OTTAWA — Muneer al Zahabi finally got tired of waiting.
For nearly three years, his family had been in Jordan, among over half a million Syrians there crammed into apartments and camps. It was safer than sleeping in the bathtub in their house in Syria for protection from missiles, but they wanted out.
The UN officially declaring them refugees ensured his two older children could go to school. But the piece of paper provided little other day-to-day benefit. Syrians can't legally work in Jordan, so even though Zahabi has picked up piecemeal graphic design work — he worked in the industry for 15 years in Syria — it wasn't stable and the pay low.
They wanted a home in another country. But his family is five of 4.2 million refugees. To date, only about 180,000 resettlement spaces are available worldwide. Canada has offered over 38,000 of them since 2013. But the people most often chosen for new homes here and elsewhere aren't families like his — educated, healthy, with his fluency in English and their professional backgrounds.
"They didn't understand how a refugee could be contacting them directly. There was this barrier between us."
"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.
But the call from the UN never came. So, six months ago, Zahabi decided to take things into his own hands.
He'd heard good things about Canada. As a Muslim, he could practise his faith and in Toronto he felt he'd find a community that would be welcoming.
'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.
"I kept thinking — if this was 1944, it would be like emailing with Anne Frank."
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.
"What is it exactly people think refugees are? Do I have be naked, crawling through a forest, to be a refugee?"
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."
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