December 1, 2014
DOREEN ABI RAAD
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

From the time he arrived in Lebanon alone from war-torn Syria nearly two years ago, resettlement to a peaceful nation in the West has been Gabriel's sole aim.

But it is with mixed emotions that the 28-year-old Syrian Christian sets out to begin a new life in Edmonton. Expectant hope covered a heavy heart as he spent his final two weeks in Lebanon with his parents and brother who arrived from Syria for his send-off.

Meeting with Catholic News Service in the Beirut apartment of a relative who had moved to Lebanon before the start of Syria's civil war, the family asked that they not be identified by their real names to protect their lives in Syria.

"It's very difficult, our family being torn apart like this," Gabriel's mother said. Of the four children she and her husband raised in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, Gabriel is the second to emigrate.

Two months ago Gabriel's older sister also left for Canada with her husband and three young children. Gabriel was scheduled to leave at the end of November to join them in Edmonton.

"Everyone is sad that their children are leaving. But it's better that he leaves so he can be safe, than to stay and not be safe," Gabriel's mother said.

Fragmentation of families is an all too familiar scenario for Christians escaping conflict and persecution in the Middle East.

Before Syria's war Christians comprised about 10 per cent of Qamlishi's population. Now attendance at the family's parish is half what it used to be, Gabriel's brother, Joseph, said.

A 38-year-old bachelor, Joseph chose not to join the exodus. He is staying to look after his aging parents, a custom in the Middle East for the unmarried.

Also remaining in Qamishli, are Gabriel's other sister Christina, a civil engineer, and her dentist husband, who are parents of three young children. They are determined to stay in their homeland despite the fear of an invasion by Islamic State militants.

Qamishli was not a war zone when Gabriel fled in January 2013, but it was plagued by terrorist threats and Christian men were targeted for kidnapping.

MILITARY SERVICE

Aside from the risk of being kidnapped, Gabriel is leaving Syria because of the mandatory military service he faces. Normally, men aged between 19 and 26 must serve a 15-month term in the armed forces, but he never joined.

Amid war, the Syrian government extended compulsory service indefinitely.

That's why farewells are taking place in Lebanon rather than in Syria. A re-entry to his homeland would trigger the military service Gabriel has avoided.

"I never would have imagined I'd be saying goodbye to my son like this," Gabriel's father said, his eyes filling with tears.

"In Syria, the family life is more important than anything else. Love, cooperation, togetherness: we live for this," he lamented. "Life means nothing without family."

As for Gabriel's future, the soon-to-be emigrant was uncertain what to expect in Canada.

"I don't know what I will face. Will it be a good life, or a miserable life?"

Of his many attempts to obtain a visa for resettlement, Gabriel concluded that "maybe I got refused from those countries because Canada is better for me. I have to trust in God."

TRANSLATOR

Gabriel has a degree in English literature. Until the war, he had intended to pursue graduate studies in language translation. He had been working in a language centre in Qamishli, teaching English and picking up extra money by teaching the language to professionals.

He is willing to do any kind of work to make a living in Canada, and intends to keep as busy as possible "so I won't think of the past that will never come back again."

"My dream is to have a good life and to be able to bring my family to Canada," he said. He also hopes to marry and start a family someday.

Later, Gabriel concluded that if the conflict in Syria ends, it would be far better for his parents to stay in their homeland. For his elderly parents to be uprooted to resettle in Canada, face a new language and adjust to a new culture "would be like a prison for them."