Family separated during violence in Gaza gets a new life in Hamilton

November 1, 2021
Family separated during violence in Gaza gets a new life in Hamilton

It was Saturday night at his family’s Queen Street North apartment in Hamilton when five-year-old Sameer Alshaer got up and made sure the door was shut and locked.

He’d waited too long to have his whole family together again, his mom says, and now that they were, he wanted to make sure no one was leaving. 

For the little boy from Gaza, the fear was understandable. He’s lived in Canada with his mom, Amal Battrawi, since he was two, when the pair fled Gaza as convention refugees. But his father, Sherif Aishaer, and sisters Sireen and Sama, aged 13 and 11, respectively, didn’t have visas and were forced to stay behind in one of the region’s most bombed neighbourhoods.

But last weekend, at a Toronto airport, they all were together again.

It’s the end of a long journey for the family, who were eager to escape the war-torn area. As Sameer and his mother followed news of what was happening back home, Aishaer was shuffling his daughters from home to home, week to week, as air raids rattled the neighbourhood. It peaked with an 11-day war in May.

The Aishaer family, shown at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport Saturday, are among 14 families being reunited from Gaza. Four are still separated. (Amal Battrawi)

The airport reunion was overwhelming for all of them, including Sameer, who wanted to make sure they’d stay, Battrawi said.

“He didn’t believe me until he saw them,” she said Sunday outside their Queen Street North apartment building. “Once he saw them, he said, ‘Yes, you did it mom.'”

When they got home from the airport, Sameer “closed the doors and said, ‘Tonight, stay with us. Don’t go.'”

The family’s quest to be reunited was expedited by the Rural Refugee Rights Network, which is helping reunite 13 others as well. Four are still separated. The network helped the Alshaers apply for early admission temporary resident permits, which means they can stay in Canada while going through the 39-month approval process for residency.

“They are all convention refugees who have submitted permanent residency applications for themselves and their long-separated love ones in Gaza,” said Behrens, co-ordinator of the Rural Refugee Rights Network.

He said he watched a video of the Alshaer reunion on social media as it was happening.

“I was cheering and crying. To actually see them here finally, I can’t even describe it in words,” Behrens said.

“Sameer’s a kid, and he’s sat at the front door of their apartment wondering and waiting for them to walk through.”

Mother and son are the only family members fluent in English right now — Sameer’s English, Battrawi said, is “perfect” — but the others are eager to learn, get jobs and go to school. They’re also eager to become permanent Canadians and build a safer life together.

Battrawi doesn’t talk much about Gaza, saying she just wants to move forward.

She wants to spend time with her daughters, who’ve grown so much that she almost didn’t recognize them at the airport. Battrawi said the first night, she couldn’t sleep. She just kept looking at them.

“One thing we agreed is that we will start a new start,” she said. “We have a new beginning. Everything in the past. We’ll forget it and begin a new life, a new start.”

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