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Canada Engaged Syrian couple reunited in Saskatoon after two years apart

16:10  12 february  2020
16:10  12 february  2020 Source:   cbc.ca

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a group of people posing for a photo: Syrian refugees Zakaria Almdani, front row centre, and Maram Akraa were reunited in Saskatoon recently. The engaged couple hadn't seen each other in more than two years.© Jason Warick/CBC Syrian refugees Zakaria Almdani, front row centre, and Maram Akraa were reunited in Saskatoon recently. The engaged couple hadn't seen each other in more than two years.

Maram Akraa shifted anxiously from one high-heeled shoe to another, waiting in the arrivals area of the Saskatoon airport.

Akraa craned her neck for a glimpse of the passengers coming down the escalator. She hadn't seen her fiancé, fellow Syrian refugee Zakaria Almdani, for more than two years.

A few minutes later, Almdani walked through the gate and walked straight to Akraa. He hugged her with one hand — the other was holding several bags full of gifts. Neither said a word. Almdani laid his head on Akraa's shoulder.

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Friends and family who'd also waited at the airport were much more animated. They clapped, chanted and showered the couple with rose petals.

"It's great. It feels like a really satisfying culmination of a lot of years of work and waiting and sometimes frustration and ups and downs and it feels really great that he's finally here," said Gina Khonje, one of the Saskatoon women who privately helped bring the couple and 15 other Syrian refugees to Saskatoon in the past five years.

The next day, Khonje, Almdani, Akraa and others spoke to CBC News at the family home in Saskatoon's Parkridge neighbourhood.

"We had hope that we would one day be together again," Akraa said through an interpreter. "Now we are feeling that we belong to here, to Canada, and we are going to start our life."

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Khonje said she first got involved in 2015. Community groups were hosting an information night about the Syrian refugee crisis at Saskatoon's Roxy Theatre. Khonje and her friends had seen the news reports about the war and the photo of a three-year-old refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body had washed up on the Mediterranean shore.

Khonje and her friends — who decided to call themselves the Bridge City Neighbours — felt they had to do something. They learned the Canadian government was sponsoring 25,000 Syrian refugees, but churches and other private groups could also help. With some help from the Mennonite Central Committee, they agreed to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

a person in glasses looking at the camera: Saskatoon woman Gina Khonje and her friends have sponsored a total of 17 Syrian refugees since the conflict began more than five years ago.© Don Somers/CBC Saskatoon woman Gina Khonje and her friends have sponsored a total of 17 Syrian refugees since the conflict began more than five years ago.

Khonje said it's been a great experience, but they had no idea what they were getting into.

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After months of paperwork and fundraising, they welcomed a family of four to Saskatoon. They found a place for them to live and helped them with basics such as finding a doctor, getting groceries or registering for school.

Khonje and her friends didn't stop there. Two years ago, they welcomed seven more extended family members and worked to support them. One of those was Akraa, but her fiancé was told he'd have to wait.

Almdani said he never wavered in his belief that Akraa was the one and that they'd be together soon.

"I found her the girl I wanted to continue my life with. I thought we will continue our life together. I liked her, and then I loved her," he said.

The couple said they're grateful to Canada for accepting them and to Khonje and her friends.

"We are very thankful for all the team," Akraa said.

Khonje said it's important to remember there are still many others who need help. Canada has brought in a total of roughly 50,000 Syrians through government and private sponsorship, but other countries such as Germany, Lebanon and Turkey have each accepted 10 times that number.

Almdani and Akraa said they'll continue to take English classes. Zakaria hopes to resume work as a carpenter.

Then they want to get married and start a family.

"We have a safe life because of Gina and all of them," Akraa said. "We are two hearts, two lovers here with our family because of them. Thank you very much."

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