13-year-old Syrian refugee still struggling in Winnipeg after surviving bomb attack in 2015
A 13-year-old refugee who fled to Canada after surviving a bombing in Syria still has a long road to recovery — and she’s going through that recovery without her parents, who are still in her home country.
In some ways Maryam is like many typical teenage girls — she likes to wear pretty dresses, jewellery and nail polish. But she often wears a scarf and long-sleeve shirts to hide the scars all over her body.
“I didn’t remember anything. I just remember being in a hospital and in shock,” she said.
In January 2015, Maryam — who doesn’t want her last name revealed because she worries about the safety of her parents in Syria — and her six-year-old sister, Diana, were sleeping in their bedroom when a bomb fell on their home in the city of Idlib.
Her sister died in the blast.
Maryam survived but she suffered burns to 80 per cent of her body. The blast also took out the fingernails on her left hand, and she has lost feeling in her thumb.
“The doctor came to take off my bandage and I cried, I just cried,” she said.
The burns were so severe that doctors couldn’t treat her in Syria, so she was sent to a hospital in Turkey, where she had 12 reconstructive plastic surgeries.
“I wake up and I just scream,” she said. “I was just shocked. I didn’t know what was going on. I just wanted to see my dad and my sister.”
But her parents couldn’t make it to the hospital in Turkey to be with her, doctors told her later. They stayed behind in Syria to bury her sister and care for her other siblings.
Maryam’s aunt Safaa and two little brothers were able to travel to Turkey to be with her. She stayed in the hospital for at least two months before she was well enough to leave.
She and her family members were able to claim refugee status in Turkey with the help of UNICEF. In April 2016, along with her aunt and two little brothers, Maryam came to Winnipeg as a government-sponsored refugee.
Her parents, though, weren’t able to escape Syria with their other young children. Maryam has another four brothers and five sisters back home with her parents in Syria.
She was left in the care of her aunt Safaa, who has been dealing with her own struggles at home.
Baby cousin living with rare birth defect
Safaa has a five-month-old baby girl named Ebrar who was born in Winnipeg with a rare birth defect that left her brain growing outside her skull. Ebrar is still recovering in a Winnipeg hospital.
Safaa said it’s been tough trying to care for Maryam and her two brothers, while her own baby is fighting for her life in hospital.
“Like anybody, she misses her parents,” she said. “I do what I can do, but still they need their family around them.”
Winnipeg surgeon Dr. Leif Sigurdson has been treating Maryam for the last year and said she will need more reconstructive surgeries on both her arms and neck.
“She had burns to both of her arms and both her hands, as well as her shoulders and neck,” he said.
“They weren’t treated ideally at the time that she suffered them.”
Even so, “she is very lucky to be alive,” he said, adding that it’s been a “treat” getting to know his patient.
“I really have been able to watch her personality come out. She’s got great spirit and she’s tough and she’s very, very funny.”
Struggles at school
Maryam said she’s made some friends at school but she still struggles with her appearance.
“Yeah, but me different than other girls,” she said. “Like, sometimes me cry because I’m different.”
She said she hides her disfigured hands and fingers when she’s playing at school.
“Girls can play any game they want but I can’t play what I want.
“Like, sometimes all girls like to hold hands when playing, but me, I don’t want to hold their hands,” she said, fighting back tears.
Maryna Prystaiko said she’s heartbroken by everything Maryam has endured.
She works for Hands of Hope, an organization that donates furniture to newcomers in Winnipeg. For the last year, Prystaiko has been helping the Syrian family settle in their apartment in Winnipeg.
“Maryam is a wonderful girl,” said Prystaiko.
“I couldn’t believe that a small girl like that can go through all of those problems. Nobody is supposed to have all of that. She’s alone here, without parents,” Prystaiko said.
Maryam hasn’t seen her parents since the bombing in 2015, but she reconnected with them over the phone this past winter. She now talks to them as often as she can.
She said she sometimes feels lonely but still has hope her whole family will be together again one day.
In the meantime, Maryam said her focus is on school and continuing her medical treatment. She has another surgery scheduled for later this summer.
But despite all the challenges ahead for Maryam and her family, she said she’s happy and grateful to be in Canada.
“I want to say thank you for, like, all the people that have helped us, and take care about us.”