Syrian Christian family waiting to move to Canada

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 - Updated: 6:00 am
By Jennifer Monahan Correspondent

Last of a four-part series.

In recent weeks, the Pittsburgh Catholic has highlighted the plight of Syrian refugees and the story of Ananias Mission, a Pittsburgh-based organization working to help refugees resettle in safe areas.

One of the families awaiting assistance includes Aboud Dali, his wife, Maral Hartunian, their two children and Dali’s parents, currently living in temporary housing in Lebanon. They recently spoke with a reporter on a video call using WhatsApp, with the assistance of a translator who speaks fluent English and Arabic.

The Dali family lived in a northern suburb of Aleppo, Syria, where Aftinios Dali owned a wholesale grocery store, and his wife, Solange Hajjar, was a homemaker. Their son, Aboud Dali, worked as a barber, and his wife, Maral Hartunian, cared for their young children. They were among the Christian minority that makes up about 10 percent of Syria’s population.

Aboud Dali and Hartunian fled Aleppo 10 days before Christmas in 2013 with their son, Aftinios (then age 4), and their daughter, Solange (then 4 months old). Dali’s father, Aftinios Dali, and mother, Hajjar, followed two weeks later. The family of six has been living in a one-room shelter with sheets hung for privacy for the last four years as they await permanent relocation to Canada.

“I left my country because (there is) no life there for me and my family. We are Christians; it is not safe for my family, not safe for my children,” Aboud Dali said. “I want a safe life for them.”

Living in a war zone with exploding mortar shells and constant gunfire was untenable, but the escape to Lebanon was difficult.

Hartunian described treacherous conditions as she and her husband attempted to leave Syria with two young children.

“There were several snipers on the route. We could have been killed at any time,” Hartunian said. Although Solange was too young to understand or remember the trip, Aftinios was so traumatized that he did not eat for four days after they reached Lebanon, Hartunian said.

Her in-laws encountered similar violence. Neighbors turned against them as the war escalated.

“I remember my life in Syria. It was good for me and my family. Now, there is only war — hate, fear, sorrow, sadness,” Aftinios Dali said. He and his wife were forced to leave amid threats of violence. Members of an armed extremist group requested that Dali meet with their leader and demanded that he carry a machine gun and fight for that faction.

“They said, ‘Do you know we are protecting you? You have to fight for us!’” Dali said. “I said, ‘No, God is protecting me!’”

Shortly after that incident, Dali saw a neighbor — who he had considered a friend — talking with the extremist group. That neighbor threatened to behead Dali if he did not join. Dali and Hajjar fled to a nearby farm, then disguised themselves to escape the area and followed their son’s family to Lebanon. Their home was demolished by a missile.

Although the Dali family lives in relative safety in Lebanon, conditions remain challenging. Aboud Dali has been lucky to find work in Lebanon as a barber, where he is learning English from some of his customers. He works 12 hours a day, six days a week, for $400 per month. Hartunian works full time as a manicurist and makes $300 per month. The family survives with assistance from a local church, but continues to struggle.

Dali said finding work is difficult. Syrian refugees are often persecuted in ways that echo the oppression of Jews during the Holocaust. Signs hang in many shop windows, Dali said, advertising jobs alongside statements that they are only hiring Lebanese citizens. Syrians are not allowed in certain parts of the city.

Medical care is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Hajjar explained that she has a painful broken tooth, but is unable to seek dental care because the family cannot afford to pay the dentist. Though she smiled throughout much of the conversation, more than three years of living as a refugee and watching her family suffer have taken their toll on the matriarch.

“I want to live as a normal human being,” Hajjar said.

The daily challenges faced by the Dali family are shocking to most Americans. Young Aftinios Dali, now 8 years old, is attending school for the first time this year as a first-grader. Most Lebanese schools either will not accept Syrian refugees or charge so much that families cannot afford to send them. When they do attend school, hours are often limited and children are ostracized. The Dalis were able to negotiate one year for Aftinios at an Armenian school in the area, but will not be able to afford to send him next year.

“Kids turn their backs on him” because he is Syrian, Hartunian said.

Aftinios said, “I don’t have any friends; they don’t want to be friends with me.” Aftinios explained that he had been friends with another Syrian boy in Lebanon until that friend moved to Canada.

The family is hopeful that they, too, will be able to find a permanent home in Canada. Ed Wethli and Jennifer Allison of Ananias Mission are optimistic that one of their parish partners in the Diocese of St. Catharines in Canada will be able to sponsor the family in 2018. Wethli and Allison are actively trying to raise money to fund the family’s relocation to Ontario.

When asked what they expect of life in Canada, Aboud Dali said, “Canada respects the humanity of people. I hope for peace, a home, no war, no persecution.”

He hopes Americans will not believe the stereotypes that sometimes exist about Syrian refugees.

“I want Americans to know about what has happened here in Syria, to Christianity in Syria. Syrian Christians are for peace. We are not terrorists. We don’t kill people,” Dali said.

Though the Dali family was comfortable in Syria before the war, they have lived as refugees for almost four years, and hope is difficult. They left their homes, their belongings and their livelihoods behind when they fled the war.

“I feel like I am in a pit,” Aboud Dali said. “I can’t go back to Syria. As a dad, I am stuck in Lebanon, but there is no future here for me or my family.”

Hajjar said, “We need a little mercy.”

To find out more about Ananias Mission and how you can help Syrian refugees, contact Jennifer Allison at jennifer.l.allison@gmail.com.

To read the previous articles in this series, go to:

Part 1: http://tinyurl.com/ya7654p6.

Part 2: http://tinyurl.com/yb3uckh2 and http://tinyurl.com/yd3rfujk.

Part 3: http://tinyurl.com/yb3zta2m.

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