News / Edmonton

'This house is not for living,' say Syrian refugees living in Edmonton

Mohammad El Hindawi says his rented house in Edmonton is infested with bugs and his children are constantly bitten.

Mohammad El Hindawi poses with his six children in their living room.

Andrea Ross/Metro

Mohammad El Hindawi poses with his six children in their living room.

The bedbugs, mice and leaking pipes are just some of the problems a Syrian refugee family have lived with since moving into an Edmonton duplex this summer. 

Their other problem? Options to improve their circumstances are limited because of the size of their family, and the province's health inspectors have deemed their home livable. 

Mohammad El Hindawi, his wife and his six children arrived in Edmonton in November 2014, after fleeing from Syria. Their first home was a north-end apartment, but that was tough to afford on the $700 they receive from the government. 

They moved into a duplex in Millwoods in June, a move that was made possible with help from Catholic Social Services and a one-year sponsorship from the federal government.

But as soon as they moved in, El Hindawi said, his children complained of bug bites — and mice and wasps were found living in the walls. Water leaked in the basement and cracked kitchen cupboards wouldn’t close.

Inspectors were sent to spray pesticides in the house three times, but the bedbugs returned each time, El Hindawi said. He has replaced all his furniture and keeps his family’s clothing in plastic bags.

“The kids are scared to sleep in their bed because of the fear of getting bitten. They’re having nightmares,” he said, through a translator. “But there’s nowhere to go, there’s no other option.”

Alberta Health Services said a recent inspection of the home found no bedbugs, but El Hindawi said the pest problems persist.

El Hindawi’s landlord did not return calls by press time.

As workers jackhammered the concrete floor in his basement trying to fix a leaking pipe on a recent Friday afternoon, Mohammad El Hindawi pointed to several insect traps on the floor filled with spiders and beetles. 

“They’re fixing the basement but water is leaking into the house,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Nearly 40 people have come to inspect his house since June, El Hindawi said, but after each time and each chemical treatment for pests, he said the bug bites keep showing up on his children.

The stress is taking its toll. Several doctors have recommended El Hindawi, his wife and their six children leave the row house in Millwoods. One psychiatrist, possibly noting El Hindawi’s seven visits to health clinics, diagnosed him with depression, anxiety and PTSD as a result of living there.

“They are diagnosed with scabies and insect bites and they were coming back and forth for this many times,” reads one doctor’s note, dated August 31. “Their condition is not expected to improve as far as they are still exposed to the same environment at home.” 

Hindawi lives in the house with his family because it is one of the few affordable spaces large enough for his family of eight.

He receives $700 a month from the federal government. For one person, it might be enough. But for a family of eight, it’s nearly impossible. 

Catholic Social Services works to find immigrant families affordable housing, spokesman Jason Gariepy said, and many of their clients receive $700 per month in income support from Ottawa. 

“Seven hundred a month, in the city of Edmonton or in the capital region, is very difficult to find appropriate housing,” Gariepy said. “More often than not, the people that receive the housing for $700 a month do have an issue with the housing. 

“(Pests), unfortunately, are not all that uncommon, because you can only access a certain type of housing at $700 a month.”

Alberta Health Services confirmed they received El Hindawi’s most recent complaint on Sept. 17 and inspected the house on September 23. In an emailed statement, AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson said the recent inspection found no evidence of bedbugs. 

“The landlord/management company has been very responsive to concerns … and AHS will re-inspect if needed,” the statement read. 

He said Catholic Social Services helped the family find the housing arrangement and completed their application for a lease through the Capital Region Housing Corporation, but the family signed the lease themselves.

Because of this, he said any issues with the home are to be discussed between the tenant and landlord.

The Capital Region Housing Corporation did not return Metro’s phone calls by press deadline. 

The family’s government sponsorship ends in November and El Hindawi will begin attending school shortly afterward with funding from Alberta Works. 

By that time, he said, he hopes he will be living in a cleaner, safer home with his family.

“It’s very hard on us, this house is not for living,” El Hindawi said. “Even the kids are saying they want to die. 

“We moved from the war in Syria and now we’re stuck with these problems.”