Refugee's fiance trapped in Syria

Wissam Nassar is holding an empty picture frame close to his heart that he hopes to fill with a photo of he and his fiancé together. She is trapped in Syria and he is trying to get her out. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Wissam Nassar is holding an empty picture frame close to his heart that he hopes to fill with a photo of he and his fiancé together. She is trapped in Syria and he is trying to get her out.

Burnaby resident Wissam Nassar is only 26 but he's already had to make more life-altering decisions than many people twice his age.

At 19, Wissam didn't want to leave Baghdad, the only home he'd known.

He knew his family were targets. As stateless Palestinian refugees, they were known to be Sunni Muslims, a problematic situation after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq when sectarian conflict drew lines between Sunni and Shia.

His brother Wassem had already left for Syria in 2006 after being threatened by phone. After sleeping in parks in Damascus, he had managed to meet a Palestinian acquaintance also from Iraq, who had given him shelter and helped him find a job.

Wassem asked his younger brother to join him, but Wissam declined. He wanted to stay and continue his schooling.

But on his way to school a month later, a gang of thugs, their faces covered with scarves, stood in his way. One grabbed Wissam's shirt and held a knife to him, telling him to leave Iraq within 24 hours or be killed.

"And I listened."

After settling in Syria, he worked under the table and was eventually joined by their parents. That's also where he met Marwa.

"I liked her face and I started to fall in love," Wissam said.

They had much in common. They were the same age and like Wissam, Marwa is a third-generation stateless Palestinian. Their grandparents were forced out of Palestine in 1947, when the territory became Israel, and settled in Iraq where their parents and they themselves were born.

Now they had been displaced again, in Syria, where they found each other.

But it would be a relatively short-lived romance. About two years later, the Syrian government rounded up the stateless Palestinians and sent them to a United Nations refugee camp, Al-Tenf, between Syria and Iraq.

Marwa and her family were allowed to stay behind because her sister suffered from kidney disease and required daily hospital visits as well as a kidney transplant which she received from a brother, Wissam said.

"It was very hard because I didn't know if I met her again or not," he said. "But I promised her I will get married to her … When I left on the last day she started crying."

What followed for Wissam was three years of living in horrendous conditions at two camps. The first was the worst, he said, where almost 1,000 people were packed into tents. In the summer, in the middle of the desert, there was no air-conditioning, and electricity was subject to frequent outages. When the rains came, there was no drainage so much of the camps flooded.

And in the winter it was bone-chillingly cold, the fabric tents no barrier to the winds that whipped through them. And trying to create sources of heat inside were always dangerous. "Many tents caught fire," he said, adding he witnessed one such accident in which a pregnant woman died.

But it was there that the Nassar family caught the attention of officials from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

That's when Jamie Macdonald's parents became involved. Coquitlam residents, his father, Ian, is the former minister at South Burnaby United Church while his mother, Heather, has long been involved in raising awareness about the plight of refugees.

Her contacts told her about the Nassars, and their being part of a particularly targeted community, that of Palestinians in Iraq, and asked her to help, Jamie said.

Ian and Heather Macdonald did just that, enlisting the help of Westminster Presbytery of the United Church and the Burnaby-based B.C. Muslim Association to co-sponsor the family.

In 2011, the Nassars arrived in Canada, settling in Burnaby's Edmonds area, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"Their first four days their only word was 'dictionary," Jamie said, recalling how they would constantly consult their Arabic-English dictionary.

After a few months, his English improved and he was comfortable enough that he told Heather about Marwa. Before he knew it, Heather was on the case and working to bring her to Canada too.

It hasn't been easy. Syria's own civil conflict has trapped Marwa in that country. Last year the Canadian embassy in Damascus was closed and stateless Iraqi Palestinians are not allowed to enter the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. And meanwhile, civil war rages around her. She recently escaped serious injury after getting caught near an explosion on the way to work.

But not too long ago Marwa was interviewed at the UNHCR's offices in Damascus and accepted as a refugee into Canada, under the sponsorship of the Macdonalds and Mount Seymour United Church. Now it's only a matter of time, weeks or months, before Marwa is set to arrive.

"We don't know how to appreciate her, to thank her," said Wissam of Heather Macdonald's efforts.

Today, the two brothers both work in a grocery store while Wissam recently passed a course to become a security guard. Their father, Walid, works in a bread factory.

On Saturday, June 29 at 8 p.m. the Macdonald and Nassar families will co-host a fundraiser concert at South Burnaby United Church, 7591 Gray Ave., Burnaby. Admission is by donation (suggested $10). The evening will include musical performances by Ian Macdonald and Gordon Light of The Common Cup Company and Jamie, Rory and Derek Macdonald of The Orchid Highway among others. Wassim and Wessam will speak on their experiences as refugees and Heather will speak about refugee sponsorship. And Suhair Nassar, the brothers' mother, is baking up a storm, preparing Palestinian treats for the occasion.

Funds raised will go toward the costs of Marwa's first year in Canada, which her sponsors have committed to covering.

"It's sometimes hard to realize [the Nassars] are here representing the happy ending, which is unfortunately a lower percentage than we'd like," said Jamie.

Wissam and Marwa have now been apart longer than they were together.

When asked what he'll do when he finally sees Marwa after all these years, Wissam, who admits to being "a little shy," said with some understatement, "Maybe I will kiss her."

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