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Syrian family with son needing surgery finds help in Salmon Arm

Upcoming fundraiser to help bring family to Canada

Imagine you are running for your life from your bombed out town.

Imagine the terror of drugging your small children so they don’t make a sound and risk being shot as you crawl under a barbed wire fence into Turkey at three in the morning.

Imagine living in a crowded refugee camp for three or four years. And, if you are lucky, then imagine what it is like to get on a plane to go to a country you know nothing about.

For most area residents, this scenario plays out only in film. But for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, the experience is brutally real.

Over the past decade, members of several Salmon Arm churches have sponsored 17 Syrian families, and the Shuswap Community Coalition has again been called on to do what couldn’t be done in Vancouver.

A family of five Kurdish refugees is living in the northern Iraq town of Erbil, the capital and most populated city in the Kurdistan Region of the country. Because they are not citizens of Iraq, they have no access to education or, more importantly, medical coverage. The father provides for is family by doing odd jobs.

This is critical because four-year-old Jwan, the youngest of  Ameen Shekhmous and Salam Kefo’s three children, has a congenital condition that without surgery puts him at risk for cancer or abnormal growth and development over the next few years, said coalition chair Brian Ayotte.

“It’s not an emergency but it is urgent,” he said, pointing out the parents used the last of their money to get a CT scan, which identified Jwan’s problem. A copy of the scan was emailed to the retired cardiologist. “It needs to be corrected, and the sooner the better.”

Ayotte forwarded the scan to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver where a surgeon has agreed to perform the operation.

The path to surgery is daunting. 

Kurdish Syrians Gulistan Abdo and her husband Lokman Mustafa arrived in Salmon Arm in 2016 and are good friends with the Vancouver branch of the Shekhmous family. After two years of failed attempts to get sponsorship for the family, the couple approached Ayotte, who made another attempt to find church support through his brother who lives in the Lower Mainland.

“Huge fatigue has come into reality regarding refugee support,” Ayotte said, noting he has been involved with sponsoring Syrian refugees for eight years and it took him about 10 months to form a new, local sponsoring group. “You get a bit overwhelmed that it took that long to get a group together to take this on.”

Seven members from the Shuswap Community Church, Deo Lutheran, St John’s Anglican and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church have agreed to provide support for the family’s first year in Canada.

The Shekhmous family relations in Vancouver have agreed to contribute 25 per cent of the $45,000 required, leaving the local coalition to raise $32,000.

As well as raising sufficient funds, there is a lot of paperwork to be submitted before the family, including 11-year-old Mohamed and seven-year-old Mahmoud will be able to come to Canada.

“These are human beings who have suffered a lot,” said Ayotte, noting it would be at least another year before the family would arrive. 

The Shuswap Community Coalition is seeking financial support and is hosting “A Walk in Our Shoes: Syrian Stories” from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, June in the lower level of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. 

Abdo and Arab Syrian Lina Alahmad will share their stories of escape to freedom, Lokman will play the bazuk (a traditional Syrian instrument) and there will be traditional Syrian sweets. Following the women’s stories, the men will take part in a question-and-answer session. As well, Ayotte is hoping a Skype link will be able to be made with the Shekhmous family.

“We need to see these people and hear their human stories, and not see them as a statistic,” Ayotte said, noting that as they arrive in a safe community, the refugees can begin to imagine what it will be like a few years later to have their children graduating from high school with unlimited opportunities ahead of them. 

While the families go through an initial phase of thinking they may one day be able to return to their beloved homeland, many of them have their citizenship and are now proud Canadians.

“That to them is a very big deal,” he added. “These people are incredibly grateful.”

Admission to the June 19 event is by donation and tax receipts will be issued for donations of $20 or more. But there is no need to wait until June 19. A special trust fund has been established at St. Joseph’s and donations can be made during office hours or by mailing to St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, 60 First St. SE, Salmon Arm V1E 4H4.