02/22/2013 03:12 EST | Updated 04/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Syrian Canadians despair for relatives trapped by war, call on Kenney to do more

OTTAWA - Every bomb that explodes in Damascus strikes at the heart of a woman in suburban Ottawa, leaving her to wonder why the government here is not helping to get her son out of the besieged Syrian capital.

Leila, not her real name, knows that her 27-year-old son is hiding somewhere in Damascus, trying to keep one step ahead of a security apparatus that has his name on a list of forced conscripts.

If he's found, he could be shot on sight. If he's lucky, he'll be forced into the Syrian army and put on the front lines of a two-year-old civil war in his country that has left 70,000 dead.

"It will be hard for him to kill Syrians. He might be killing a relative or a friend. He keeps saying he doesn't want to go to the military," said Leila, whose real name is being withheld to protect her son from harm in Syria.

"I know it's the law, the immigration law that should be applied on all people. I know there are rules for that. But there should be something for the families here who still have relatives (in Syria)."

Like hundreds of other Syrian Canadians, Leila is angry with the federal Conservative Canadian government, which she accuses of doing nothing to reunite families with their trapped relatives.

Not so, said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who expressed concern Friday about the plight of Syrian refugees and promised to do more to help.

Such a sharp difference of opinion is not without political ramifications for the Conservative government: there are an estimated 40,000 Syrian Canadians in Quebec alone and as many 100,000 across the country.

Faisal Alazem, spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, said he's been getting complaints like Leila's from families across Canada for the last six months.

Her story, he said, is just one of about 200 from Syrians across Canada who are anxious about their children, parents and other relatives caught inside Syria's borders — part of an estimated three million people displaced internally by the fighting.

Since last fall, Alazem has been pressing for a meeting with Kenney. Last week, he finally got a call back.

Officials — not the minister — would be willing to meet on March 11, Alazem was told, and that Kenney might find some time in his schedule "probably in a couple of months."

That development flows from the meeting last July between Alazem's group and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who advised them to take their concerns to Kenney, because reunification is his bailiwick.

"When we look at that here in our diaspora, we really feel failed," Alazem said.

"Our families under bombardment — we're not allowed to bring them. Helping our people ... we are really behind."

Last week, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar pressed Kenney to meet formally with Syrian Canadian representatives.

"The minister has stonewalled them," Dewar said.

"None of us in the House would want our families left in these conditions. It is a simple request. Will the minister meet with representatives from the Syrian Canadian community?"

At an event Friday in Calgary, Kenney offered a different view. He said he's met with "many different groups" of Syrian Canadians, "probably hundreds" in the last few months.

He said the government is trying to move quickly on 250 pending applications for spousal sponsorship of people still in Syria.

"I can understand the deep anxiety of Canadians who have relatives there, but we at the same time have to be careful," Kenney said.

"There are people over there who have extremist affiliations, and we have to be careful about Canada's national security as well."

Kenney said Canada can not simply airlift people to safety from Syria. Instead, he recommended they flee the country if possible and join their 400,000 fellow Syrians in neighbouring countries, where they can claim refugee status.

"There's a process where if they are facing danger in the conflict, then what they should do is leave Syria and seek the protection of the United Nations in one of the many refugee facilities that are surrounding Syria."

Alazem disputes Kenney's claim that he has met Syrian groups, and said it is unfair to ask Syrians to flee to a third country and be forced to wait months — if not years — in the UN's clogged refugee queue.

In a policy paper, the Syrian Canadian Council is calling on Canada to take special measures to help Syrians as they have in the past with Lebanese people affected by the long civil war that ended in 1990.

Among other things, the council is calling on Canada to admit 10,000 refugees from Syria either through private sponsorship or government resettlement.

"The Lebanese Special Measures which provided priority immigration for tens of thousands during Lebanon's civil war remained in place for sixteen years," the paper states.

Leila called it insensitive and irresponsible to suggest that her son flee Syria "in a dangerous way" and "go to a third country and stay there for two years, maybe more" where she will have to send him money to survive.

"Why do that when he has a family here?" she asked. "We are very good as a family. I need my son here. I need him with us. He is in danger there."

Leila came to Canada four years ago. She has her permanent residency and is on the verge of becoming a citizen. She was allowed to bring her youngest son, then 16, because he was a dependent.

Her eldest — a daughter, now 30 — followed later on a tourist visa issued just before the start of the uprising two years ago.

Leila's middle son was not as lucky. Now he's on the run in Damascus, living in the shadows with a now-pregnant wife.

On Tuesday, when she learned that twin mortars exploded in the heart of Damascus, Leila fired up her laptop and tried to reach her son through Skype and a Facebook account she has under a pseudonym. She had no luck.

"So many cars were destroyed and people were killed," she said.

A day later, her daughter got through, and found out he was fine. Leila tried again to reach him, but with no luck.

The last time she communicated directly with her son was last weekend, for a few fleeting minutes on his cellphone.

"He told me, I'm fine mom, it's ok. There's no Internet, there's no electricity. I'm fine with my wife," Leila said, before bursting into tears.

"Whenever I hear a bomb took place there or any other violent thing, I'm always anxious and worried about him, because you never know. We are very far from him."

Her story is far from unique.

Omar, not his real name, is beside himself in Montreal, trying to figure out a way to get his older brother to Canada. His brother was wounded last year by Syrian security forces in the embattled city of Homs, where he was organizing peaceful demonstrations.

Omar's brother underwent an emergency operation in a field hospital but needs more surgery to remove four bullets from his abdomen.

Omar has tried repeatedly to get a visa for his brother, but has been refused.

"He disappeared inside Homs because if the government catches him they will try again," explained Omar, who is married to a Canadian citizen, and has two young children, also citizens.

Omar said he is willing to sign a letter to the government that makes clear his brother will not apply for refugee status. He just wants him to have surgery in a Canadian hospital, an option that doesn't appear legally possible under Canada's immigration law.

"I'm ready to sign it now — he doesn't have any right to apply for anything."

— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary