Wendy Porteous met Marwa Saffaf while working at a school in Syria in 2001. Porteous and her husband, Jim Scorgie, are trying to help Saffaf and her family escape war-torn Syria and come to Kelowna.
Government forces and rebel armies were preventing people in her area from leaving their homes in Aleppo, Syria. With no water or electricity and food in short supply, Saffaf and her family were stuck.
"She said that people on the lower level of her home were in a gunfight. They're told not to be on the streets at night or they will get shot. They have to lay low all the time," Porteous said.
That was more than two days ago, and as the situation in Aleppo gets worse, the Kelowna couple want to help Saffaf's family escape.
"The goal is to get them here until its safe," Porteous said.
The couple met Saffaf while working at the ICARDA International School of Aleppo in 2001. Scorgie was the principal of the school, and Porteous worked as a teacher-librarian. Saffaf was one of her assistants.
"She was so helpful to me when I started working there. We became friends and stayed in touch after we left Aleppo in 2004," she said.
They used Facebook to stay in touch with people they met while working in Aleppo. Many of the people they know fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
"Marwa is trying to hold on," Porteous said. "She doesn't want to go to a refugee camp. She has three young boys, ages five, four and one. The conditions in the refugee camps aren't great.
"That's when we said, 'We will put you up. We will pay for you to get to Canada, and she said yes right away to that offer."
On Jan. 20, Saffaf and her husband, Badreddin Homad, made the dangerous journey by bus to Beirut to submit their applications along with a letter of invitation to come to Canada on a temporary resident visa. Five days later, their application was rejected.
"We know the Canadian immigration system has many people who say they want to come to Canada on a temporary resident visa and end up applying for refugee status, but that's not the case here," said Scorgie.
"They are willing to leave Canada once it's safe. They like Syria; they have a life in Syria. Marwa's family owns and operates a kindergarten. We just want to help them get out now and see what happens."
They say there's not much they can do now, but they've written letters to Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas and Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, to review their visa requests. If the family does come to Kelowna, they would be living with the couple and would be financially supported by them. Other people in the community have offered to help as well.
Porteous says they're frustrated with the process but hope they can help Saffaf and her family.
"I can't imagine what they're going through, especially their three young boys," she said.