"My wife said we needed to wait in line, wait for our turn, there were hundreds ahead of us," Zahabi, 40, said in an interview from Amman.
"They didn't understand how a refugee could be contacting them directly. There was this barrier between us."
'Nobody believed me'On the Immigration Department website, he found the list of more than 80 organizations who hold agreements with the government to facilitate the private sponsorship of refugees. And he started emailing them. "Nobody believed me," he said. "They didn't understand how a refugee could be contacting them directly. There was this barrier between us." Then the Liberals were elected and promised to resettle 25,000 Syrians in a matter of months. Private groups working with the formal sponsorship agreement holders started springing up across the country. There are more than 600 such groups in Toronto alone. So Zahabi looked them up too, posting his story on their Facebook pages and directly emailing the websites of others. The response, if there was one, was often similar — disbelief, mistrust. It upset him, he said.
A girl pictured surfing the internet in the child and family protection zone for Syrian refugees which is run by non-governmental Jordanian organizations with the help of UNICEF and German financial aid pictured on February 17, 2014. (Photo: Getty Images)"What is it exactly people think refugees are? Do I have be naked, crawling through a forest, to be a refugee? Do we have to die on a beach somewhere to be seen and respected as a human?" he asked. Then late last year, something clicked. Patricia Chartier had helped set up the email address for her Toronto-based sponsorship group when the group of 30 relative strangers banded together to help a Syrian family.
She was shocked by how many letters came directly from Syrians. The first was from a 13-year-old girl, who claimed to still be in Syria and asked for help to escape. "I kept thinking — if this was 1944, it would be like emailing with Anne Frank," Chartier said. Among the emails was Zahabi's. Chartier's group couldn't help him directly but something drew her in. Maybe it was the fact she was a former ad copywriter and he was a graphic designer and had common ground, she said. They kept up a correspondence, often via Skype, and she began trying to find someone who would sponsor his family.
"I kept thinking — if this was 1944, it would be like emailing with Anne Frank."
To date, they have a few leads, but nothing concrete. Word that the Liberals have cut off how many sponsorship applications for Syrians they will process this year means it's unlikely Zahabi and his family will make it to Canada before 2017 if they are accepted. Zahabi does not want to get his hopes up too high. But at least someone was finally willing to listen, he said, and in Chartier, he now has a Canadian friend. "We are a regular family, just like so many of yours," he said. "Except we are trying to escape, to save our lives, from a war." Follow @StephanieLevitz on Twitter
"What is it exactly people think refugees are? Do I have be naked, crawling through a forest, to be a refugee?"
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