By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
FORT MCMURRAY, ALBERTA (ANS – May 6, 2016) – A group of Syrian refugees who escaped the brutal violence in their home country, have again had to flee, this time from their new homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
The Globe and Mail reported on the Labak family, who had fled Syria in 2011 and arrived in Canada two months ago, settling into Fort McMurray.
But now they have had to flee again, as the entire city of almost 90,000 people was evacuated three days ago. Most fled south, but some of those who headed north have been airlifted to safety.
“My kids, mom say, ‘What [do] we have to do? You said to us we will live there, we will live happy. Why [has] that happened to us?’” Ms. Labak told the newspaper. “That’s very bad. I can’t answer to them anything.”
The fire, ash and smell in the air as they fled the town were reminiscent of bombings at their home in Damascus. They told the Globe and Mail that the cots at the shelter near Fort McMurray reminded them of refugee camps. They left most of their belongings – including their passports – behind.
In Calgary, some Syrian refugees are organizing a Facebook support group for victims of the fire, the Calgary Herald reports.
“(Canadians) gave us everything. And now it’s time to return the favor,” Rita Khanchet, who came to Calgary from Syria five months ago, wrote in the Facebook group.
Money being collected by the group will go toward hygiene items for Fort McMurray evacuees.
The Calgary Herald wrote, “They’ve only been in Canada for a few months, and have little money or possessions, but a group of Syrian refugees in Calgary has launched a donation drive to help support displaced residents of Fort McMurray.
“At least 30 Syrian families have donated $5 to $20 to the drive, which will help purchase toiletries, pillows and other household items for Fort McMurray residents devastated by the wildfire.”
It said that in one case, a five-year-old Syrian boy donated two of his toys and some storybooks to help those in need.
“They can completely relate — this is what happened to them. They lost everything,” said Saima Jamal, co-founder of the Calgary-based Syrian Refugee Support Group.
“Of all the Canadians here now, these people are most attuned to what it means to lose all your stuff, your house, your memories, even your loved ones. They have lost their entire country.”
The idea came from Rita Khanchat, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her husband and son last December. After hearing about the massive wildfire that has displaced nearly 90,000 Albertans, Khanchat wrote a message in Arabic on the private Facebook page for the Syrian Refugee Support Group.
“Canadians have provided us with everything and now we have a duty,” she wrote. “We must … help the people who lost their homes and everything in a fire (in) Oil City … Get ready, it’s time to fulfill.”
The call to action quickly gained traction as Syrians across Calgary offered to help. A group of volunteers drove across the city to gather whatever spare money the Syrian families could offer.
“Some refugees even offered extra couches and coffee tables they received after arriving in Canada, but volunteers advised that it was OK to keep their furniture,” said the Calgary Herald. “In total, the drive is expected to bring in $500 to $1,000.”
Jamal said, “I can’t stress to you how little these people have. They can barely speak any English. They’re still getting accustomed to their new surroundings. This, to them, is a lot.”
Using those donations, the group has purchased toiletries and everyday essentials, such as toothpaste, pillows and diapers. The items will be delivered to a group called 99 Hampers of Hope, which provided aid for the Syrian refugees when they first arrived in Canada.
For Jamal, seeing the Syrian community band together to help out their fellow Canadians has been inspirational.
“It made me so proud,” she said. “It made me feel like we accepted the right people into this country. We made true Canadians out of them. The feeling is … I’m so happy I can’t express it.”
As flames enveloped Fort McMurray, a police-escorted convoy of 1,500 vehicles began passing through the city along the only safe route to Edmonton and Calgary to the south.
It will take approximately four days for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to escort all evacuees from sites north of Fort McMurray, authorities said.
For nearby communities though the danger has not receded.
The BBC is reporting that officials have given few details other than to report that 1,600 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.
However, people who have seen the damage say whole neighborhoods have been wiped out.
CNN says that the exact cause of the fire is unclear.
Authorities said it could have been sparked by a human, such as with a discarded cigarette or an out-of-control campfire, or by nature such as lightning.
Fort McMurray resident Cameron Spring said wildfires caused by the above elements are common in the area.
This particular fire started Sunday, raging out of control and torching hundreds of acres by early Friday.
And the weather is not helping. Authorities said high winds, high temperatures and dry conditions created “explosive conditions” for fire growth, making it difficult for firefighters to keep up.
The mammoth inferno has destroyed at least 1,600 structures and forced nearly 90,000 people to evacuate.
As it rages, officials have been forced to relocate thousands of evacuees for a second time.
But there’s one number that residents and officials are happy about: no fatalities.
“Take comfort tonight knowing that your friends and family are safe,” local officials tweeted.
A blaze of that size is larger than Singapore, and bigger than Chicago and Boston combined, according to CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen.
There are 49 wildfires in Alberta, with seven considered out of control, officials say.
More than 1,110 firefighters, 145 helicopters and 22 air tankers are battling the blazes.
Photo captions: 1) Cars escaping the mammoth blaze. 2) Salem Kallas loads totes into his van (donated to his family by the Syrian Refugee Support Group) at the Rundle Superstore in Calgary on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Lyle Aspinall/Postmedia Network) 3) A group of Syrian refugees in Calgary is offering donations to help residents of Fort McMurray. Saima Jamal (centre), the co-founder of the Calgary-based Syrian Refugee Support Group, is seen buying donations with Syrian refugee Rita Khanchat and her husband Salen (left) and son Eli (top left). (Syrian Refugees Support Group Canada). 4) Burnt-out church in Fort McMurray. 4) Destroyed cars in Fort McMurray. 6) Dan Wooding recording his radio show. (OC Register).
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and the author or co-author of some 45 books. Dan has a radio show and two TV shows, all based in Southern California, and has reported from around the world for ANS, and once lived for a year in Canada.
* ** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net).