“It started burning out of nowhere”: student recounts Alfred Street blaze

After struggling to find housing, Queen’s University International Centre provides emergency unit to Omar El Zarif 

Omar El Zarif has found emergency housing with the Queen’s University International Centre following house fire.

Omar El Zarif, CompSci ’22 and PhD candidate, was sitting in his living room on Sept. 17 when his roommate noticed flames on the fire escape staircase of his Alfred St. apartment.

“It started burning out of nowhere,” El Zarif said in an interview with The Journal. “We didn’t know what happened.”

El Zarif and his roommate evacuated the basement apartment after the alarm went off. The rest of the building’s tenants also fled. Two students were taken to the hospital.

According to El Zarif, the only serious damages caused by the fire were in the unit adjacent to his. “A firefighter broke into the apartment next to us with an axe,” he said.

El Zarif was told he and his roommate couldn’t stay in their apartment that night due to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide, but were allowed to retrieve some of their belongings.

When El Zarif returned the following day, his landlord informed him the insurance company estimated the damage would take a month to fix.

“She threatened us. She said, ‘you have two days to get your stuff or we’ll throw it out.’”

El Zarif and his roommate went to the University’s Student Community Relations Office, who told them they’d try to find a unit for them to stay in. In the meantime, El Zarif posted in the Facebook group Overheard at Queen’s asking for help.

“A lot of people contacted me based on the Facebook post. People said we could stay at their house for two days or a night,” El Zarif said. “There were a lot of helpful people. One girl who had a truck offered to move our furniture, which was a great help.”

El Zarif stayed at a friend’s house initially, but the landlord told him he couldn’t stay.

“I needed to find a place that day or I had nowhere to sleep. I wasn’t really scared, but I was stressed,” El Zarif admits. “Worse come to worst, I would sleep on campus, like in the lab.”

He was able to find a student currently living in An Clachan, a student housing complex located off Sir John A. Macdonald Blvd., who is leaving campus in November and agreed to transfer his lease to El Zarif. His roommate was also able to secure a lease from a student who is leaving Queen’s.

The Queen's University International Centre (QUIC) was able to find an emergency furnished two-bedroom unit in the same An Clachan complex that El Zarif will move into next month. He is able to live there for the next forty days.

“The rent is $1,500 per month, but they make me pay the same rent [as] an unfurnished one-bedroom because I told them I couldn’t pay,” El Zarif said.

El Zarif said he is grateful for the Queen’s community that has helped him find somewhere to live.

“The Queen's University International Centre and Community Housing knew our situation was that my friend and I had no one here. We can’t rely on anyone or put our stuff anywhere. They took care of us because they knew we didn’t have any options.”

The Office of the Chaplain at Queen’s also reached out to El Zarif and his neighbour, referring them to the Student Awards Office, where they are now in the process of applying for financial aid.

Despite a rocky few weeks, El Zarif feels the situation had a happy ending due to the help given to him by the Queen’s administration and the students who reached out after his online post.

“Thankfully, we’re fine now,” he said. “We’re settled, and we’re good.”


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