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Aleppo to Sarnia: one family’s journey to escape war

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 09:24 -- Katie Horvath
Suzi Daghlian and Tanil Kahiaian

“I passed the border. Back to Syria. Now I pass between police and between these people.  Are they going to shoot me? I don’t care. I’m going to get my kids.”

Tanil Kahiaian and Suzi Daghlian were forced to flee their home when the Battle of Aleppo broke out in July of 2012. After arriving in Canada almost three years ago, they are months away from becoming Canadian citizens.  Moving across Syrian and Turkish borders, travelling from city to city desperately seeking safety from airstrikes, tanks and bombs, Kahiaian recalls one of the most difficult moments in his long struggle and search for freedom and peace for his wife and their two children, who were 7 and 11 at the time.

After the first bomb went off, he sent his family to his mother-in-law’s outside of Aleppo to Qamishli, a border city between Syria and Turkey.  “We were so scared,” says his wife.  “They closed the roads. Everything was shut down. We weren’t sure we could leave.”

They were told it wouldn’t last long.  With his family gone, he recalls one day while he was standing outside, another bomb went off, hitting a diesel tank right before his eyes.  “All the houses, they shook like an earthquake.  There was a big explosion and fire in the air.  The man, this plumber, he was in the air too, flying.  He landed beside me. That day I decided I have to leave Aleppo.”

The next day, he closed his business, his house, his everything. “I got official papers, and I didn’t see it again. I went to see the children, my wife and family. I stayed with them for a couple of days and then I went to Turkey.” His home now a warzone, he was seeking refugee status.

All alone, he first went to Van, a city in Turkey with a United Nations office, who then sent him to Ankara.  He was told that because his wife already has refugee status, they could accept him as a refugee, too. “I had refugee status because I am originally from Iraq and it was only for this reason the UN accepted him, according to my status in Syria,” explains his wife, Suzi Daghlian. “They asked him where he wanted to live.  First he said Mersin, but they had no UN office.  The next choice was Istanbul, who does have an office, so he was granted permission.” But first, they had to interview his wife.  He had to return again to the border to get her.  

“The border is a big door, and you see these…bad people. And I had to take her between these people. Imagine. When I took her we went to Istanbul, and we went to a small hotel. At that time I had just $500 in my pocket.  We registered in Istanbul, and then in the afternoon, we said to each other ‘let’s go to church. We have to pray. Maybe God will help us.’”

“The children were with my mother,” [in Syria] says Daghlian. “They didn’t have passports so I couldn’t take them with me to sign papers. But I thought I was just going to sign the papers and go back.  I didn’t know that once registered, I could not leave.”

They found themselves in an area full of Armanian people, wondering where they would go, and how they would be reunited with their children.  They found a church, and the people there asked them where they were staying.  They were staying at a hotel, they were running out of money, and “the very kind people” sent them to another church to stay. They were to begin the next part of their journey: now legally unable to leave Turkey, how were they going to get their children?

“The kids don’t have passports.” He sighed. “ I found someone that was going to pass the border.”

“A smuggler,” she says.

“We made an agreement about the money,” continues Kahiaian. “I said OK. After 15 days I went to the border to pick up my kids.  My kids at that time, they were 7 and 11 years.  I’m on one side of the border, my kids on the other side.  I saw my kids. They bring them to the border, they’re going to pass it, but the police, they found them.  Back to Syria.” He stops.

“The smugglers tried to take them inside Turkey but the police figured out they didn’t have passports,” continues his wife. “So they pushed them back to the Syrian side.  And they closed – it’s a big iron door. They just closed the door and they didn’t let anyone enter…So they are on the other side.  We are watching them on the curb.”

“They are crying,” he says. “And they don’t know. They’re crying, and this guy, the smuggler, left them, our children, between these people.  That time, I think… What am I going to do? I said what’s going to happen, is going to happen.  I passed the border.  Back to Syria. Now I pass between police and between these people.  Are they going to shoot me? I don’t care. I’m going to get my kids. When they saw me, they are happy but still they were sitting on the floor crying.  The border is going to close and there’s no place [for us] to stay.”

Eventually, he makes a few phone calls.  The people from the church connect him with the president of Turkey, who gets into contact with the mayor of the bordering area. He receives a phone call back from the mayor, who tells him after five minutes, go to the door.  He takes his kids to the closed door.  The police open it, and let him inside.  The family is taken to a refugee camp in Carchemish, and they are first told not to tell anyone that they are Christian.  The next day, officers allow him to take him and his children to Istanbul.  

They go back to the church to thank the people who helped them.  The people there tell him that they are going to prepare them a house through the church, and to register the children in a new school, now in a new country, with a new language.  Years pass, and eventually, in 2015, the family finds out about an email address claiming they can help them.  They wrote an email in June, explaining their situation.  15 days pass and they think, “this must be a joke.  There’s no website, no office listed.” Eventually they receive a response and learn it’s from an office in British Columbia that pairs refugees with Church sponsors.  The family’s names and stories are put into a church newsletter, and they eventually receive another email saying to fill out the application to submit to the immigration office in Canada, because they have found a sponsor.  It was the People’s Church in Wyoming.  “It was like a dream,” she said.  On the 23rd of December they received a call from the Embassy, asking if they could go the next day to do the interview in Ankara.  From there, they told them to do the medical test.  They passed the examinations in Istanbul, and shortly after, their family arrived in Canada.  
“We were always praying,” they say.  “It was a miracle.”

Now, they are almost at their third year anniversary of arrival, months away from becoming Canadian citizens.  “We love Canadian people, and we are proud.  We can’t wait to be Canadians.”

After a long, exhausting struggle, moving from city to city in a search for freedom from war, the People’s Church answered their prayers.  The beautiful wife smiles as her husband talks about the six languages he speaks, how he is thankful to be safe and working, and wants to do the Canadian name proud.  As for their children, the youngest attends London Road, and the oldest has recently graduated from Northern.  Soon, she will be off to another new school; and this time, it’s to study law.

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