May 29, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

A journey to the edge of humanity 

Whistler family makes a difference for Syrian refugees

click to flip through (8) STORY BY ALISON TAYLOR - A journey to the edge of humanity: Whistler family makes a difference for Syrian refugees
  • Story by Alison Taylor
  • A journey to the edge of humanity: Whistler family makes a difference for Syrian refugees

The world has watched in horror as events in Syria sparked the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. For one Whistler family, however, the crisis hit close to home, unfolding in grim reality in their ancestral homeland of Lebanon.

They decided they couldn't just watch from the sidelines.

Last fall, Joe Houssian, former head of Intrawest, the original developers of Blackcomb Mountain, along with wife Joanne and grown children Joey, founder of The Adventure Group in Whistler, and Jessica and Jamie, decided to channel significant funds through The Houssian Foundation and maximize the federal government's matching promise of funds to the Syria Emergency Relief Fund.

But they didn't stop with just their foundation; they also galvanized others to the cause.

The funds flowed to UNICEF and, in a unique offer to bridge the gap between the areas in crisis and Canada, the Houssian family was asked if it would like to go to the frontlines with the aid agency to see how their donation was making a difference. It was an opportunity they couldn't refuse. In February, Joe, Joey and Jessica, travelled on a 10-day mission to the Middle East. Specifically, they went to Jordan and Lebanon — neighbouring countries buckling under the weight of the sheer volume of refugees pouring across their borders.

It was a trip that vacillated between "super inspiring" and "tragic" and every word in between, says Joey, adding that it took this journey to truly understand what it means to be a Syrian refugee living through the horror of war — how life has changed for them on the thin edge of humanity, how life will never be the same again.

They took tea with refugees a stone's throw from the Syrian border in the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan; they watched as babies were immunized for polio; they visited Makani Centres, UNICEF-supported safe centres for children; they met Jordan's Queen Rania in her Royal Offices in Amman; they drove deep into the Bekka Valley in Lebanon to their ancestral village.

"It only matters to bear witness to something this intense if you come home and leverage what you witness," explains Jessica.

"It's about using our voice and platform in order to shed light on an issue."

Adds Joey: "I feel like it's the tip of the iceberg for us and our family."

This is just a part of their story.

About an hour outside of Beirut, with the snow-capped Lebanon Mountains as backdrop and the fallout from the Syrian crisis front and centre, the Houssians found themselves in the hot seat.

One of the world's worst civil wars in recent times was raging in nearby Syria. Since war began in March 2011, the United Nations (UN) estimates a quarter of a million people have been killed. A UN commission of inquiry has evidence that all parties in the conflict have committed war crimes — murder, torture, rape — not to mention blocking access to food, water and health services to the civilian population.

The Houssians, however, were in relative safety under the protection of UNICEF, in the agricultural heart of Lebanon, the Bekka Valley.

They felt an immediate and intimate connection to this land — Joe Houssian is a third-generation Canadian of Lebanese descent — and they could feel the ancient pull of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. All around them, however, a 21st-century story was unfolding in stark detail inside the canvas walls of an Informal Tent Settlement (ITS) housing Syrian refugees.

Low key and private, the Houssian family typically eschews the spotlight. But, when the press corps is a group of eager Syrian refugee children studying journalism in one of the Child Friendly Spaces within the ITS, it's hard to say no to a few questions about Canada.

They were wholly unprepared for what was to come.

"What is your position on child marriage?" asks one young girl.

"How do you feel about domestic violence?" asks a boy next.

The third question: "Do you have child labour in Canada?"

A girl of about nine or 10 years old raises her hand.

"We are Syrians, we live in tents. Your children are Canadian, they live in homes," she says through a translator. "Other than that, what's the difference between us?"

What is the difference between a Syrian refugee girl and a Canadian girl? A simple, honest question with a thousand difficult and complicated answers.

The task falls to Jessica to come up with a response.

"I just said, 'Nothing. Nothing is different about you,'" says Jessica.

Recalls Joey, "My sister answered it so beautifully."

The little girl's eyes grew wider and a quietness fell over the tent as the meaning of the answer settled on the children.

The questions, however, lingered, speaking volumes about what life is like for a Syrian refugee and what it means to the most vulnerable members of the crisis — the children. This is the reason why the Houssians felt compelled to donate money when the Canadian government offered matching funds. This is why they were on the ground in Lebanon and Jordan to see for themselves what their money could do. This is why they directed their funds to UNICEF.

There are now more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. More than that, 6.6 million, are internally displaced inside Syria. Almost half of registered refugees are children, at risk of becoming a so-called "lost generation."

They are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Where once almost all Syrian children went to school in a country with a 90-per-cent literacy rate, more and more are now falling through the cracks of war. More than two million children are no longer in school.

Meg French, chief of international programs and public affairs for UNICEF Canada, who travelled with the Houssians to Jordan, explains the fallout for these lost children and families. She calls it, "negative coping mechanisms." Specifically, what French means is more people turn to child marriage and child labour to deal with the challenges of life as refugees. And, for UNICEF, these are worrisome trends.

"We see increased levels of child marriage with the hope that if they marry their daughter to somebody then their daughter will get the care that they, as parents, can't provide," explains French.

"And we also see increased levels of child labour as well, looking for a way for the family to get a greater income to support and make sure everyone has shelter and food and those types of things. That's a real concern for UNICEF and we're really working to see how we can meet the basic needs of families, so that they don't turn to marrying their daughters or sending their children off to work."

It takes money, and commitment, to do that. The United Nations estimates it will take billions of dollars to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2016.

In other words, it will take the world to save a lost generation of Syrians.

The Donation — The Houssian Foundation

The Houssian Foundation started as a way for the family to give back to the community.

"Joe and I created a family foundation years ago as our work in the community grew more and more important to us," says foundation chair and matriarch Joanne in an email. "Today, the Houssian Foundation is a vehicle which facilitates our family working together with partners to address environmental and human insecurities both at home and around the world."

This donation, however, is different in both its size and its reach.

"We had a really hard look at the Syrian crisis, which spoke to us on many levels, and decided to make, what for our family, was a bold contribution," explains Joey (the family has decided to keep the donation amount confidential).

Though the Houssians rallied to the cause, the initial response from Canadians to meet the government's challenge of $100 million in matching funds was lacklustre — $12 million raised by the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline.

"What we often find with conflict-driven crises is that they don't engage people," says UNICEF's French. "We don't get the same kind of donations as we do when it's a natural-disaster type emergency — it comes suddenly, people see the destruction immediately on the news and they start giving. When we have these long protracted emergencies that are more complicated and all the politics (that go with it), we just don't get the same kind of support."

The Houssians were inspired to further action as they watched the poor response of fellow Canadians. First Joe appealed to the federal Minister of International Development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, to extend the deadline, then the family used its clout in Vancouver and with the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO) and close friends through two private educational functions. They didn't ask for money; they didn't ask for any commitment; they didn't ask for people to rally to this cause. They simply shared the reasons for their donation.

And it made a difference.

"We really decided that our gift should be bigger than just writing a cheque," explains Joey.

By the time the extended deadline passed, Canadians had more than doubled their initial response for a total of $31.8 million, still short of the $100 million promise in matching funds but more than before. The government's matching funding, as with The Houssian Foundation funding, was funnelled directly into UNICEF and its efforts in Jordan and Lebanon.

Both countries, bordering Syria, are struggling under the pressure of the crisis. There are 1,069,000 refugees in Lebanon — one in five people is a Syrian refugee. In Jordan there are 637,000 — one in 13 is a Syrian refugee. Each country is handling the response differently — Jordan with a very centralized approach; Lebanon, where refugee camps are not allowed, with a very decentralized system.

Jordan — From Her Majesty's Royal Offices to the largest refugee camp

Not many field trip missions to visit refugees begin by meeting with the Queen of Jordan. This one did.

Queen Rania is a progressive female voice in the Arab world, renowned for her work in public health and education.

As it turns out, she and Joey have a mutual friend and a meeting was easily arranged before the trip.

It didn't quite feel real, says Joey, until two men arrived at their hotel in Amman in matching Audis to pick them up and escort them to the Royal Offices.

For half an hour Queen Rania spoke candidly about the situation in her country. She thanked them for coming to help.

The quick influx of refugees in the last five years to cities, towns and camps is creating tremendous strain on Jordanian infrastructures.

The hospitals are overcrowded; the schools are working in shifts.

"(Queen Rania) spoke about the stress on the social fabric on their country with the additional input of people and people in need," recalls Joey of the meeting.

In some ways, Queen Rania candidly prepared them for what was to come on their visit to Jordan.

Then again, there is no way to really prepare for the reality of life in a refugee camp.

In the last four years Za'atari Refugee Camp has become the fourth largest city in Jordan.

It opened in 2012 with 100 families in a barren stretch of land.

At latest count there are almost 80,000 refugees living in roughly four square kilometres. The camp lies in northern Jordan, with the Syrian border about 10 kilometres away. Ringing its perimeter are Jordanian tanks trained outwards across the flat land, a constant reminder of the danger and the not-too-far off home from which the refugees travelled.

"Most of the people we met, their homes were 10 to 15 kilometres from where we were," says Joey. "When, and if, bombs and fighting was happening, you could hear it in the camp."

It wasn't until they got there that they truly understood Za'atari is a place that's not going anywhere soon — a makeshift city more than a camp. The UN, for example, is building a water treatment centre at the camp to avoid trucking in the water from other parts of the country. An alarming statistic springs to mind: the global average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Most people here thought they were coming for a few weeks or months at most.

Metal structures, like shipping containers with windows, serve as temporary homes there. Art covers the outside walls. The streets are dirt.

There is a main street, dubbed the Champs Elysee where commerce is alive and well. There is even a wedding dress shop.

"Because life goes on," says Joey. "People are getting married and someone has figured out how to bring in wedding dresses."

Roughly 80 babies are born every day. Some children go to school, others don't. Life goes on.

And yet, everyone the Houssians spoke to wanted to go home, back to Syria. They wanted to tend their gardens. They wanted to work. They wanted to be back with their families.

And so, Za'atari remains a no-man's land, a waiting room where despair and anger snakes its way inside, creating fissures in the fabric of the temporary society.

At a "Makani" (My Space) centre, UNICEF is working to expand learning opportunities for vulnerable children. Here they can get alternative education, play with their friends, learn life skills, receive psychosocial support. They can make music and art. They can laugh. A safe place where their world beyond blurs into the background, if just for a little while.

Outside again, the metal container walls, the dirt roads, the bleakness closes in.

Walking along the dirt road, Joey remembers making eye contact with a man about his age standing next to a home with the words "I 'HEART' Syria" on the side of the building. He smiles, the universal greeting of "hello," and holds up his camera to see if he could take a photo. One thing leads to another and he is invited inside.

He takes off his shoes and ventures in.

The man's wife, a young baby tucked next to her, and his mother stood in welcome.

Their sleeping mats are pushed upright against the metal walls. A small TV with rabbit ears sits in the corner, along with a small stove for cooking and little else, save a few small keepsakes from home.

"Their whole world was in this thing," says Joey. "It was just so real and raw at that point."

They offer him tea.

Tea. In the dampest of apartments in Amman, in the metal-wall room that is home in the refugee camp, the people offer tea everywhere.

Joey recalls a meeting with a family who had been approved to go to Canada. In a rush, the grandfather gave instructions to one of the children who quickly disappeared outside.

The group sat down for tea.

About 20 minutes later the child came back with a tray full of Twinkies and offered them around the room.

"Here I am eating a Twinkie in a refugee camp," smiles Joey at the memory. "I don't like Twinkies but I ate it, that's for sure."

And then there are the refugees that the Houssians couldn't visit.

Thousands of refugees are stranded on the northeastern Jordanian border, gathering near an earthen wall, or berm. The situation is worsening by the day in the remote desert. And still the refugees wait.

In December, 2015, the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged the Jordanian government to allow them entry while also recognizing Jordanian security concerns.

Lebanon — Immunizing babies and tracking down ancestral roots

There are no formal camps for Syrian refugees in nearby Lebanon.

Picture, just for a moment, driving through the bucolic Fraser Valley in the Lower Mainland, says Joey.

Now imagine seeing makeshift tents housing 40 to 50 families, sometimes more and sometimes less, set up as temporary settlements on the farmers' fields.

Imagine that there was a violent civil war taking place just across the border in Washington state.

Imagine for a moment life in the shoes of a Syrian refugee who walked to safety across the border to neighbouring Lebanon in the west with nowhere else to go, their home maddeningly close and yet increasingly out of reach.

"They are not going anywhere," says Joey of the seeming permanence of the situation.

Unlike Jordan, most of UNICEF's work in Lebanon to address the Syrian crisis is done through Lebanese NGO's — Non-Governmental Organizations — like one called Beyond.

The NGOs travel to the Informal Tent Settlements (ITS) dotted throughout the country to provide services.

Beyond creates "Child Friendly Spaces" with the ITS, much like the Makani's in Jordan.

"It's a place while the children are out of school (where) they can come and be children," explains Jessica. "They learn informally and they experience life-skills training, which could be anything from English language to computer skills to coping with emotions."

Beyond also coordinates Mobile Medical Units (MMU) to come to the ITS for medical services.

At an MMU the Houssians look on as a Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) bracelet is wrapped around a baby's arm. The bracelet determines the severity of malnourishment. The nurse then asks Jessica if she would like to immunize the baby for polio.

Jessica looks at the mom for the nod, dons a latex glove, and puts two drops of the oral vaccine in the baby's mouth.

"It was exhilarating actually," she recalls. "As a UNICEF supporter and board member, we talk a lot of how catalytic vaccinations are, especially in times of crisis.

"It was over before I knew it and it was amazing."

The final part of the trip was a personal journey further into the Bekka Valley to meet extended family, another reminder of how close the crisis hits home for this family.

'Heroic efforts'

French has been in the field many times. Normally, when travelling and working with UNICEF, she spends a lot of time with children. What she found different about her experience with the Houssians in Za'atari was her awareness of the refugee parents and their situation.

"You really got the sense that in some ways the parents were almost worse off that the kids because there's nothing to do," she says. "So you can only imagine the level of boredom, day in and day out in this small space, hoping to find out something about what's going on back home, not knowing what the future holds, not being able to work, waiting to hear news from family and friends who may still be in Syria, who may be in another country. And not knowing what the future holds for your kids."

Uncertainty abounds: Will they ever go back home? What will happen to their children? Are they safe? Will they eat enough that day?

All of those questions are written across their faces, worried into the lines around their eyes, reflected back from their eyes.

"Sometimes you just get lost in the ocean of despair and think: is this really the best way we should be deploying our resources or time or energy," says Joey.

And then you see firsthand what he calls the "heroic efforts" unfolding before them. The soccer games in the Child Friendly Spaces in Lebanon, the shy smiles in the Makani Centres in Jordan, the bright art on the walls of the refugee camp, the sheer determination from the students of the journalism club, the vaccinations, the fresh water, the hope.

"I felt an overwhelming confidence in UNICEF as an organization," he says.

Not everyone gets the chance to donate money like his family, agrees Joey, and then see firsthand how those resources are utilized.

"Since I've been home, people have been asking, 'what can I do?'" says Joey.

"My reaction to that is to be aware and get engaged in the conversation. You see that happening all over the place including right here in Whistler."

"It's what you can do," he adds.

"I think there's a responsibility to do something."

Readers also liked…

  • Getting Lost On A Bike

    Mountain biking? Nay. Touring? Not quite. Hiking? Heck no! Welcome to the world of bikepacking
    • Aug 12, 2018
  • Dream team

    The First Nations snowboard team that's about way more than just shredding
    • Mar 15, 2018

Latest in Feature Story

  • Deadly decisions

    Critics say the BC Conservation officer Service is overly reliant on lethal force—it maintains they are only seeing a 'snapshot' of what they do
    • Oct 11, 2019
  • Whatcha Smokin'?

    Canadians face lifetime bans to U.S. over past cannabis use, CBD oils and social media posts
    • Oct 4, 2019
  • Paradise found

    Searching for the families that quietly waited out doomsday deep in the Cayoosh Range mountains
    • Sep 28, 2019
  • More »

More by Alison Taylor

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation