Carried to safety: Amona Ali, 104, may be Canada’s oldest refugee

 

 
 
 
 
Amona Ali sits with her granddaughter Khadiga el Ebrahim at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily housed in Surrey.
 
 

Amona Ali sits with her granddaughter Khadiga el Ebrahim at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily housed in Surrey.

Photograph by: Ric Ernst, VANCOUVER SUN

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When Amona Ali left her native Syria for the first time, last year, she was carried across the Turkish border by her son and granddaughter. She was 103 years old.

Ali and her family — a son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren — stayed in Turkey seven months, until they were accepted as refugees by Canada. Born in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank — Ali at 104 could be the oldest refugee ever admitted to Canada. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was unable to confirm this on Thursday.

Ali is now housed in a Surrey hotel with her family, as her son searches for a place that can house all eight family members on an income equivalent to welfare.

It’s the latest step on a journey that has been fraught with peril.

The family fled fighting in their home city of Raqqa, Syria between Kurdish militias and the Islamic State last July, said Ali’s son, Hagy el Ebrahim, 63. Raqqa is the main stronghold of the Islamic State group.

Asked through a translator what life was like under Islamic State rule, el Ebrahim said: “There was no mercy. It was a terrible life. Everybody was fighting each other.”

The family, then consisting of all eight of el Ebrahim’s children, as well as three grandchildren, escaped to the Turkish border, about 80 km north of Raqqa. Family members took turns carrying Ali — sometimes on their shoulders, sometimes using their hands — as planes dropped bombs overhead.

“It was a really tiring trip. We were walking and the planes were shooting,” he recalled.

When they reached the border, Turkish officials refused to let them in. They stayed at the border three nights, sleeping in the open air, until the border was opened. El Ebrahim’s wife, Shakha, covered Ali’s face with scarves to keep the sand out.

They stayed in Turkey seven months, during which time the family was accepted as refugees by Canada. But not the whole family.

Canada’s rules stipulate a child can only be considered a dependent if they are under 19 or have a mental or physical condition rendering them financially dependent on their parents. This meant El Ebrahim and Shakha were forced to leave three of their children, and all three grandchildren, in Turkey.

It is a decision that weighs heavily on Shakha.

“I worry about my grandchildren,” she said through a translator. “Every time I look at their pictures, I cry.”

They flew from Turkey to Germany and then from Germany to Toronto. El Ebrahim gave up his seat on the trans-Atlantic flight so his mother could lie down. They stayed a week in Toronto and then flew on to Vancouver, arriving Feb. 19.

Since then, they have stayed in a Surrey hotel. Ali eats fruit — mostly oranges and bananas — drinks milk and prays several times a day, Shakha said, adding that she helps her mother-in-law wash before each prayer session. Ten years ago, Ali had a blood clot in her brain, but has healed from that and is otherwise in relatively good health, she added.

Ali, dressed in a black robe and hijab, reclines on a couch in the hotel room as her family chats with The Sun, at one point saying she has a headache and would like to be moved. Her grandson Mahmoud, 17, gently touches her face with his knuckles, explaining he is showing her how to get rid of the headache.

When the conversation turns to the tattoos Ali and Shakha have on their faces, Ali lifts her gown to reveal her ankles, also covered in the dark blue tattoos typical of older generations of Bedouin women.

Asked what their hopes are for a new life in Canada, El Ebrahim said simply: “We want to live.”

In Syria, he worked as a clerk at an electrical company, but at age 63 with no ability to speak English, El Ebrahim knows his options are limited.

“The future is for my children.”

tacarman@postmedia.com

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Amona Ali sits with her granddaughter Khadiga el Ebrahim at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily housed in Surrey.
 

Amona Ali sits with her granddaughter Khadiga el Ebrahim at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily housed in Surrey.

Photograph by: Ric Ernst, VANCOUVER SUN

 
Amona Ali sits with her granddaughter Khadiga el Ebrahim at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily housed in Surrey.
Mahmoud el Ebrahim, 17, (left) touches the chin of his 104-year-old grandmother, Amona Ali, as his sister, Khadiga el Ebrahim, (right) looks on at a hotel in Surrey.
The el Ebrahim family surrounds 104-year-old Amona Ali at a hotel in Surrey on Wednesday. The refugee family carried her from Syria into Turkey as they fled their homeland.
The el Ebrahim family surrounds 104-year-old Amona Ali Wednesday at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family carried her from Syria into Turkey as they fled their homeland.
Amona Ali, 104, sits in a suite at a hotel in Surrey Wednesday. The refugee family fled Syria and are being temporarily being housed in Surrey.
The el Ebrahim family surrounds 104-year-old Amona Ali at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family carried her from Syria into Turkey as they fled their homeland.
The el Ebrahim family surrounds 104-year-old Amona Ali at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family carried her from Syria into Turkey as they fled their homeland.
Amona Ali sits inside a suite Wednesday at a hotel in Surrey. The refugee family fled Syria and is being temporarily being housed in Surrey.
Mahmoud el Ebrahim, 17, sits with his 104-year-old grandmother, Amona Ali.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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