The following is the transcript from two interviews conducted on March 26, 2016 and April 26, 2016 with Sanaa Domat, a Syrian woman originally from Homs. As the unabated Syrian crisis worsened, Sanaa and her family were forced to leave their Syrian home in December 2015. She moved to Montreal, Canada during the wave of Syrian refugees coming to Canada.
Her story provides personal insight on the everyday life of Syrians in the midst of the revolution, the process of seeking refugee status, and navigating a new space in hopes of it becoming “home.” Sanaa now resides in Montreal, Quebec. She lives with her husband and two children.
By: SANDY ALKOUTAMI
MARCH 26, 2016
[Preliminary conversation before interview. Sanaa and Sandy are family and have spent plenty of time together before the interview.]
Sandy: I guess we can start at the beginning- Homs in 2011. What was it like living there during the advent of this crisis?
Sanaa: We were in shock for most of the first year. You know, Homs is one of the worse cities after Daraa and Aleppo. Our neighborhood was in a predominantly Sunni area, so we were always worried of protests. At first, we imagined things would end quickly. So we did a lot of waiting. We imagined that something, anything, would stop Syria from becoming what we have now. But for the most part, things didn’t drastically change. Our kids still went to school, my husband and I worked, so for the most part we did not truly feel the effects until much later.
Sandy: When was later?
Sanaa: Things starting feeling more serious when people we knew were getting hurt. The violence and protests started feeling a lot closer. My husband, Rami, went grocery shopping one day and just as he was leaning into the car trunk to place the bags, he heard–then felt– an explosion. He was rushed to the hospital. Luckily, only the bottom of his leg was injured. That was when we knew Homs wasn’t safe for us though.
Sandy: Where did you leave after that?
Sanaa: We decided to take the kids and move to Kefram, a Christian village in the mountains of Syria. Because there were not any Muslims (who are predominantly the ones protesting), it was a much safer alternative.
Sandy: What was it like to move from the city to the village?
Sanaa: Since my parents and family came with us, it was nice. We were all together, so knowing everyone was safer put us at ease. The kids went to the elementary school, and started making friends in the village. My husband kept driving to and from Homs, though. He is a French teacher so he would travel to Homs to teach. The roads, because of the checkpoints, were always so scary.
Sandy: What was the hardest part of living in the village?
Sanaa: Basic amenities were not always provided. We wouldn’t have electricity or water for hours at a time. Prices were much higher since 2011, so it became more difficult to afford items we would normally buy. At one point, Rami’s brother opened up a store where we sold sandwiches and pizza. That generated some money for a while. After that, we started selling some of our clothes we weren’t wearing anymore. We kept ourselves busy with little projects.
Sandy: So you stopped working?
Sanaa: Yes, of course. There were not any opportunities in the village, and I was not going to drive to Homs.
Sandy: Did you all discuss the revolution at home?
Sanaa: We kind of did. We found flaws in both sides. For a while, we supported the regime. We thought they had a better grasp of the future of Syria. We thought like this until one of Rami’s close friends was wrongfully kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the regime. His body was returned to his family a week later. At that point, we knew this side was not good for Syria, or its future.
Sandy: What about the children? Did they feel the effects of the crisis?
Sanaa: They heard and knew what was going on. But they are so young. We don’t like to tell them certain details. They’ve already had to deal with so much.
Sandy: When did you feel like it was necessary to take them out of Syria altogether?
Sanaa: Well, we applied for visas to the US well before the revolution started. We were all denied, so we waited to apply again. At that point, the revolution had begun, so we applied as asylum seekers to the US. We were rejected again. We tried through the humanitarian parole process. We were rejected again. After 4 years, we decided to apply to Canada. We heard they were more welcoming and that people were finding success making it there. So we applied. Several months later we found out our case was accepted. Two days after Christmas, we flew from Syria to enter Canada as refugees…
APRIL 26, 2016
Sandy: The last time we spoke, you were telling me about being accepted to move to Canada as refugees. What was it like to leave Syria for the first time in your life?
Sanaa: Saying goodbye to everyone was the hardest part. My children were crying as they hugged their grandparents goodbye for what could be years and years. They would hold their cousins and cry…
Sandy: How was the process of flying to Canada?
Sanaa: Since the airport in Syria is no longer an option, we had to drive to Lebanon (many checkpoints along the way). We got to Beirut and flew to France for our connection. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane…
Sandy: How did it feel to be traveling as a refugee? Were there other with you?
Sanaa: Yes. In fact, most of the plane had Syrian refugees going to Canada. It was nice not to feel alone in the process. But the journey was so tiring. The kids were frazzled and confused; no one was able to sleep throughout the journey. After two days of travel, we arrived in Montreal.
Sandy: How was the arrival?
Sanaa: I could not have expected the arrival. After our plane landed, we were bussed to a big warehouse. I remember when we walked off the bus, one of the volunteers threw a snowball at us and said “Welcome to Canada.” In the warehouse, everyone was given boots, snow clothes, puffy jackets, you name it. I could tell they were prepared for us.
Sandy: Where did you stay that night?
Sanaa: Well, we actually knew some distant relatives in Montreal. So we stayed with her until we started renting a place to live. A week later, we moved into our own place and the kids were immediately enrolled in French schools for non-native speakers.
Sandy: How have the kids adjusted?
Sanaa: At first not well at all, my youngest one, Jad, started exhibiting some psychological responses to the move. He wouldn’t eat or sleep. He cried a lot, and told us that we were punishing by taking him out of Syria. In the middle of the night, he will wake us up and tell us that he misses a certain person in Syria. At school, the teachers say he will often sit and cry… My oldest son is a lot better, but around Jad, he also talks about Syria a lot.
Sandy: And what about Rami? Have you found work, or as he?
Sanaa: My husband is fluent in French but is taking higher level classes to get familiar with the dialect. He is currently looking for work, but so far, we are still adjusting.
Sandy: Is there a Syrian community? Do you feel like an outsider?
Sanaa: Not at all, I feel like I would feel differently in the US, but people here have been so friendly, so helpful. There are a lot of other Syrians, so we group together often.
Sandy: What’s the future for your family? Do you want Montreal to be home?
Sanaa: At this point, yes. We are ready to settle here and make this space our new home. I want my kids to be safe, be able to go to college, have a normal life, and maintain their roots. I only wish the rest of my family can join us. But the future is in Montreal…