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

March 12, 2016

By Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun |

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.

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