Sarmand ‘Sam’ Almouallem is more than 9,000 kilometres away from home. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see his parents again. He’s spent three days in jail, and more than one of his friends has been killed or kidnapped. But he still considers himself one of the lucky ones.
No matter how bad his situation seems, he knows there are others he’s left behind in war-torn Syria who are worse off than he is.
The 28-year-old engineer is living as a refugee in the home of Merell and Fouad Awad, who is Almouallem’s godfather. The couple are also the owners of popular Campbell River restaurant BaBa Gannouj.
Almouallem arrived in Campbell River on Sept. 26, after illegally walking across the border near Abbotsford.
While still in Syria, Almouallem booked himself a plane ticket to Los Angeles. He took a taxi from Syria to Beirut, Lebanon with no questions asked. As an engineer, Almouallem regularly made the trip to Lebanon for supplies for work so the trip appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary.
But this time it was.
Once in Beirut, he got on an airplane and, after a layover in Dubai, landed in L.A.
In L.A, Almouallem briefly stayed with his uncle but he knew his final destination would be Canada as he didn’t want to be a burden on his uncle who is struggling financially and is trying to cope with a daughter who has health problems.
Before leaving Syria, Almouallem said he read online that if he tried to cross the U.S. border into Canada, he would be sent back to the States. So, he took a bus from Seattle to Blaine, Wash. and attempted to get into Canada by foot.
“I chose a civilian area with houses, I think it was someone’s backyard where I tried to cross,” said Almouallem. “I arrived on Zero Avenue between the States and Canada and an officer came and arrested me. I was attempting to turn myself in and I told them I was here for refugee status from Syria. He was very understanding and he took me back to the border for a few hours.”
Almouallem said he was questioned about his background, whether he had any health issues and if he had any family in Canada. He says the border control officers were all very kind and took him to the immigration office in Vancouver. He said they routinely asked him if he wanted anything to eat or if he needed water to take any medications.
“Seriously, everyone from the border was very nice and I understand they had to do a background check,” said Almouallem who fortunately had his passport, his engineer’s card and his university degree papers with him. “Everyone was very respectful and treated me very well.”
But because he didn’t have anywhere to stay and the officers needed more information, Almouallem was put in a jail for immigrants for two nights and three days. But he says even jail wasn’t too bad.
“It was more just like a bad hotel,” Almouallem said. Over those three days, he said he was shuttled back and forth between the jail and the immigration office where he was assisted with filling out the proper paper work to allow him to stay in Canada until a hearing, scheduled for Nov. 23, in Vancouver.
In the meantime, Almouallem is staying with the Awads under the condition he doesn’t gain employment and that he calls his immigration officer weekly.
“And that’s so easy for me,” Almouallem said. “That’s nothing compared to the people trying to cross the sea and maybe drowning with their babies. I’m lucky.”
But to the average Canadian his life doesn’t sound so lucky.
Almouallem grew up in Maaloula, Syria as an only child. He worked as an electrical engineer for his father who started his own business in 1987 and grew the company until the war broke out in 2013. It was that same year that his hometown was destroyed by the extremists. When the missiles dropped, he lost his hearing for two days.
“I lost a house in my hometown,” Almouallem said. “It was a massacre in Maaloula. The extremists took the whole town.”
So his family moved to Damascus, the Syrian capital, where the family already owned a second home. But things weren’t much better there.
“I was having coffee in my car, going to my job, and the missiles were flying over my head,” Almouallem said. “And that’s a normal day. There’s 60 to 70 missiles per day flying overhead in Damascus. The extremists threaten all the civilians – they don’t want you to have a normal life and go to work.
“I was afraid for my life. You don’t know when a missile will come into your house.”
Then there are also the suicide bombers. The Syrian government has set up checkpoints throughout Damascus in an effort to capture the extremists, however, Almouallem said those checkpoints are targets for suicide bombers.
“You know, sometimes you’re at the checkpoints for up to two hours and it’s a tense situation because you don’t know if a bomb is going to land,” Almouallem said.
Then there’s the darkness.
“They kept blowing up the fuel pipes so there’s no electricity for, in some areas, maybe a week,” he said. “In Damascus, maybe 10 hours a day with no electricity, maybe more.”
And if that’s not hard enough to cope with, Almouallem also lost several friends.
One was studying in his room when a rocket went through his window and killed him, while another friend was kidnapped in October, 2012 and has not been heard from since.
Almouallem worries about his parents who are still in Syria but he said they are happy to know their son is safe.
He said if Syria becomes safe again, he would like to go back, but for now he has no plans to return. Right now, he’s happy where he is.
“In Campbell River, people are so welcoming and friendly and people smile at me,” Almouallem said. “I missed that in Syria, people smiling at me. The Syrian community, they’re in a really bad situation right now. They are victims.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
“We had a good life. I was an engineer, I had a good family, I had a home in my hometown, I had a car,” says Almouallem, who majored in university in renewable energy. “In one year, everything was broken.”
He says he tried to fight the urge to leave and stay with his family but in the end, the fear took over. Now he’s looking forward to a brighter future.
“This is my home now, I have to do that in order to move on,” Almouallem says. “I’m not forgetting Syria, but you have to move on.”