Ibtesam Alkarnake wanted so badly for her baby to be born in Canada that she kept quiet for hours, silently enduring her labour pains.
While much of the world’s attention was still focused on U.S. President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from Syria and restrictions on six other predominantly Muslim countries, or on the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, church sponsors were meeting the Alkarnake family at the Fort McMurray airport on Tuesday evening.
Ibtesam Alkarnake was taken to a local hospital, where her son, Eyad, was born a few hours later.
He weighed just over six pounds.
“Brute determination on the mom’s part to have the baby in Canada,” Fort City Church Pastor Doug Doyle said Wednesday about the final day in the family’s two-year ordeal, which saw them fly from Amman, Jordan, to Frankfurt, Germany, and then on to Calgary and Fort McMurray.
Somewhere along the way, Doyle said of the young mother, “her water broke and she told no one.”
Long journey from Jordan
The baby’s birth was just the latest episode in a long struggle to bring the six — now seven — members of the Alkarnake family to Canada.
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Their determined local sponsors overcame last May’s wildfire and, more recently, fears about Muslims and refugees among a minority of the church’s congregation.
“There is that concern,” Doyle said. “Who are we letting into our country? And is this a safe thing to be doing for the safety of Canada?”
Doyle and church members met the Alkarnake family for the first time at the airport’s arrival lounge. Hugs and welcome posters capped off a private sponsorship that began long before the current Liberal government’s refugee program kicked into high gear in 2015.
The Alkarnake family fled their bombed-out home in Syria five years ago, and had lived much of the time since then in a camp in Mafraq, Jordan, with more than 100,000 other refugees.
During their camp stay, the family went through rigorous vetting, the church told its congregation.
Doyle said he told reluctant congregation members that faith sometimes involves stepping into the unknown — perhaps especially in a case like this, when the Islamic family sponsoring these refugees does not share the church’s Christian religion.
“There are some, as there are all across the country, who wonder and have concerns about that,” Doyle said. “So as a church family, we have continued to talk about of all of the issues. Including, what does it mean to risk.”
Fort Mac wildfire was ‘life-changing’
Doyle said it took May’s wildfire, which forced about 90,000 people from their homes and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings, to change the minds of some in the church who were apprehensive about taking in refugees.
“I think people began to realize, in a small sense but not in the same level, that they were refugees fleeing the flames of their city,” Doyle said. “And that is a life-changing experience.”
While the ordeal of the wildfire helped create more acceptance for a refugee family, it also raised questions about whether the church could still host them.
In the days after the wildfire devoured whole streets and neighbourhoods, the church didn’t know if the townhouse set aside for Ibtesam Alkarnake, her husband, Medyan, and their four children would still be standing, or inhabitable.
Almost nine months after the wildfire, with most of Fort McMurray still intact, the church now believes the city will be the perfect fit for their newcomers. They will live in the townhouse, and Medyan has some job prospects, as a baker or a truck driver.
“We’re going to get them learning things, like shopping here in Canada,” Doyle said. “All of the basics. Just get them familiar with a totally new country.”
A total of 7,004 refugees came to Alberta between November 2015 and Dec. 31, 2016, according to the latest numbers available from the provincial government. Of that total, 4,921 were from Syria.