Author – Yasmine Mousa
“Special thanks to the church which took care of us and facilitated our arrival to Canada,” said Nawal Radha,49, the mother of four, thanking congregation at Runnymede United Church in Toronto following Sunday worship.
In 2014, the Runnymede United Church, under the umbrella of the Anglican United Refugee Alliance AURA, sponsored Nawal, her sister, and her children. So, it’s hard not to smile when landing at Toronto Pearson Airport on March 16, 2023: Almost nine years later, involving extensive paper work and all the entail requisites, since their refugee files were submitted to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Nawal carries a calming demeanour at the reception, surprisingly unscathed by her gruesome experiences. Reluctant to speak of her horrific past life, Nawal would rather talk about her future, raising her children, and work than parse on the life she was forced to endure. Over cake and tea one sunny afternoon, in the presence of her sisters, she holds both her hands to the side of her face gesturing a moving-on sign, “I want to think ahead. I want to build a home and see my children flourish, here”.
Nawal thanked lawyers who worked tirelessly to make her landing possible. Her older sister Amal,59, who was already in Canada helped her get the lawyers that worked on her file.
“It takes a village to raise a child. And it certainly took a village to bring a family to Canada,” said Lynne Salt of the Runnymede United Church at the reception. Salt is the engine behind the sponsorship and maintaining its momentum all these years.
“I take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped and supported my family during my absence,” said Nawal. She was referring to her abduction by ISIS, moreover held captive for several years. Amid the rush, upon boarding UNHCR buses to flee ISIS, Nawal was separated from her family in 2014. And so began another journey of finding Nawal, alive or otherwise! Meanwhile, her boys, all minors at the time, were taken care of by Nawal’s younger sister Feryal: a war-traumatized, frightened woman yet a big heart who did her best to keep them alive.
Canada encourages private sponsorship of refugees under the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program.
The Radha journey was not bereft of roadblocks; from identification documents to passports, medical examinations, that were done more than once.
It was a long journey for Nawal getting to Canada. Her older sister, Amal, arrived in 2009 through the UNHCR-IO program. She immediately began advocating for the family left behind. Amal did not leave a stone unturned. She approached mosques, community centers, and agencies to no avail.
Amal fled Iraq in 2006. Soon, her younger sisters, Nawal, Feryal along with Nawal’s children, followed suit. The bombing of a Shia shrine in February 2006 prompted a wave of sectarian killings. In 2014, when Syria was no longer safe because of the enraging civil-war, they headed to a United Nations Higher Commission (UNHCR) refugee camp on the Iraqi-Turkish borders. Thereafter, the family went missing.
She went to Iraq in 2016 in search of her missing family. In Baghdad, she learned of Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in the city, a new-norm after the invasion. Some were in the proximity of mosques. She visited these camps with photos of her sisters and nephews. Incidentally, an imam at a mosque recognized them, but he needed to verify this information first. Amal returned a couple of days later, and the sisters were reunited.
Nawal suffered tremendously in captivity. From the beating with iron wrenches, her tormentors ruptured the abdominal tissue damaging her organs. Nawal does not know for how long she remained unconscious. Her memory is hazy. All she remembers is waking up in the hospital and undergoing surgery in Mosul, north of Baghdad. Due to limited equipment and facilities in Mosul at the time, the surgery brought acute complications. Amal found her at a hospital by word of mouth.
The newcomer family was received at Pearson Airport with flowers, welcome banners in English and Arabic, Canadian flags and lots of hugs from family, friends and her sponsors. The reception was emotional with lots of tears.
Volunteers have stepped up to assist the family in housing, health, education documentation, recreation, and ESL classes.
The Radha story demonstrates belief in humanity. It shows the kindness and generosity of a group of church members who donated their time, expertise and money to strangers a world apart.
Evidently, in this world of despair, there are happy endings after all.