are so scared," said Alibrahim.
"Literally running down the streets to the highway to get out of here, they were so afraid," said Sass. "We didn't know what to do. We packed our bag and we put it next to the door."
His temporary visa application was denied last year. Because Syria is a war zone, the visa officer said he didn't believe Alibrahim would ever return home.
"This application is closed," said the rejection letter from the Canadian embassy in Beirut. "Should you wish to reapply, I would suggest that you do so only if your situation has changed substantively."
Sass has since pleaded with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to fast-track her separate application to sponsor Alibrahim. It hasn't budged from its 24-month processing time, which applies to all spousal sponsorship applications from Syria.
"Your spouse's application is in queue for an officer's review at the visa office in Amman," said a letter from the minister this month. "Please be assured that this application is being processed as expeditiously as circumstances permit."
Much changed in short time
The situation the couple faces now is in stark contrast to early in the conflict, when Canada promised to get family members out in less than a week.
"CIC … has committed to process the vast majority of visa applications for spouses and dependent children of Canadian citizens within five calendar days," read a CIC release from 2011, which advised people to contact the embassy in Damascus.
In early 2012, however, because of the conflict, the government closed that embassy, slowing things down considerably. Visa applications are now processed in Beirut or Amman.
Even so, last year, the department was still promising to expedite family residency applications. It's also pledged to issue temporary visas — like the one Alibrahim was denied — in the interim.
"To enable rapid family reunification, visa officers are issuing temporary resident visas or temporary resident permits, as appropriate, to allow applicants to come to Canada while their application to come permanently … is processed," said CIC this July.
"The truth and the data, or at least the experiences of people on the ground, speak otherwise," said Vancouver immigration lawyer Fadi Yachoua.
Government contradicting itself, lawyer says
"I've seen various visa applications refused [like Alibrahim's] and most of them seem to be refused on the grounds that you come from a war-torn country," Yachoua said.
CIC refused to tell Go Public how many spousal applications are currently in the queue. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander indicated security checks are slowing things down.
"When people are coming from parts of the world where terrorist groups are based, where there is a criminal issue, where there's been conflict recently of course we need to screen them," said Alexander.
"Everyone who wants to benefit from our very generous immigration and asylum laws should understand that."
Yachoua doesn't buy that. He said if Ottawa put enough resources into this, it would be fully capable of doing security checks to clear Alibrahim and others much quicker, even with their country in disarray.
"I really think it was a political decision, at the end of the day — why they chose not to allocate clear resources and publish clear directives to their staff," he said.
Other countries moving faster
By contrast, permanent U.S. residency permits for Syrians married to Americans are still being approved within a year, including security checks.
Sass and Alibrahim said their French, German and American friends in Syria are getting out, with their spouses, much faster.
"They are all married to Syrians — and none of them are facing these kinds of wait times," said Sass.
"Other nationalities — they just want their citizens out of this country … with their spouses," said Alibrahim.
"Because I am Syrian doesn't mean I am a terrorist. It doesn't mean I behead people. This doesn't mean I hold these extreme beliefs. I am a normal guy just trying to have a normal life."
Sass said her family desperately wants her to come home to Canada but she is staying put. Alibrahim can't believe her government is forcing his wife to make such a stark choice.
"Either you come back to Canada alone without your husband — or you stay there in Syria with your husband. And face danger. And face death," he said.
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