Asked how it feels to be on Haida Gwaii after Syria and Jordan, Hasan Sirhan laughs and points to a tiny rug on the grass by his house.
Nearby is a jumble of small push- and pedal-bikes — he and his wife Lama have six children ages nine and under.
Below is a view of Skidegate Inlet, the water riffled by a breeze.
“You see my little carpet there?” Hasan asks, smiling.
“Everywhere is nice on this island.”
Before the war, Hasan drove a taxi in his hometown, Daraa, which is close to Jordan and surrounded by lush farms.
He also trucked goods over the border, sometimes going as far as Saudi Arabia.
It was in Daraa where some teenage boys spray-painted a school with anti-government graffiti in 2011.
And it was the arrest and torture of those boys by undercover police that sparked the first protests against Bashar al-Assad.
“Nobody was expecting it to happen,” said Hasan, speaking to Mukhtar Mohammedissa, the Sirhans’ volunteer translator ever since the family arrived in Queen Charlotte on Aug. 23.
“Before the war, we had all the things — cars, farms, stores, apartments — just like anybody else,” said Hasan, adding that Syrians are peace-loving people.
“It was just consequences that took us this way.”
Some of Hasan’s brothers got involved in organizing protests, but Hasan tried to keep working — he and Lama already had three young daughters to look after: Aya, Shahed, and Alaa.
Asked if he thought the girls were old enough to remember much from that time, Hasan laughed and called Alaa over.
“They remember, because once they got trapped in the house for 12 days,” he said. There were too many snipers outside.
“Alaa used to say, ‘What the heck!’” he said.
“She used to curse the snipers every morning.”
Nine months into the war, Hasan was suddenly arrested at the Jordanian border and jailed 25 days without charge.
For nearly two days he was hung off a wall in handcuffs.
The police took his taxi, a 2011 model worth $27,000, and they broke his shoulder.
“The last three days were easy,” said Mohammedissa, translating.
“They put him in with other prisoners, and then they told him, ‘Oh, you’re the wrong guy.’”
“They didn’t even apologize.”
By the time Hasan returned home, the neighbourhood was regularly bombarded by rockets and artillery shells.
Thinking it would be safer, Hasan and Lama moved the family to his parents’ place — a four-storey apartment in the outskirts of Daraa.
Five months later, in April 2013, a rocket exploded on the balcony.
“It was the only building in the area that got hit,” said Hasan.
Shahed, then four years old, was badly injured by the shrapnel.
Her sister Douaa, just 17 months, lost her leg below the knee.
The girls were rushed to what people in Daraa called “barefoot doctors,” who ran a rough emergency clinic outdoors.
Someone took a film of them treating Douaa — it was the first time anyone had seen a toddler so badly injured in the Syrian war, and the story made headlines around the world.
Meanwhile, Hasan fled with the two girls to a hospital in Amman, the capital of Jordan.
The hospital took the girls, but Hasan was arrested for not first registering as a refugee.
At that point, Hasan thought the family would have to live in the Zaatari refugee camp, 90 km from the city.
“It’s a desert,” he said. “There is nothing good to say about it — it’s inhumane, the way people live there.
“Before the war, the Jordanians didn’t even let their animals stay there.”
Thankfully, an elderly Jordanian man came to the hospital and offered to sponsor Hasan. He and his older brother managed to bring the rest of the family across the border.
It was very expensive, but Hasan and Lama rented a small apartment in Amman, close to a rehabilitation centre where Douaa started her recovery after multiple surgeries.
“We thought the war would be over, we would go back home,” said Hasan.
“Then it started getting worse and worse and worse.”
Over the next three years, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan rose to hundreds of thousands, then millions.
The girls were not allowed to go to school, and soon it was impossible for Hasan to work.
Finally, Hasan was told by the US embassy that the family could move there as refugees.
“He refused,” said Mohammedissa.
Hasan told the officials he thought the US had made the war worse, and he would rather go back to Syria.
Seven months went by, and Hasan began to think no other country would take then on, maybe because of his refusing the US.
That’s when they learned they were matched to a sponsorship group here on Haida Gwaii, and could move to Canada.
“We can’t express how happy we were — it was so sweet,” said Hasan.
It took two days for them to fly from Jordan to Paris, Paris to Vancouver, and then up to Sandspit, but Hasan said they were too excited to feel tired.
At the Sandspit airport, they were met by Beng Favreau and other organizers of the Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii sponsorship group.
“The way we were welcomed — it made my soul feel free,” said Hasan, speaking at his kitchen table in Queen Charlotte with Lama beside him and the kids playing all around.
On the table were savoury pastries with spinach — a Syrian favourite — and others stuffed with wild Haida Gwaii mushrooms picked by a friend.
All the children had little red stamps on their hands or arms after watching movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival the night before, and Aya showed off the yellow, red, and blue Terry Fox Run T-shirts she and her sisters recently got at Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary School.
On Oct. 11, Douaa had another surgery at the BC Children’s Hospital.
It will take multiple trips to Vancouver, but eventually she will be fitted with a prosthetic leg, and Shahed will also have corrective surgeries on her knee.
“I hope one day it will be my turn to welcome someone here,” said Hasan. “I want to be on the front line to help.”
“We’ve never felt like strangers.”
A fundraising campaign to help the Sirhan family with medical costs is underway, and more information is available on the Operation Refugees Haida Gwaii Facebook page. The group also has a trust account at Northern Savings, 7392087.