Syrian refugees mark one year in Canada

Syrian refugees mark one year in Canada
A year after arriving in Canada, Syrian refugees are adjusting to life in their new home and finding ways of keeping their community alive and united, despite challenges.
6 min read
13 December, 2016
Syrian refugees are adjusting to their new homes in Canada [Getty]

One after the other, the families stepped off the plane and, with a mix of uncertainty and excitement clear on their faces, chose winter coats and other gear to withstand their first winter in Canada.

On December 10, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted the first Canadian government flight full of Syrian refugees at Toronto's Pearson airport.

That night, 163 Syrian men, women and children were the first of the now more than 35,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in Canada since last year.

"They step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada with social insurance numbers, with health cards and with an opportunity to become full Canadians," Trudeau said as that inaugural flight landed.

Kevork Jamkossian and his wife carried their young daughter, dressed in a pink sweater and a sunflower headband in her hair, into the arrivals hall.

"Now, we feel as if we got out of hell and we came to paradise," Jamkossian said. "That's how we feel."

Addressing immediate needs

By the end of November, 35,745 Syrian refugees had been resettled in Canada.

Canadian individuals and organisations privately sponsored most of the newcomers, while others were sponsored by the government or brought to Canada under a joint, public-private sponsorship scheme.

Most refugees have been resettled in Toronto, Canada's most populous city, Montreal has taken the next largest contingent, then Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver in western Canada.

The government-sponsored refugees were placed in hotels on their arrival. Some stayed in the hotels for several weeks, and even months, as they searched for permanent housing in their adoptive Canadian cities.

In places such as Toronto and Vancouver, where rent is expensive, the housing search was difficult for many families. And, for some, life in these large cities was also a challenge, given that the cost of living equalled, or sometimes exceeded, their monthly government stipends.

But local groups mobilised quickly to meet their immediate needs, including COSTI Immigrant Services, which helped Syrian refugees in the Toronto area look for housing, prepare resumes and launch their job searches, and enroll in English courses.

Canadians also formed new groups to support the refugees as they searched for furniture and clothes, and they answered their questions about integrating into the community.

Tarek Ibrahim, a volunteer with Lifeline Syria, a group that assists and sponsors refugees in their integration process in the Toronto area, described the feeling he had when he met a Syrian couple and their three children at the airport.

"I remember the father telling me in Arabic that he was excited to learn the language, and that he was ready to go to school straight from the airport if he had to. Their optimism was contagious," Ibrahim recalled.

"Being present in such an important moment for them was a humbling experience. Seeing [the Syrian newcomers'] readiness to start helped me revisit my own experiences as an immigrant, reminding me of how excited I was to move here 13 years ago. Today, I am certain that moving to Canada was one of the best decisions my family has made, and I know that the newcomers feel that way too."

Isolated backlash

The resettlement process has not been without some backlash, however.

In January, a group of people were attacked outside a welcome event for Syrian refugees in Vancouver. A man on a bicycle rode by and pepper-sprayed a group of people outside the Muslim Association of Canada Centre, which included some newly arrived Syrians.

The attack, which was investigated as a hate crime, was widely condemned. "This isn't who we are - and doesn't reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered," Trudeau posted on Twitter.

Canadians have been generally welcoming to the Syrian refugees [Getty]

A school in Calgary was vandalised with anti-refugee graffiti in February, including the words, "Syrians Go Home and Die," and anti-Syrian and anti-Muslim graffiti was also spray-painted at a local train station.

Opinion polls from early in 2016 also showed that Canadians were divided over the government's initial target to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of February.

While 52 percent of people supported Ottawa's efforts, 44 percent were opposed, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll, and two in five respondents said Canada should immediately stop taking in refugees.


But by and large, Canadians from across the country have rallied to help refugees settle in: volunteers have set up clothing drives and employment fairs, driven refugees to courses and medical appointments, and made sure they had access to other services.

Children were gradually enrolled in local schools, and families moved out of the hotels and into permanent apartments and houses.

Julie Mahfouz Rezvani organised a clothing drive early this year, which provided about 3,000 refugees throughout Ontario with clothes and children's toys. The storefront, which offered items free of charge, ran seven days a week, for eight months.

While the shop closed, Torontonians' desire to help the refugees didn't fade, so the group Mes Amis ["My Friends"] was created. Today, it serves as an online platform for refugees, volunteers and others to share information about events and services.

"Generally I think even from the outset when the refugees first started to come, a lot of the sentiment… [was], 2We want to help. How can we help?'" Mahfoux Rezvani said.

"Everybody wanted to do something, they just didn't know how and they didn't want to go off and show up at the hotels and offer a service or offer a product… Mes Amis [is] about streamlining it."

Making connections to Syrians and their families also helps eliminate stereotypes Canadians may have towards the newcomers, and dispel any negative notions they may hold.

"Having more people who have actually reached out and [met] the refugees… that community engagement I think helps to eliminate or at least decrease the discrimination and the ill-feeling that some people have."

Refugees have begun their own businesses - from handmade chocolates to catering - and local businesses have launched campaigns specifically targeted at hiring the newcomers.

In Toronto, Syrian women gather weekly to cook traditional Syrian dishes in "The Newcomer Kitchen", and sell the meals to the wider community. And over the summer, refugees in the Greater Toronto Area formed a football team, The Syrian Eagles, to socialise and bring a sense of normality to their new lives.

Meanwhile, when devastating forest fires forced entire communities to evacuate in the western province of Alberta in May, Syrian refugees quickly mobilised to help their new neighbours collect emergency goods and money to rebuild.

Looking forward

Refugee support groups and private sponsors across Canada have been preparing for what is called "the 13th Month".

That refers to the moment refugees will be financially responsible for their own well-being, either after the first year of monthly, government allowances ends, or when private sponsors are no longer obliged to care for their financial needs.

To be a private sponsor, individuals and groups must raise a set amount of money - usually around $30,000 - to be responsible for a family's needs for 12 months, including finding housing and furniture, getting children enrolled in schools, and more.

With the financial responsibility now falling on their shoulders, many Syrians are expected to sign up for provincial social assistance, especially those who haven't found steady work while they learn English or French.

A recent Senate human rights committee has advised the federal government to provide the refugees with additional financial support, in light of the difficulties they still face. The committee also recommended that Ottawa invest more in English-language courses and mental health services.

Despite these challenges, another 20,000 Syrian refugee resettlement applications are in progress, and just over 4,000 have been approved for resettlement in Canada but have not yet travelled.

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours