Welcome to Fort McMurray
About four years ago Rula Labak like many others in Syria's Capital City of Damascus was trying to make it through another day in her now war torn country alive. She was the director of a day care looking after children between the ages of three and five.
The 42-year-old mother of two was on the school bus at the end of the school day as the kids were being dropped off at home, the route included a stretch of road that wasn't always safe; some days it was, some days it wasn't.
"A Syrian Army officer stopped the bus, opened the doors and yelled at all the kids to get onto the ground," said Rula from the living room of her Eagle Ridge apartment having just arrived in Fort McMurray 25 days before our interview in early March.
"Then he shot out all of the windows of the bus, just to scare the kids."
Nobody was hurt on that day. Her job wouldn't last more than a year after that as the school was forced to close down; it was simply too dangerous for parents to send their kids to school.
Rula told the story while serving Syrian coffee and pastries, without flinching, without much emotion; experiences like that having become just another part of her daily life in her home country.
She's one of Fort McMurray's Syrian immigrants along with her two children and their 67-year-old grand-mother who were sponsored by her brother Fahed. Collectively they're one of about nine families brought to Fort McMurray so far with the help of The Canadian True Power (TCTP).
The group began fundraising in November with hot lunches at local schools. The TCTP provides recent immigrants with housing, brings them to the settlement agency to help them get paperwork like SIN numbers, health cards and government documentation. The group also enrols them in English classes.
"We help them learn to ride the bus system, take them to find jobs around the city, bring them to the doctor if need be," said Amany Abdel Wahab, President TCTP. "There's a local doctor that speaks Arabic so that helps the transition."
The process to privately sponsor is not only rigorous but also expensive ranging from $20,000-$30,000 per family. The TCTP funnels all of its applications through a church in Edmonton, which then files the documents to the United Nations.
Most of the Syrian refugees have spent at least some time in a refugee camp in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. Due to restrictions imposed by the Syrian government they can't get sponsored to come to a country like Canada without departing Syria, leaving most of them no choice but to flee for overcrowded refugee camps and risk getting killed en route.
"They'll be 20 people in small rooms, there's one washroom for the entire camp so they have to wait all day long for the washrooms and shower," said Zeenat Khan, Fundraising Coordinator of the TCTP. "If they have to cook something there's only one place, but honestly speaking they have nothing to cook."
People in the refugee camps survive on a diet consisting of rice or lentils; meat is an expensive luxury out of reach for most according to Wahab.
Rula's terrifying experience on the bus is just one of many her family went through during the two years they stayed put in their lower level Damascus apartment; it also had three tanks parked out front. They dealt with robbery at the hands of the army almost bi-weekly. The family was hoping the turmoil from the Arab Spring and attempted overthrow of the Assad regime would be over relatively quickly, like it was in nearby Egypt.
Instead she spent the two years along with her now 15-year-old daughter Tala and 13 year-old son Hesham sleeping in the hallway of their apartment to protect them from being seen and shot by snipers perched on the rooftops of nearby buildings.
Now safe in Fort McMurray she's trying to bring some normalcy to her family, her two kids are enrolled at Holy Trinity. Both children love math; Hesham wants to become an engineer and Tala a journalist. Naturally they found a warm Fort McMurray spring to be cold, noting that in Syria they may have snow for all of five days each year.
"All I want now is for my kids to be safe, build their future; I hope to have a home and be stable," said Rula. "Canadian people are very nice and sweet, they've been very helpful."
The TCTP says refugees started arriving in Fort McMurray in December and they're already starting to land on their feet; one of the first arrivals has already passed his driver's exam and was offered a full-time job as a janitor at Keyano College in mid-February.
Amany knows that some aren't in favour of the refugee program, but an immigrant herself, she hopes that those people will soon change their minds.
"I want people to put themselves in their shoes and feel the same way they feel," she said. "I'm from Egypt, I've been away from my country for 35 years. I know [Canadians] all have big hearts, they love to share, they love to care for people."
"Syrian people in general they love to work with their hands, they are handy people," said Amany. "They're very creative people; if they merge with our community here they will provide great talents and Canada will really benefit from it."
TCTP also introduced me to 60-year-old Anisa Raslan; we met at MacDonald Island Park on her second day in Fort McMurray. She was tired after travelling by plane for 12 hours from Lebanon.
"Beautiful country, beautiful and safe," she said through Amany acting as the translator.
In Syria she was a businesswoman; she had a store selling clothes and she owned three buildings.
"They have airplanes bombing every second with big containers filled with explosives," she said. "When we hear the airplanes above the buildings we'd go and hide in the basement. They bombed our entire building, took it to the ground."
All three of her properties are now just piles of brick.
"Most of my family died, the neighbours they had 13 people," she continued now choking back tears. "They all died except for a little boy. After the attack he was searching through the rubble, I asked him what he was looking for he said ‘I'm trying to find my mom and dad'."
Anisa took her grandchildren and escaped through the sewer system to a refugee camp in Lebanon, she still has three sons stuck in Syria she hopes that one day they too can come to Canada.
Although on that day she was tired, her grandchildren were busy exploring all the amenities that MacDonald Island Park has to offer while snacking on frozen yogurt, finally safe and out of a refugee camp after two years.
"My dreams are for the kids to get a good education and live safely, for them to know how to work and live a decent life," she said.
Sounds just like what everyone is chasing here in Fort McMurray.