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How 45,000 Syrian refugees are building new lives after five years in Canada

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16 December, 2020
The Jebbos, (from left, at back) Asmaa, Amal, Fatima El Hussein (the mother), Abdallah (at front), Allam (the father), Amina (on her father’s lap), Anas (at front) and Mohammad, sitting at their home in Winnipeg. (Maan Alhmidi)

When Allam Jebbo and his wife Fatima El Hussein fled Syria for Canada via Lebanon, they had one thing in their minds: moving to a safe place where their children could go to school.

The family was sponsored by the Canadian government after being nominated in 2016 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon. Since landing as refugees more than three years ago, they have been living with their six children in a three-bedroom townhouse on Rose Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. Now, they call this place home, and they are ready to apply to become Canadian citizens.

Jebbo, 43, and El Hussein, 39, have no shortage of daily tasks as they take care of their six children whose ages range between two and 17.  The children are enjoying good education, playing sports and taking part in social activities in their new home.

The Jebbo family is one of thousands of Syrian families still rebuilding their lives in Canada, five years after Ottawa launched its Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative, a program that brought almost 45,000 Syrian refugees to Canada from the Middle East.

In March 2017, I landed in Canada as a Syrian refugee, too. After switching from law to journalism in 2011, I reported on the pro-democracy uprising in Syria and the civil war that followed it. Later, I left Syria for Turkey, where I continued to work as a journalist. 

My passion for journalism drove me to pursue a master’s degree in the subject at Carleton University. As a part of the program, I travelled to six Canadian provinces in 2019 and 2020, doing internships and meeting Syrian newcomers to report on their stories. 

Years after their arrival in Canada, Syrians are working hard to eke out a living. Their experiences and level of success vary depending on factors such as their level of education, their ability to speak English or French and the assets they brought with them. 

Many have already returned to school or started a small business. Others have jobs thanks to their education, expertise and fluency in English or French. On the other hand, many are still struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic with online language classes and no clear career prospects.

A journey from a war to a pandemic

When the Arab Spring protests broke out in Syria in March 2011, Jebbo was working for a car washing business in Lebanon. His wife stayed with their children at the family’s house in Furaykah, a small town in northwest Syria close to the Turkish border. In the fall of that year, the area became a hot spot in the armed conflict between the regime and rebels fighting it. Jebbo decided to bring his family to Lebanon. But his trip to Furaykah was more dramatic than he anticipated.

“We had to crawl using our four limbs, as snipers were targeting us,” Jebbo said. 

“I was holding my toddler, and I could hear the bullets hitting the wall behind me.”

They made it to Lebanon, where they barely survived, living in a basement that Jebbo’s boss gave them. The kids got sick because of the high humidity and the lack of fresh air and daylight. They had to move out. Unable to afford better housing, Jebbo rented a garage for $325 a month, and his family lived there for two years.

The children couldn’t play, and they didn’t go to school. Lebanon had opened afternoon classes for Syrian children to segregate them from their Lebanese peers, El Hussein said. 

“It wasn’t safe because they would be beaten up and the authorities wouldn’t listen if we complained,” she said.

Jebbo was contacted by the UNCHR in the summer of 2016. He and his family were later nominated to be resettled in Canada after they were interviewed at the Canadian embassy in Beirut. 

When he was asked by the Canadian officials whether he had any preferences about where in Canada he might live, Jebbo told them he would like to go to Vancouver. But during an orientation session a couple days before the family’s flight to Canada, a member of the International Organization for Migration, which facilitated the session, told the family they were going to Winnipeg. 

Jebbo said a worker at the migration agency told them: “If you want to change, we will cancel your application and you all have to stay.”

Jebbo and his wife wanted to leave Lebanon at any cost. It didn’t matter to them where in Canada they ended up. Since arriving in February 2017, they have tried to secure a bright future for their children. While Jebbo and El Hussein struggle with the language barrier and Manitoba’s cold winters, the youngsters are enjoying their new life in Winnipeg. Two of them are already playing hockey.

On a Saturday afternoon in February, Jebbo went with his sons Abdallah, 11, and Anas, 9, to Kinsmen-Allard Arena in Winnipeg’s west end, where the boys play hockey with their school team. Abdallah said he remembers his first days at Dufferin School when a teacher asked what sports students like to play. 

“They asked who wants to play hockey? I said: ‘What is hockey?’” Abdallah said.  

“My teacher explained it and I thought it was fun, so I started playing hockey.”

A couple of weeks earlier, Abdallah was hit with a puck just under his left eye when he took off his helmet to take a sip of water. Since then, his father has insisted his kids wear their protective gear appropriately.

Jebbo meticulously dressed the two boys from the bottom up. After rolling their hockey socks up to their thighs, he asked them to step into their thick pants. He then made sure they put on their skates, neck guards and elbow and shoulder pads.

“It takes me ten minutes to dress them up,” Jebbo said. “It used to take an hour.”

The two boys placed their helmets on their heads, put on their mouth guards and tightened the chin straps of their helmets. While they were skating, their father pulled his cell phone from his pocket to broadcast the game on Facebook. He explained the game to his Facebook friends in Arabic because most of them were not familiar with Canada’s most popular sport. Many of his relatives in Syria and its neighbouring countries joined to watch Anas scoring three goals, and Abdallah, the goaltender, keeping the puck out of his team’s net.

Abdallah and Anas leaving Kinsmen-Allard Arena in Winnipeg on a Saturday in February after playing with their school team. (Maan Alhmidi)

At home, the boys’ mother was preparing a Syrian dish for dinner. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she used to go to English classes five times a week, even though taking care of her kids is a fulltime job. Two years ago, her classes were also interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy that resulted in a daughter, Amina.

“After I gave birth, I was asked to stay home for one year,” El Hussein said.

Amal, 17, Mohamed, 15 and Asmaa, 13, are now fluent in English. They were doing well at school before Manitoba closed schools in March. Amal was volunteering as an assistant in cooking classes. She was also applying for minimum-wage jobs and hoping to start working before the beginning of summer.

When I visited them at their home in February, Amina, 2, held her mother’s cell phone and asked Amal for help to get her favourite song playing.

“Baby Shark,” Amal asked.

Amina nodded and smiled.

While the song played at full volume on the phone, the two-year-old jumped and danced. Her brother Anas joined her.

A few minutes later, Anas and Abdallah went to the basement, where their father has made a space for them to play ball hockey.

“Sometimes, they bring the goal net, the ball and the sticks to play,” El Hussein said.

Jebbo playing ball hockey with his son Anas in their Winnipeg house basement while Amina jumps off a small home trampoline. (Maan Alhmidi)

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the children to study from home. They spent days on a set of four couches in the living room watching YouTube videos, much as they would do on a Saturday night at home before the pandemic.

Since the parents were stuck at home too, dealing with their six children became more challenging. “Sometimes, they drive me crazy,” Jebbo said, before adding that he doesn’t mind the headache if it keeps his family safe.

Feeling at home

I met the Jebbo family in Winnipeg while pursuing a three-week internship at the Winnipeg Free Press as part of my master of journalism degree at Carleton University. On Saturday March 7, 2020, I flew back to Ottawa exactly three years after I landed at Ottawa International Airport for the first time when I came to Canada as a refugee.

The next day, I was having breakfast with a friend at Eggspectation, a restaurant in downtown Ottawa that serves a French-style, egg-focused breakfast menu.

At that moment, it struck me that I didn’t feel like a stranger in Ottawa anymore. The city felt like home for the first time.

All my studying and working had paid off, I thought. At the restaurant, I ordered a Montreal-style omelette. My friend chose a classic eggs Benedict: two poached eggs on ham and toasted English muffins. As a francophone, ordering an omelette didn’t make much sense, my friend said, because she made this meal at home more than once a week.

I learned how to make omelettes in Aleppo. There, culinary traditions are enriched with French influences from the time when Syria was a French colony for 26 years before it became an independent and democratic nation after the Second World War. In 1963, al-Baath, an Arab nationalist party, came to power following a military coup. The party built an authoritarian regime that for five decades centralized power with the Assad family and their relatives and used harsh measures to suppress any potential challengers to its rule.

I was also born in Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city and its industrial and financial centre before it became the largest battleground in the Syrian war.

Challenging the status quo

I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a lawyer and my mother stayed at home to take care of me and my six younger siblings. When I graduated from high school, I chose to study law at the University of Aleppo to become a lawyer, like my father. The uprising of 2011 changed my plans.

In Syria, faking the news has long been the practice of media outlets controlled by the Syrian government. The dictatorship understands that words have tremendous power and controlling the media is essential to its survival. When protests in the spring of 2011 challenged the regime’s very existence, government-run media intensified this distortion.

I was a master’s student at the University of Aleppo that time, studying commercial law. I felt compelled to join the demonstrations and call for change. I believed in building a free and democratic Syria, a country where media is independent and can’t be controlled by the government. This passion drove me into journalism.

I found myself able to challenge the regime’s propaganda with a few simple tools: a laptop, Internet access and an eagerness to provide a truthful account of the events shaping my country’s future. I quit law school.

“I published news under a pseudonym to avoid detention or questioning by the regime’s secret intelligence services.”

I published news under a pseudonym to avoid detention or questioning by the regime’s secret intelligence services. But that was not enough. I was arrested in March 2012 while filming a protest at the University of Aleppo with the intention of uploading the footage to YouTube. I managed to give my cellphone — which was also my camera and had protest videos stored on it — to a colleague during a short fight we had with the regime’s security force members just before they arrested me. My colleague escaped.

Getting rid of the only evidence that proved I was filming the demonstration saved my life. While facing unspeakable torture by officers at three different detention locations in less than two weeks, I denied being an activist or a journalist. When questioned about my cellphone, I claimed that a member of the security forces must have stolen it with my wallet, of which I had indeed been robbed.

At Aleppo’s criminal investigation department, I was kept with more than 50 other detainees in an underground room that was roughly 10 meters long and five meters wide. There was barely enough space for us to sit on the ground. Lying down was impossible except in the morning when officers took groups of us out to be interrogated. The floor was covered with a thick grimy layer of black dirt that must have built up from stuffing the place with dozens of people for decades without cleaning. In the corner, there was a tiny toilet room that didn’t have a door or running water. Next to it, people built a pyramid of their shoes. The room had a large steel black door and the only light came in through a crack in the upper part of the door.

The miserable conditions at the prison were not my only worry. A year before, my 55-year-old father was diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer called glioblastoma. I was hoping to be released quickly before my arrest started affecting his health. I was also hoping that my colleague had given my cellphone to one of my parents, which would reassure them that I wouldn’t be imprisoned for long. In 2012, the regime had to release protesters who were not deemed activists or organizers within a few days because the country’s already-crowded prisons were overwhelmed. Thousands of new detainees arrived each week as the uprising escalated and Aleppo — a city of three million people — started slipping out of the regime’s control.

Two weeks later, I was free. I was furious with the regime’s brutal actions against me and others who sought political change. Luckily for me, I could channel my anger toward journalism and activism. My time in prison further solidified my belief in the power of media and information.

Following my release, I continued writing and publishing in various outlets on topics I thought were critical to my people’s understanding of their own communal fabric. I wrote about political participation, sectarianism, extremism and the marginalization of women. Social media allowed my work to reach Syrian audiences, accurately informing Syrians about what was shaping their future. In 2013, I started to work with the non-profit Syrian Network for Human Rights, documenting ongoing human rights violations in the Aleppo governorate. My work involved investigating and writing reports on violations committed by all the armed parties in the country.

Around the same time, I joined the editorial team of Algherbal magazine, a local monthly publication in northwest Syria providing a forum for young Syrian journalists. We managed to publish 40 print issues and more than 900 articles and stories online. One significant part of the project was providing a space for young reporters to work and gain professional skills in journalism. This was made possible with support we received from European press freedom institutions, including Reporters Without Borders, Canal France International and Free Press Unlimited, among many others.

I was becoming increasingly well known as a journalist. It was not just the Syrian regime that objected to my work, but also extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS or as the so-called Islamic State.

In January 2014, ISIL targeted our magazine’s main office in the Idlib governorate, arresting the editor-in-chief, Mohamed Alsalloum. We had published a series of stories that uncovered some of their earliest human rights violations while the group was still small and unnoticed in the midst of the Syrian civil war.

The Islamic State militants’ raid on our office convinced me that it was time to leave. It had not been safe for me to be in Syria during the previous two years, but, like many Syrians, I had hoped change was coming, and I wanted to stay near my ailing father. Those reasons disappeared in 2013: the uprising became a civil war, and my father passed away.

Fleeing into the unknown

In February 2014, I filled a small bag with my laptop and some clothes and headed to Turkey, leaving my family in Aleppo. I had a valid Syrian passport, so I entered Turkey easily — Turkey didn’t require a visa from Syrian citizens at the time. From an apartment I rented in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey, I continued working as a journalist, writing about the Syrian conflict and the refugees’ crisis. In September 2014, I was hired as an editor by The New Arab, a leading Arabic, London-based news organization.

“In February 2014, I filled a small bag with my laptop and some clothes and headed to Turkey, leaving my family in Aleppo.”

As the uprising turned into a civil war between the Syrian regime, led by President Bashar Assad, and various opposition groups fighting the regime and often each other, foreign powers and outside factions got involved in Syria, either supporting or opposing the regime. The result was devastation: hundreds of thousands died, more than 6.6 million people were displaced inside Syria and more than 5.6 million fled the country, according to the UNHCR.

Turkey alone hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the largest number in one country. More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon and roughly 655,000 are exiled in Jordan. Iraq hosts more than 246,000, while in Egypt, the UNHCR provides assistance to more than 126,000 Syrians. The vast majority of Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries live in urban areas, with only around eight percent accommodated in refugee camps.

During the 2015 refugee crisis, many boarded small rubber inflatable boats crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. That year, more than a million people reached Greece and Italy by sea — of whom half were Syrians, according to the UNHCR. The UN refugee agency said that 3,735 people went missing, believed drowned, while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Among those was Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose dead body was photographed after washing up on a Turkish beach on September 2, 2015. 

The photos made international headlines and shifted the focus of the 2015 Canadian election campaign because the boy’s family was reportedly trying to reach Canada. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper was attacked for not accepting enough Syrian refugees, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised that, if elected, his government would resettle Syrian 25,000 refugees as soon as possible.

The Liberals won 184 seats in the 2015 election, allowing Trudeau to form a majority government and replace Harper as a prime minister. In November 2015, the Liberal government announced its plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. The commitment was later expanded to include 25,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees, as originally announced, and an additional unspecified number of privately sponsored refugees. 

According to the Immigration Department, 44,610 Syrian refugees landed in Canada between Nov. 4, 2015 and Nov. 30, 2019. Government data show that 21,730 were government assisted refugees, 3,930 were blended-sponsorship refugees, which means they were co-sponsored by the government and private individuals or entities, and 18,920 were privately sponsored refugees, meaning they were sponsored by non-governmental organizations, individuals or groups of individuals.

The total number of Syrian refugees in Canada is even higher, because many came before the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative program began and continued to arrive after it ended. According to government data, a total of 74,070 Syrian refugees were admitted to Canada between January 2015 and August 2020, almost half of all refugees Canada accepted in the last five years.

Privately sponsored refugees and government-sponsored refugees

For decades, Canada has allowed its citizens and permanent residents to sponsor refugees through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. In 2015, the program enabled tens of thousands of Canadians to help Syrian refugees by raising money to cover their rent and other basic expenses and by providing them social support.

In South Osborne, a neighbourhood in Winnipeg, a group of neighbours and friends came together to sponsor as many refugees as they could. 

“Basically, it was a neighbourhood project,” said David Ediger during a visit in February to Chaeban Ice Cream shop on Osborne Street, a business that employs Syrian newcomers. 

At one of their early meetings, the sponsors discussed appointing a certain number of them to be “golden people.” For each Syrian family, there would be one “golden person” that would be their contact, said Ediger’s wife, Barbara, who is also a member of the group.

These contacts soon became friends with the families they helped. 

“Their initial job was to take care of the family for one year, but they went beyond that,” said Joseph Chaeban, the co-owner of the ice cream shop. Chaeban, originally Lebanese, and his wife Zainab Ali, originally Syrian, referred three of their relatives’ families to the group.

“Within one year, they raised like $140,000,” Chaeban said. “Altogether, they brought 13 people here.”

Barbara Ediger is proud of the work the group has done helping the Syrian families to engage in social life in the city. 

“It’s been fun to watch the progress,” she said. “They have been here long enough that they’re now looking at becoming Canadians.” 

When she looks back at her experience as a private sponsor, Ediger said her one regret is that she pushed too much information too quickly on the newcomers. “Let’s go to a hockey game. Okay, now let’s go to a football game,” she said. “It was overwhelming.”

When arriving, the Syrian newcomers had a lot to worry about and a lot to learn. “We should have backed off just a little bit, but we were all so excited,” Ediger said.

David and Barbara Ediger standing at Chaeban Ice Cream shop in Winnipeg. (Maan Alhmidi)

Unlike privately sponsored refugees, who were referred to their sponsors by relatives or friends in Canada, government-assisted refugees were chosen based on criteria that prioritized the most vulnerable. They were often less educated than privately sponsored refugees and had less knowledge of English or French. Their integration experiences are different as a result.

In late December 2019, I visited Heba Alkhatib, a government-assisted Syrian refugee, in her building on Lolita Gardens Street in Mississauga, Ontario. Alkhatib, 32, lives with her three children, whose ages range between eight and 13, in a two-bedroom apartment. She chose Mississauga to be close to her uncle’s family that also came as refugees to Canada a few months before her.

Alkhatib was arrested in November 2012 with her mother and brother when the Syrian regime security service raided their home in Damascus looking for her husband, Ammar Alkhatib. He was an activist at the time, helping to smuggle medical supplies to towns and cities under siege in the Damascus countryside. Arresting family members is a common practice of Syrian security forces to put pressure on people so they turn themselves in.

But a government sniper killed Alkhatib’s husband while she was detained at the Mezzeh military airbase southwest of Damascus. In January 2013, she was released in a prisoner swap between the Syrian regime and the rebels. 

Alkhatib fled Syria for Jordan via Lebanon less than a month later. In Amman, she was registered at the UNCHR for resettlement. The UN refugee agency contacted her in the summer of 2016, and she landed with her children in Toronto in December 2016.

Alkhatib said her 13-year-old daughter has suffered a lot in her short life. She lost her father in Syria, and then lost her extended family when they fled Syria for Jordan. 

“Not only her, all of us went through that. But she was affected the most,” Alkhatib said. “She still always says she wants to go back to Syria.”

The daughter remembers being at home in Damascus when her mother, her uncle and her grandmother were arrested. She stayed with her siblings at her grandpa’s home. There, she constantly heard people saying her mother could have died under torture, and that her father actually did die. “Her siblings were not aware of what was going on, but she surely was,” Alkhatib said.

Alkhatib is studying at an adult high school three years after arriving in Canada without any knowledge of English. She wants to study hairstyling at college. But she said that her life in Canada is still disorganized. It’s been hard for her to juggle studying English, looking for work and watching her three children. She said she hasn’t received the advice she needed.

After finishing her full-time English class during her first year in Canada, Alkhatib would come home at the same time as her kids, and she would spend the rest of the day cooking and cleaning. “I couldn’t focus,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”

The Syrian mother said things are not going well for all refugees. “Most people believe that all Syrian newcomers got all the help they needed and they’re having ideal lives in Canada,” Alkhatib said. “No, that’s simply not true.”

“Most people believe that all Syrian newcomers got all the help they needed and they’re having ideal lives in Canada. No, that’s simply not true.”

Alkhatib said it’s important to understand the difference between privately sponsored refugees and government-assisted refugees. 

“Those who were privately sponsored got a lot of help from their sponsors,” the government-assisted refugee said. The issue has nothing to do with money, according to Alkhatib. “You need someone to give you advice, to tell you how to start something, to support you morally. That’s what I needed.”

Alkhatib said she needed advice when one of her neighbours harassed her for months. “When my friends come to visit me, my neighbour would scream saying, ‘You are not in your country, you can’t have guests after 7 p.m.,’” Alkhatib said. The Syrian newcomer is the only hijab-wearing woman on her floor in the building where she lives.

“All my other neighbours supported me, and they knew she was doing that because she’s racist,” Alkhatib said. “She recently moved out.”

In contrast, Reham Al-Azem, a privately sponsored Syrian refugee, has had a fruitful four years in Canada. Recently, she finished her graduate diploma in journalism at Concordia University and was hired by Rogers Sports and Media as a reporter at its OMNI Arabic newscast.

Al-Azem, 35, came to Montreal in 2017 from Jasper, Alberta, where she lived with her parents after coming from Syria as refugees a year before. I met Al-Azem in November 2019 at Shaika Café on Sherbrooke Street West, which is located close to where she lives on the southern part of the island of Montreal. She chose that area because many people speak English. 

Her family was privately sponsored with another Syrian family by a group of residents that met at a United Church in Jasper.

While still in Damascus, Al-Azem had sent emails to organizations helping refugees in Ontario and Alberta. 

“I wrote that we only want to flee the war and we don’t want to be dependent on anybody,” Al-Azem said. “We just need help for one year then we’ll study and work.”

She said they chose to seek asylum in Canada because the country is safe, diverse and has laws that guarantee human rights for everyone. When she and her parents arrived in Jasper in February 2016, they were the first Syrian family and the second Arab family in a town of less than five thousand residents. She said people were generous and welcoming. Al-Azem and her parents were invited for dinner by many of their neighbours and sponsors, and they invited them back. 

“We were introduced to the Canadian culture quickly,” Al-Azem said. “We spoke only English all the time … that helped us integrate.”

Her parents, who are in their 60s, were worried during their first days in Canada about their future, but in just a month her mother found a job at a daycare facility where she improved her English. Her father, a retired civil engineer, worked in a farmer’s market, in a print shop and in a restaurant. Moving from the Syrian capital of three million people where explosions could be heard all the time to the quiet town of Jasper was a massive shift for the family. 

“We felt like it was a new life,” she said.

The contrast between Al-Azem’s integration experience and Alkhatib’s mirrors the fact that privately sponsored refugees have better chances to succeed quickly in Canada thanks to the social support they receive from their sponsors.

But that is not the only difference between the two groups. 

“Government-assisted refugees share two characteristics that can hinder entry into the labour market: limited language skills and lower education levels,” wrote René Houle, an analyst with Statistics Canada in a study based on the 2016 census. 

Government data reveal that out of the 44,610 Syrian refugees in Canada, 10,535 spoke English upon arrival (8,625 of whom were privately sponsored), 525 spoke French (480 of whom were privately sponsored) and 875 spoke both French and English, while a majority of 31,910 were not able to communicate in either of the two official languages. Of those who could speak neither language, nearly two-thirds were government-assisted.

“A proud moment in our history”

In July 2018, the federal immigration department surveyed Syrian refugees to see how they were doing. The results, which were published a year later, showed that 57 per cent of 1,255 Syrian respondents reported being employed, while another 23 per cent were on the hunt for a job. Privately sponsored refugees were more likely to have found a job, with 60 per cent indicating they were employed compared to just 43 per cent of government-assisted refugees.

The study showed that the salaries of both privately sponsored and government-assisted Syrian refugees continued to lag behind other immigrant groups that arrived in Canada in the same time period. 

The report noted that the difference in wages may be a language issue. At the time of arrival, 65 per cent of Syrians self-reported having no knowledge of English or French, compared to 42 per cent of the other resettled refugees. 

“Limited language skills can limit employment uptake, as well as the types of jobs that are available,” the report said.

In an August 2019 interview, Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who would become parliamentary secretary to the prime minister after the 2019 election, said newcomers have always faced challenges. He said that some adjust in Canada better than others, and some support programs put in place by the government and non-profit organizations work for some newcomers better than others.

“Undoubtedly, there are some difficult stories in the mix,” said Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family and immigrated to Canada about 30 years ago. “We can take lessons from it, but also, overall, we should be very proud of it.”

The Mississauga Centre MP said that in 2017 his office was inundated with calls from anxious Canadians wondering why their sponsored families are taking long time to get their papers processed. 

“People were pushing to expedite their sponsorship for the family they sponsored,” he said. More than 50 per cent of Syrian newcomers were privately sponsored by Canadians, mostly by churches, mosques and community groups, he added. 

“Canada is going to look back at this initiative 20 years from now as a very proud moment in our history.”

Looking for a pathway to integration

I was living in Turkey when Canada opened its doors to Syrian refugees in 2015. I got in touch with my friend Mazen Atrash, who emigrated from Aleppo to Montreal in 2009. He put me in touch with a group that was sponsoring refugees in Ottawa. I told them my story and they generously accepted to help me. As a result, I landed in Ottawa in March 2017.

“Ottawa seemed gloomy to me, lonely and bleak at first glance. My first days were difficult.”

Ottawa seemed gloomy to me, lonely and bleak at first glance. My first days were difficult. The long distance between Britannia — a neighbourhood in Ottawa’s west end where I have been living ever since — and the downtown, the huge piles of snow that sat on every corner, the box-shaped apartment buildings, the potholes covering every street and the dirty transit buses made the Canadian capital look to me like a third-world town struggling with a harsh winter.

Unlike government-sponsored refugees, I didn’t have to rely on busy social workers that have limited time for each newcomer during my long first days in Canada. A small group of the members of the Bromley Road Baptist Church in Ottawa dedicated huge amounts of their time and resources to ensure that I, along with three other Syrian families, had what we needed to launch our new Canadian life.

Ian Smiley led that group. He was attending a congregational meeting at his church in 1998 when the chairman of the deacons told the meeting that a woman wanted their help bringing her sister from Sierra Leone, then in the midst of a deadly civil war.

“I thought that I work for the government, and I deal with the bureaucracy,” Smiley said. He figured these skills would be useful.

Ian Smiley poses to the camera during a visit to a family he sponsored in Montreal in September 2018. (Maan Alhmidi)

Although he tried to help her, the woman was killed before reaching Canada. However, the case introduced Smiley, then a director at the Department of National Defence, to the private sponsorship of refugees. A few months later, he assisted a Kosovar family to resettle in Canada. 

“I was amazed how grateful these people were,” Smiley said. “There were four daughters. The oldest was 13. Now, at least two are married and have children.”

Dozens of refugees from Congo, Myanmar and other countries came to Canada in the following years thanks to his support.

Since 2015, he has focused on bringing Syrians to Canada, and he enjoys telling their success stories. The longtime public servant knew how to handle paperwork. He patiently put together our sponsorship applications and responded to every email from us and every request from the government. 

In May 2017, the snow melted, and Ottawa revealed a more colourful landscape. I went to the tulip festival with Smiley. Because he is of Lebanese descent, he was as curious to hear stories about the Middle East as I was to learn about Canada. We had a lot to discuss. 

He told me the story of Princess Juliana of the Netherlands who came to Ottawa as a refugee during the Second World War, and how she gave birth to Princess Margriet in Ottawa Civic Hospital’s maternity ward, which was temporarily declared by Ottawa to be international territory so the baby would be born solely Dutch. In the meantime, Canadian soldiers were fighting Nazi Germany in Europe, playing a notable role in liberating the Netherlands.

While pointing at photos of the Dutch royal family in Ottawa, installed by the city at Commissioners Park, Smiley said that Juliana gave 100,000 tulip bulbs at the end of the war to thank Canada. Her country has presented Ottawa with some 20,000 bulbs every year since, which resulted in the first tulip festival in 1953.

The story inspired me in two ways. First, it meant that Ottawa is more interesting than its Arctic weather and crumbling infrastructure. Second, it meant many people from every class and every corner in the world have come here as immigrants and refugees, building new lives and creating memories.

I decided to do that, too.

In my early days in Ottawa, I also met Miriam Tayyar, who had come to Ottawa from Aleppo as a privately sponsored refugee. We had a lot in common. Although I was 28 years old and she was 24, both of us were at the same stage of life: We were looking for the best option to start our journey in Canada. 

Before fleeing Syria, she was studying medicine at Aleppo University, the same school where I studied law. We both spoke good English. She landed in Ottawa in 2016 with her parents and two siblings. By the time we met, she had already submitted her application for an undergraduate biology program at Carleton University, and she offered to help me in narrowing my options. Even though she worked as a waitress at a Middle Eastern restaurant to pay her bills, she was able to maintain a high GPA over her three years at Carleton.

When we met, I knew I wanted to pursue journalism, and I quickly understood that I wouldn’t be able to do so without having Canadian education and training.

Tayyar said we should start by looking at Algonquin College, where I could meet a career counsellor, so we went there. The campus was crowded with students moving through tunnels from one building to another — something I had only seen in movies before coming to Ottawa. We got lost on campus before making it to the counselling office. It turned out that the college offers six different media-related programs, including journalism and radio and TV production programs.

That September, I started studying media and communication studies at Algonquin, a one-year diploma program I decided to take while weighing my long-term options. After a couple of weeks, instructors recognized me as an older and more-educated student than the rest of the class. My sociology professor, Howard Kravitz, invited me to his office. I presumed he was curious about me. After telling him a bit about myself, he advised me to apply to the master of journalism program at Carleton University.

Later in the semester, Kravitz, 69, wrote recommendation letters to push forward my graduate school applications. I sent applications to Carleton, the University of Ottawa and Concordia University. Kravitz knew a lot about Syria and the Middle East, which helped us to connect. He also grew up in an immigrant household. Kravitz was born in Montreal to a Jewish family that fled Europe just before the Second World War.

Shockingly to me, most people I talked to at Algonquin knew little about the world outside their small social bubbles. This made me even more determined to pursue journalism to try to spread some awareness and provide a new perspective.

Writing and editing for Arabic news organizations as a freelancer provided me with an income in these early times in Canada. It was also a way to learn more about Canada and to keep working as a journalist. In June 2018, I went to Quebec City to cover the G7 summit on assignment for The New Arab, the London-based news outlet for which I had worked while a refugee in Turkey.

Having a relatively stable source of income was a significant advantage. Unlike most newcomers, I didn’t have to work in a minimum-wage job while studying. In September 2018, I started my master’s degree in journalism at Carleton, a program that provided me with an opportunity to travel around Canada to do internships in media outlets, including the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, the Canadian Press in Ottawa, the Globe and Mail in Toronto and the Winnipeg Free Press in Winnipeg.

Maan Alhmidi (in the middle) during an editing session for radio class at Carleton University in February 2019. (Dexter McMillan)

Studying at Carleton and working in different news outlets across Canada has made me feel connected to Canada and has helped me to learn more about the country where I now live. I applied for Canadian citizenship in July.

My story isn’t that unique. Many other Syrian refugees have found their own pathways to integration in Canada, mainly by studying at its schools and working with its people, making friends and learning about their new country.

Establishing a new Haligonian community

Most of the 1,100 Syrian newcomers who are living in Halifax had never heard of it before landing at the airport. But, since then, they have made a lot of memories in Canada’s largest Atlantic city by making it their home.

I arrived in Halifax during the Easter weekend in 2019 to do a three-week internship at the Chronicle Herald. However, Brian Ward, the newspaper’s managing editor, offered me a summer position by the end of my second week. Staying in Halifax for almost four months gave me the time I needed to meet many members of the Syrian community in Nova Scotia.

“Loai Al Refai is a Syrian doctor who works in a minimum-wage job to make ends meet, three years after coming to Halifax from Syria.”

During my first week there, I got in touch with Loai Al Refai. He is a Syrian doctor who works in a minimum-wage job to make ends meet, three years after coming to Halifax from Syria via Jordan in 2016, with his wife, Enas, and two children, Leen and Wassim. Like other immigrant doctors, Syrians have to go through a long, complicated and expensive licensing process involving written and clinical exams. If they are not willing to do so, they have to study medicine at a Canadian university all over again. 

Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization that assists immigrants and refugees in Nova Scotia, offers programs to help doctors prepare for the licensing exams. Immigrant physicians need to submit their application to get their credentials recognized as equivalent to Canadian degrees. 

The assessment time depends on the country of the degree and the university, said Mohja Alia, the employment and bridging programs manager at the non-profit. 

“It could take weeks or even months,” she said. 

Then the applicants need to pass the written and clinical exams before they become eligible to apply for a two-year medical residency training. There are only seven residency spots for international graduates every year in Nova Scotia. Those are usually taken by Canadian citizens who studied abroad, according to Alia.

Going back to school was not an option for Al Refai, who has a family to take care of and also has to overcome the language barrier. As a doctor, “Your language has to be perfect,” he said. “It would be a disaster if you misunderstood a patient.” These facts have discouraged Al Refai from working fulltime on his licensing.

Al Refai, 43, joined a six-month academic English class at Dalhousie University a few weeks after arriving in Halifax. But he knew that the best way to advance his English skills was to talk to people daily, so he applied for a minimum-wage job at The Home Depot.

The shift in Al Refai’s life was drastic. When he fled Syria for Jordan seven years ago, he left his post as a resident orthopaedic surgeon at the National Hospital in Daraa, a city in southern Syria where the first Arab Spring protest broke out in 2011. His new job involves loading large pieces of furniture into customers’ cars.

“It’s very annoying,” he said. “I’m wasting my time. There’s not enough income. But this was a job that suited my linguistic skills.”

“Do you think your English got better?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “When I’m at work, I talk to people all the time.”

We were chatting at a Tim Hortons shop outside a Halifax shopping centre. His cellphone rang and he answered. It was a member of the Syrian community in the city asking about the wellbeing of their common friend who was rushed to the hospital on that day. Al Refai is well-known in his community not only because he is a doctor, but also because of his efforts to form the Nova Scotia Syrian Society, a non-profit group that has gathered members of the community to support each other.

One of the group’s projects was organizing Arabic classes on weekends. According to the government, 755 of the 1,340 Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia are under the age of 18. Al Refai felt it was necessary to have Arabic classes for these children so they could preserve their culture.  

The YMCA offered classrooms to the group. On a Saturday in May, I visited the facility on Bayers Road in Halifax’s west end, where roughly 60 children between the age of six and 15 were split into three classes depending on their age. Other classes were scheduled on Sunday for 60 more students.

Al Refai teaches newcomer kids Arabic on a Saturday in May 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

Al Refai said the idea for the classes came to him when he met 10-year-old Syrian children who couldn’t even write their names in Arabic. He convinced six other Syrian newcomers, most of whom were teachers in Syria, to teach the kids Arabic with him. Using materials from Arabic language curricula in Syria, Al Refai and his colleagues printed out some writing worksheets and pages from textbooks for their students.

To cover the cost of supplies and to pay teachers a minimum wage, Al Refai charges $15 a month for every student. Although the fee is small, some families would think twice before paying it, so Al Rifai waived the fee for them.

Moustafa Alkrad, 53, was one of those teaching on the Saturday I visited. He wrote two lines of Arabic on the whiteboard, explaining the metaphors in them to his students. 

“We are trying to encourage the children to learn Arabic by offering them the basics,” Alkrad said.

During the week, Alkrad worked as a teacher’s assistant at a school in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Before coming to Halifax with his wife and four daughters, he taught English as a second language for almost 20 years in Syria and Saudi Arabia. He said that newcomer children will eventually forget their first language if they don’t learn to read and write it as they become fluent in English.

Adjusting to Canada’s school system

Although many people think learning English is an easy task for young newcomers, that is not always the case. Wael Alismaiel, 18, had a hard time studying English while integrating into the Canadian school system after being out of school for years in Syria and Lebanon.

Wael Alismaiel as seen outside his home in downtown Halifax in July 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

Alismaiel came to Halifax in 2016 and started his schooling in Canada in Grade 8. In his first year, he mostly attended English-as-a-second-language classes. “Most of the time, I was studying English,” he said.  He is in grade 11 now, and he works at a Sobeys superstore after school. Alismaiel said that arriving with no knowledge of the language presented a huge challenge for him in making friends. He compared himself to his younger brother, Ayman, who was 11 years old when they landed in Halifax.

“Ayman has more friends because he’s studied at the same school,” said Alismaiel, who has changed schools twice: once when he finished Grade 8 and once when his family moved to a townhouse in downtown Halifax from Bedford in the north of the city.

Erin Corbett teaches English to newcomers at several schools in the Halifax area. She has noticed that older Syrian teenagers seem to feel embarrassed by not knowing the language, so their progress at school becomes even slower. 

“They keep a lot of stuff bottled up because they just don’t have the words yet,” she said. 

Corbett said she remembers how she felt when she couldn’t express herself as a teenager, even in her first language. “I can think back to times when I didn’t have the words in English,” she said. She gives refugee students more of her time and attention to help them progress.  “I can only imagine the pressure that most of them are feeling.” 

I had to wait for Corbett at Cabin Coffee on Hollis Street because she was at an end-of-year party that Dartmouth High School organized for its students in July 2019. She said jokingly that she had to hug every student. The Syrian kids, she said, like to hug her every time they see her.

“When you meet somebody with that, it gives you comfort,” said Corbett. She taught English as a second language at five different schools last year because of a shortage of trained staff. Halifax West High School, for example, had three ESL teachers for some 200 immigrant kids. “It’s difficult,” Corbett said.

Corbett has taught dozens of Syrian newcomers English. She’s sitting at Cabin Coffee in downtown Halifax. (Maan Alhmidi)

She noticed that memories of the traumatic events kids went through in Syria sometimes surface even after two or three years in Canada. A Syrian girl studying at Dartmouth High School told Corbett she witnessed the death of her grandparents when they were targeted by a sniper as they were crossing the street. The memory came back to the girl after a student brought a fake gun to the school. The police were called, and students were in lockdown for hours.

“She’s just told to keep on going,” Corbett said, adding that the schools don’t have the resources kids need to help them recover.

“There’s just nothing there … She’s a great kid. I hope she gets help.”

Corbett said it’s important to remind Syrian students that they’re safe at school. She explained the bell system, and the fire drills and gun drills on their first day at school. “I try to be very motherly and affectionate towards them,” she said.

Corbett said most of the Syrian students she has worked with seem to enjoy school and like their Canadian life. “So many of them are doing so well with so little. It’s impressive. They have every reason in the world to give up and they don’t.”

Syrian students in Halifax also get academic and social support from the YMCA. The organization has 18 social workers working fulltime at 34 schools in the Halifax municipality. “We worked on increasing the numbers of Arabic-speaking staff,” said Fadi Hamdan, the manager of child and youth programming at YMCA Halifax.

The age of the student is critical in determining how fast they integrate into the school system. “The younger they come, the faster they learn,” he said during an interview at his office on Bayers Road in July 2019.

How quickly newcomers integrate and learn English also depends on what they do after moving to Canada. “If you have a network, if you try to get engaged in the community, if you’re making friends, if you’re talking to people who are not Arabic, then your English will start developing,” said Hamdan, who himself came to Canada as an immigrant about 13 years ago. 

The YMCA has organized programs and workshops to help Syrian newcomers to get involved. Hamdan said that their goal at the YMCA is to engage newcomers to build healthy communities by volunteering in events and community organizations, including the food bank, the Bluenose marathon and many festivals. 

“They bring so much skills, so much education, so much diversity,” he said.

Coping with missing loved ones

I wanted to meet older members of the Syrian community in Halifax, so I asked Loai Al Refai to make some introductions. A few days, we drove to Spryfield, a suburban community about 10 kilometres south of downtown Halifax, where his relative Nayef Alrifai, who goes by the name Abo Mamdoh, lives with his wife and two sons.

Al Refai and I joined Abo Mamdoh, 60, and his sons, Mohammad and Louranes, sitting on lawn chairs around a small plastic table in the front yard of his townhouse. They live in a public housing unit on Lavender Walk. At the time, the family was paying $760 a month in rent. The rent was scheduled to increase to about a thousand dollars because Louranes just got a raise at his job as a car mechanic.   

A few minutes after we arrived, they served walnut tea with cinnamon sticks, a drink that families in the Daraa governorate of southern Syria traditionally offer to guests when a new baby is born.

“She is already Canadian,” Abo Mamdoh said with a laugh when telling me about his newborn granddaughter. He had two other granddaughters and one grandson before she was born. The three were playing in the front yard of the next townhouse, where his son Mohammad lives with his family.  

Abo Mamdoh has had multiple health issues, including a problem with his sinuses that requires surgery for which he had been waiting 17 months. In 2018, he also was diagnosed with a problem in his sciatic nerve. “I literally was crying from pain,” he said.   

“In Jordan, we were one family. After coming here, we became two families.”

Abo Mamdoh came to Halifax as a refugee in 2016 with seven members of his family, but he had to leave a married son and a married daughter behind in Jordan. During his interview at the Canadian embassy in Amman in 2015, Abo Mamdoh asked the immigration officer to include both his son’s and daughter’s families in his application. His request was denied. 

He thought there would be a way to bring his son and daughter to join the rest of the family shortly after arriving in Canada. But after more than three years, he was still waiting. 

“In Jordan, we were one family. After coming here, we became two families,” Abo Mamdoh said.

Abo Mamdoh standing outside his Spryfield home in June 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

His family was sponsored by the government, and Abo Mamdoh said he appreciates the efforts the Canadian government made to welcome and resettle refugees. However, he said the government should prioritize reuniting families, because it would make people feel more at home in Canada.

Earning a living

Moving from one country to another multiple times has drained the savings of many Syrians as they abandon homes and jobs again and again.

Ahmad Alasaad, 28, has been a refugee his entire life. He was born in Damascus to a family that fled its hometown in the Golan Heights after Israel seized it during the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2012, Alasaad, a history schoolteacher at the time, left with his wife and two children from their neighbourhood in Damascus after a shell exploded in front of their apartment building. A few months later, they decided to flee Syria for Turkey. They became among the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Halifax in 2016.

I first met Alasaad by accident when I called for a cab in Halifax and he picked me up. He said that I was his first customer on his first day as a taxi driver. Before that, he had catered Syrian food and desserts from home and worked for a Middle Eastern restaurant on Spring Garden Road in the downtown. During his four years in Turkey, he had worked as an assistant in a soil testing business, as a gardener and as a labourer at a tractor factory.

Other Syrian refugees have solid business backgrounds and enough assets to create successful small businesses. Among them is Khaled Al-Hilal, who opened his Al-Hilal’s Meat Shop on Herring Cove Road in Halifax in July 2017, less than a year after arriving with his family. Like other Muslim Syrian newcomers who eat only halal food that adheres to the Islamic form of slaughtering animals and poultry, Al-Hilal, 35, had a hard time finding the food products he wanted, so he decided to open a halal meat and grocery shop to serve the community.

Most of the groceries he sells are imported from the Middle East, mainly from Turkey and Lebanon, through suppliers in Toronto. He also contacted a couple of Lebanese-owned farms in the Montreal area to provide him with vegetables that are popular among Middle Easterners, including white zucchini and green chili peppers. But the main product at his shop is halal meat.

Al-Hilal leaves home at 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday to go to Mike Oulton’s farm near Windsor, Nova Scotia, to slaughter the animals according to Islamic traditions. On a Tuesday in July, I joined him on his trip to the farm. Al-Hilal was driving while describing his daily routine. He said that having a diverse group of customers is what makes him proud. 

The farm is one of the largest in the province. The family that owns it has been in business for generations. Although the farm caters to religious and cultural groups, including by offering halal meat, Al-Hilal made an arrangement with the owners so he can go to the farm and read Islamic prayers while slaughtering the animals. On that Tuesday, he ordered 16 lambs and two cows.

During his first three years in Halifax, Al-Hilal has learned enough English to communicate with people at work. He sometimes explains himself with body language when he can’t do it verbally. “He’s always smiling no matter what’s going wrong in his life,” said Wayne Oulton, who has worked with Al-Hilal for years. “He is very easy to work with.”

Al-Hilal at a farm outside Windsor, Nova Scotia, to read Islamic prayers before slaughtering the sheep in July 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

Al-Hilal has established a good reputation among his customers. He said that one of them bought one kilogram of kabob and came back the next morning to thank him. He said she offered to create a Facebook page for his shop in English — something that attracted a lot of new customers. The butcher works up to 12 hours a day. But he considers himself lucky when he remembers his previous life in the Middle East, where he worked on poultry farms and where meat and other food preparation businesses operate in much worse work conditions. Still, he misses those days. 

“It was much simpler life,” Al-Hilal said, adding that his old life also gave him the experience he needed to succeed in Canada. “You have to build on what you have,” he said. 

Alaa Elddin Alakkam, 28, was privately sponsored with his family by a relative who had been living in Halifax for 10 years. He landed with his brother, sister and two parents in 2015 and started working as a chef at a restaurant soon after.

Three years later, the family opened its own restaurant on Dresden Row in downtown Halifax, where they are preserving their cooking traditions. His father, Badie Alakkam, worked in the food industry for 40 years and established many famous restaurants in Damascus before fleeing Syria due to the war. Alakkam said that their restaurant, which is called 902 after Nova Scotia’s telephone area code, quickly became a popular destination in Halifax because it serves a variety of Syrian and Mediterranean meals.

By the summer of last year, Syrian refugees had opened at least three grocery stores and five restaurants in Halifax.

But having a solid business background is not always enough for things to work out quickly, according to Samer Aljokhadar, co-owner of Booza Emessa, a traditional Syrian ice cream shop on the Bedford Highway. 

The Syrian traditional ice cream pistachio rolls are popular among Aljokhadar’s customers. (Maan Alhmidi)

Aljokhadar came to Canada with his wife and four kids from Jordan in 2016, four years after they fled Syria for Jordan following two massacres committed by regime forces that killed 20 of his close relatives in Homs. In Syria, he owned a large ice cream business, including a factory and multiple shops.

“We lost everything,” Aljokhadar said.

In 2016, Dalhousie University organized a workshop to train those with business ideas through a competition on how to sell their business ideas to investors. Aljokhadar finished first in that competition. After that, he started looking for an investor to launch his business and found one from the Arab community in Halifax. But it took him a year and a half to open the shop because of complications about permits and the need to import equipment from Jordan and Turkey.

He lost money even before he opened, because he signed a five-year lease before he had his permits and equipment in place.  “It’s all because of the lack of experience here,” he said.

Like other businesses, Aljokhadar’s ice cream shop was hit hard during the first wave of COVID-19, but it managed to survive. 

He called the shop Booza Emessa, a phrase that means “the ice cream of Homs” in Arabic. He wanted customers to feel like they’re visiting a traditional home in his native city when they walk into the shop. The decoration includes murals on the walls and the ceiling of Arabic calligraphy embedded in plant patterns. In one corner he installed a copper faucet that drips a thin trickle of water into a small stone pool, filling the shop with a soothing sound.

Samer Aljokhadar serving customers at his Booza Emessa ice cream shop in Bedford, Nova Scotia, in June 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

The most popular item at his shop is an ice cream pistachio roll that is hand made with milk, mastic gum and pistachios.

The shop attracted a lot of curious customers, including members of the Arab community in the city who wanted to support Aljokhadar’s start-up. Tasnim Nashnoush, an international student from Libya, tried Syrian ice cream during a visit to Turkey. She came to the shop before it was equipped with payment machines, and she didn’t have cash on her. Aljokhadar gave her the ice cream for free.

“He said you can come back or take them on the house,” Nashnoush said. “It’s so nice of him and it’s out of generosity.”

The new Syrian businesses in Halifax are not limited to restaurants and other food-related shops. Masoud Alissou, 37, and his cousin Jakar Alisso, 36, opened their Barran Barber Shop at the Bayers Road mall in January 2018, months after arriving in the city.

Their shop was destroyed almost entirely by fire in July 2019. The police and fire officials said that gasoline was the source of the suspicious fire but no one was ever charged. The shop re-opened a couple of months later.

I met the cousins at their uncle Omar Alisso’s house in Halifax’s west end. The 63-year-old fled Syria for Canada in the mid-1990s, after being imprisoned for more than 10 years because he was a member of the Communist Labour Party of Syria that opposed the regime of Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s. He referred his nephews to their sponsors in 2016 and then helped them resettle after they arrived. Alisso is well-known in the community because in 2012 he co-founded a group called Justice and Freedom for Syria to raise awareness about what’s going on in his home country.

Alisso’s family is Kurdish from northeast Syria. In Halifax, Kurdish Syrians have their own small sub-community.  According to the government, 1,290 of the 1,340 Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia speak Arabic as a first language, 30 speak Kurdish and 20 speak other languages.

Paying back the hosting society

Khabat Alissa is one of Omar’s nephews. He came to Halifax with his wife, Gin, and their son in January of 2016. He joined an English class in his first few months but didn’t learn a lot. “At class, students talk Arabic all the time,” he said. “I decided to work and learn English from people.”

Alissa, 36, worked as a tailor for years in Syria and Turkey. A few months after landing in Halifax, he was hired by Maritime Canvas Converters on Herring Cove Road. He said his English improved at work and he met new friends.

“I worked so hard there,” he said. “They would give me a large piece of canvas and ask me to finish it in a day. I would be done in three hours.”

He was later asked “to take his time,” he said. “My boss called my uncle and my sponsors to ask them why I’m exhausting myself at work.” He injured his hand at work, so he had to quit last year. He has been waiting for an appointment with a neurologist for a year, and recently his appointment was canceled due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

In July 2019, he decided to open his own tailor shop in Enfield, a community 45 kilometers north of Halifax. Recently, Alissa decided to help protect others from contracting the new coronavirus by making face masks.

“I made a few masks and people liked them,” he said. “I gave 50 of them to a woman. She offered me a cheque, but I didn’t take it.”

He gave the masks away for free but asked people to donate fabric so he could make more. A lot of people contacted him offering fabrics and asking for masks after he posted photos of himself making masks on his Facebook page.  

“I use cotton fabric, so the face mask is reusable,” he said. “I just want to help people during this crisis.”

Khabat Alissa worked two days a week making face masks to donate them.

Answering the identity questions

I headed to Toronto in December 2019 to do an internship at the Globe and Mail. On my first day in the city, I attended a community meeting where a group of Syrian newcomers gathered to discuss identity-related issues before they sang, danced and had dinner. The meeting took place at the Quakers Friends House on Lowther Street, which organizers chose because it can hold 30 to 40 people every two weeks and isn’t too expensive.

Among the organizers was Jobran Kanji, who left Damascus in 2015 to pursue a master’s degree in post-war recovery studies at the University of York in England, before coming to Canada in 2016.

Kanji began organizing the gatherings in October 2018 to create a safe space for Syrian newcomers to socialize and share their experiences. He said it is important for those who were traumatized by war. Kanji said refugees often tell him stories about losing half their family, about barrel bombs, arson and rape. The meetings help people process these horrible memories.

“We wanted to give people something useful, something that can help them rebuild their lives.” Kanji said.

Members of the Syrian community in Toronto gathered on Dec 22, 2019 to have an early Christmas party. (Maan Alhmidi)

Members of the Syrian community in Toronto gathered on Dec 22, 2019 to have an early Christmas party. (Maan Alhmidi)

Members of the Syrian community in Toronto gathered on Dec 22, 2019 to have an early Christmas party. (Maan Alhmidi)

People sat on wooden chairs arranged in an open-box shape so they could see each other. Kanji stood in the middle and asked them to introduce themselves. There are always a few new faces in every meeting, Kanji said. Most of the people are Syrians who came to Toronto recently as refugees, but some have been living in Canada for more than five years. The group included social workers, engineers, artists, doctors, estheticians, teachers, business owners, cashiers and unemployed people.

Kanji wanted to provide a space for community members to support each other. (Maan Alhmidi)

“What does it mean to feel at home? Do you still see Syria as your home country? Do you feel you belong in Canada?”

When everyone was introduced, Kanji stood up again to manage that day’s discussion. He explained that it would be about how people feel about Canada and Syria and how their culture, memories and relationships with their friends and family determine their identity. He suggested a few questions to spark the conversation. Kanji asked: What does it mean to feel at home? What does it mean to have a home? Do you still see Syria as your home country? Do you feel you belong in Canada?

Most people said they had mixed feelings, as they are preserving their Syrian identity while integrating and working in Canada. Yasser Fadila said he doesn’t feel like a stranger in Toronto anymore, less than four years after arriving from Syria with his wife and their two children. Fadila and his family were privately sponsored by his brother who has been living in Canada for three decades.

Yasser Fadila and his wife, Roba Horia, sitting at the dinner table after the meeting. (Maan Alhmidi)

With a background in home decoration, Fadila, 54, worked for an established home-renovation business for two years before starting one of his own. He said the Canadian government and people made him feel welcome in Toronto. His wife, Roba Horia, who trained to become an esthetician, agreed with him but said she feels that she belongs more to Syria.

“Maybe because I have been here for less than four years?” Horia wondered. She said they are happy in Toronto, especially because their children are doing well at school. They have a daughter in Grade 11 and a son in Grade 3. Fadila and his family applied for Canadian citizenship, but the application process has been interrupted because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Many other Syrian refugees have already become Canadian citizens after fulfilling the citizenship requirements: they lived in Canada as permanent residents for at least three years; they filed income taxes for three years; they had adequate knowledge of English or French; and they passed the citizenship exam, which includes questions about the rights and responsibilities of Canadians, and about Canada’s history, government and laws.

Government data show that 6,151 Syrians gained Canadian citizenship in 2019, up from 1,597 in 2018 and 587 in 2017.

Like other immigrants, Syrian newcomers who get Canadian citizenship can become dual citizens. Many, like Kanji and his group, begin to question their identity.

The identity question is fundamental for refugees and immigrants who find themselves in a new host society, said professor Morton Weinfeld, chair of the Canadian Ethnic and Racial Studies program at McGill University. 

“It would be surprising if these people were not questioning who they are,” he said. “They have one foot in the old world — the old country — and another foot in Canada.” 

Immigrants often adopt a hybrid or hyphenated identity, which is a natural way for them and their children to understand who they are, said Weinfeld. This hyphenated identity may have an influence on many areas of the immigrants’ lives. 

“It may express itself in who your friends are, or what food you eat, or who you decide to marry or what political views you have,” said Weinfeld. “It adds some interesting cultural dimensions to their lives.” 

Sharing the Syrian art

Leen Hamo came to Toronto more than three years ago with a passion for Arabic music that she didn’t give up. The 29-year-old grew up in Aleppo, where she studied music and fine arts before she co-founded a band that infused traditional Arabic songs with flamenco rhythms. The war forced her to leave Syria in 2015 for Turkey, where she stayed for nearly two years before landing in Toronto as a privately sponsored refugee in December 2016.

Leen Hamo posing for the camera on the stage of Burdock musical hall in Toronto on Dec. 15, 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

Immediately after arriving, Hamo started looking for Arabic bands in the city. A couple of months later, she joined the Canadian Arabic Orchestra as a vocalist and travelled with them to perform at concerts in Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and several cities in Ontario, including Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor and London. During her tours with the orchestra, Hamo was doing what she loves most. 

“Singing is my life — my way to live happy,” Hamo said.

In 2018, she met percussionist Nour Kaadan and guitarist Tarek Ghriri, a Syrian couple that had arrived in Toronto a year earlier. Kaadan and Ghriri fled Damascus for Beirut, where they played music together before coming to Canada as refugees.

“We had a similar background,” Hamo said. The three newcomers decided to form a band aimed at reviving Syrian traditional music with a flamenco twist, something similar to what Hamo was working on in Aleppo before the war. They called their trio Diar, which is an Arabic word that’s commonly used in the Damascene dialect to mean home.

Kaadan said the idea of the band was to introduce Syrian music to Toronto audiences, so they can learn more about the Syrian newcomers living among them. Kaadan and her two partners wanted to do that “by presenting music and art and how Syrian people are creative and nice, even though they fled war,” she said.

The trio has performed in many venues in Toronto, including the Art Square Cafe and Lounge on Dundas Street West and Drom Taberna bar on Queen Street West. They also were commissioned by the Toronto Arts Council last year to perform at an outdoor event in North York. But Hamo’s income from singing alone is not enough to afford to live in Toronto, so she has taken several part-time jobs, including babysitting and tutoring children in music and other subjects.

Diar performing Jadaka al-Ghaythu, a classic Arabic song they infused with Spanish rhythms, at Sofar Toronto in May 2019. 

On Dec 15, 2019, I attended a show by Diar at Burdock Brewery on Bloor Street. The brewery has a small music hall that was filled with roughly 60 Syrian music enthusiasts. Those who came late had to stand at the back. Some were Syrian newcomers who came to listen to music that evoked cheerful memories. Others were born in Canada to Syrian parents or immigrated when they were kids. It was a chance for them to experience a Syrian evening in Toronto.

Hamo sang many well-known Syrian and Iraqi traditional folk songs, so people could sing along with her. She also played her violin a few times. She was standing between Kaadan, who sat on a box-shaped percussion instrument called a cajon and carried another Middle Eastern one called a daf, and Ghriri, who sat on a chair playing his guitar. The audience danced and sang at times.

Diar band performing at Burdock musical hall in Toronto on Dec 15, 2019. (Maan Alhmidi)

Among those who attended the performance was Ahmed Meree, a 28-year-old playwright and actor from Aleppo. I had met him a week earlier at the community event where Syrian newcomers were debating their identity. He told me that two of his plays were scheduled to run for two weeks at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in January 2020. 

A few days after we met in December, I took the train to Kitchener to meet him at his home. Meree was wearing a thick red winter coat and a dark grey toque, trying to cover up as much as possible as the cold wind blew in the city’s wide streets. His long black beard covered most of his face and his neck. But his wide forehead was uncovered, as were his hands. He was sipping coffee from a small lidless paper cup while showing me around the Registry Theatre where he started his theatre career in Canada after arriving as a refugee in July 2016. Later, we went to the Kitchener Public Library, where he told me about his journey to Canada and his passion for theatre.

Ahmed Meree standing in front of the Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario, where he started his theatre career in Canada. (Maan Alhmidi)

In 2012, Meree fled Aleppo for Egypt, where he studied acting at the Academy of Arts in Cairo. When his student visa was about to expire, he began looking for options other than going back to Syria, where he would be drafted to compulsory military service. He thought about travelling in a boat to seek asylum in Europe, but he was scared because of the rising death toll of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean in the summer of 2015.

While in Egypt, Meree got in touch with Majdi Bou-Matar, a Lebanese-Canadian theatre director based in Waterloo, Ontario. Meree told him his story and asked for help to come to Canada. In a telephone interview, Bou-Matar said he decided to assist Meree because he recognized him as a young and dedicated actor. Bou-Matar raised $13,500 to privately sponsor him as a refugee and to cover Meree’s basic needs during his first year in Canada.

Bou-Matar said those who donated money to help Meree come to Canada were, for the most part, Canadian actors, directors and playwrights, so people in the theatre community knew Meree even before he landed. After arriving, Meree was hired as an actor by MT Space, a theatre production company founded by Bou-Matar to promote marginalized voices in theatre. He was also hired as an actor by several theatre production companies in Ontario and Manitoba.

From the Kitchener Public Library, we walked to his nearby studio apartment. Meree had filled one wall of his only room with pictures of Arab artists, poets and novelists, and another with posters of his shows and clippings about his work. Sitting on his couch, Meree described how memories of the war stay with him, and how many small details of his pre-war life in Syria rush to mind every day. He said he has a powerful feeling that he has to tell the world his story. This idea keeps him up at night drafting scripts.

His new life in Kitchener sparked the idea for his first play in Canada: Adrenaline. The play is a solo performance about a Syrian man spending his first New Year’s Eve alone in Canada. The character is Jaber. One year earlier, he was hiding with his family in Aleppo, trying to survive the Syrian regime’s heavy and ongoing shelling, which destroyed most of eastern Aleppo, including the neighbourhood where Meree grew up. The story is about the alienation and isolation Meree felt after moving to Canada. He simply decided to stand on the stage, share his story and the hardship he had lived. 

“What is the price that all refugees pay for safety?”

“What is the price that all refugees pay for safety?” Meree asked.

After Meree performed Adrenaline on the Registry Theatre’s stage in Kitchener, he was invited to festivals in cities across the country, including Victoria, Toronto and Ottawa. This success encouraged him to write another play: Suitcase. This play tells the story of a young Syrian couple fleeing the war. They get stuck in a place they don’t understand, so they question not only their reality but also the truth of everything that has happened to them before leaving home. Their world turns into an unfamiliar mix of dreams and reality.

“They don’t know where they are. They are waiting for someone and something to happen,” Meree said. “They could be alive waiting for a European immigration officer, or maybe they’re dead waiting for God.”

A month later, I went back to Toronto to watch the two plays on their opening night. The theatre was full. People were chatting as songs by Fairuz — a popular singer across the Middle East — played in the background before Meree and actress Nada Abusaleh took the stage to perform, in Arabic with English translation projected on the stage above their heads.

As Meree put clothes on home appliances, some people laughed so hard they couldn’t hold back tears. He made a fan look like his mother; a small gas tank, his younger brother; a coat rack, his father. In reality, he left those loved ones in Aleppo, as did his character in the play, who dressed household objects so he could pretend to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his family. 

Meree’s work is “humorous, it’s political and it’s very personal,” said Bou-Matar. “It presents the Syrian story from a very specific human and political perspective.”

Ahmed Meree and Nada Abusaleh receiving a standing ovation after their opening night show at Theatre Passe Muraille on Jan. 21, 2020. (Maan Alhmidi)

Telling the Syrian story

Many other Syrian refugees in Ontario have also tried to share something of themselves with the wider Canadian community. Inas Awad came to Barrie, Ontario, from Syria, by way of Saudi Arabia, in August 2018 with her three children: Fatima, 16; Khaled, 14; and Qusai, 10. The family was privately sponsored by a church in the city.

A few months after arriving, one of Awad’s sponsors sent her a link to a news story about Mayson Al Misri, a former female volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defence, or “White Helmets,” who is living as a refugee in Toronto. Awad, 39, suggested organizing an event in Barrie so people could hear about the White Helmets directly from Al Misri.

She ended up organizing two events, one at a school and one at a church. Attendees heard Al Misri describe digging in the rubble of destroyed buildings bombed randomly by Russian and the Syrian government warplanes in northwest Syria. 

“People didn’t know what was happening in Syria,” Awad said.

She said that many people approached her after the event to ask how Syrians deal with the trauma. “How do you manage to live normally, to walk, to smile, after what you witnessed?” Awad said people asked her.

She said she is happy in Canada because her children, especially her son Khaled, who has autism, can go to school in a safe country. In Saudi Arabia, her kids were not allowed in public schools and she couldn’t afford to send them to private schools.

In March 2019, after the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Mabel Peyer, one of Awad’s sponsors and her neighbour, called her offering a ride to Friday prayer at their local mosque. Awad was afraid because the attack in New Zealand had reminded her of the 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. 

“I was hesitant: should I go to the prayer of not?” Awad said. “When we got there, Peyer put on a hijab and prayed next to me.” 

Awad worked as Arabic teacher in Syria and Saudi Arabia, but she’s now focusing on advancing her English skills so she can apply for a college program to become a social worker. She had read on social media that she would have a culture shock and get depressed after moving to Canada, but she didn’t feel any of that. She said she made many friends and found people in Barrie to be welcoming.

Wrestling with alienation

Almost all the Syrian refugees I have met in Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Manitoba said Canadians are welcoming, but some, especially those living in Quebec, said they have faced racism.

Hadeel Al Boukai came to Montreal from Damascus through Qatar. She landed with her two daughters, Maryana, 10, and Leyana, 8, in April 2016. They were sponsored privately by Al Boukai’s relatives, who have been living in Montreal for a long time. Her husband, who’s Egyptian, joined them more than a year later, when he got a work permit in Canada.

Al Boukai, 36, described her first couple of years in Montreal as difficult but manageable. She didn’t speak French when she arrived. The Syrian newcomer got ticketed several times because she was unable to read the instructions on where and for how long she could park her car.

She had to rely on her cousin, who’s fluent in French, to help her do basic tasks, including registering her kids for school. She said she had to take her cousin with her to register the kids at the Montreal school board office, where, she said, “they don’t speak English, and they get pissed off at you if you speak English to them.”

During a French language course for newcomers at Cégep de Saint-Laurent a few months after arriving in Montreal, a teacher repeatedly asked Al Boukai to pronounce the letter P and the letter B, citing the fact that there is no P sound in Arabic as a reason. Al Boukai told her teacher that she speaks good English and can say the P sound. 

“The teacher said you Arabs are handicapped,” Al Boukai said. 

She was wearing a hijab at the time, but she said the teacher was also bigoted against her Christian Syrian classmates.  

The same teacher ranted at her on another occasion when Al Boukai used the word “Irish” rather the French word “Irlandais” when answering her teacher’s question about Saint Patrick’s Day. 

“I complained to the management and the teacher came to me and said I misunderstood her,” Al Boukai said. “She was very rude and racist. I regret not filing a complaint to the minister of immigration.”

Al Boukai studied French as a second language at Université de Montréal for a year. She had worked as an English teacher in Qatar for four years, but she couldn’t teach English in Quebec without a license that would require four years of schooling. Instead, she decided to pursue a supply chain management program at Collège LaSalle. When she graduated last summer, she was hired as an analyst at the National Bank of Canada. By the time she applied for the job, she no longer wore the hijab. 

“I always ask myself: would I be hired if I was wearing hijab?” Al Boukai said. “I don’t know.”

The 36-year-old mother took part in protests against Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law. The bill forbids the wearing of religious symbols for state employees who are considered to be in positions of authority. Because of the legislation, police officers and teachers can’t wear hijabs, turbans, kippahs and crucifixes when on duty.

“This doesn’t suit Canada — the country of diversity,” Al Boukai said. “We should respect people’s choices.”

Ienas Abdulaziz, a 26-years-old Syrian refugee living in Toronto, said she didn’t face xenophobia while working and studying in the Greater Toronto Area. She arrived in Toronto in September 2018 with her two younger brothers and mother.

The family was sponsored by a group called Roncesvalles Refugee Relief, which raised money to sponsor refugees in cooperation with Bloor Street United Church. The family live in a three-bedroom apartment in Etobicoke, a suburb in Toronto’s west end.

Abdulaziz was hired at a Fido store at the Cloverdale Mall, where she had gone to purchase a home Internet plan, when the store manager overheard her telling one of her sponsors that she was looking for a job. She worked there while studying a forensics science program at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. She said she met many nice people at work, some of whom would stop by to say hi even though they weren’t customers. 

“Some people came back and asked me whether I got an admission offer from the university or not,” Abdulaziz said. Some passersby became emotional. “A lady hugged me and started crying when I told her I’m from Syria,” Abdulaziz said. “I was crying too.”

Her mother, Zelaleddin Abdulaziz, 56, is still learning English while volunteering to help women in the community by babysitting their kids. Abdulaziz said that her mother doesn’t feel as connected as she does in Toronto because she spends most of her time at home.

Ubay Abdulaziz, 19, a computer technology student at Humber College; Muaz Abdulaziz, 21, a chemical engineering student at Seneca College; Zelaleddin Abdulaziz, 56, holding a phone with a picture of her granddaughter, who was born in the United Arab Emirates one week after they landed in Canada; and Ienas Abdulaziz.

Abdulaziz noted that although she has never faced racism, some people stare at her when she goes to downtown Toronto because of her hijab. “But no one has ever harassed me in any way,” she said. Abdulaziz said she doesn’t feel like a stranger in Etobicoke and Mississauga, because there are more immigrants and hijab-wearing women in these areas. “I rarely go to downtown Toronto,” she said.

In March, Abdulaziz lost her job at the mall due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Looking forward to future

The pandemic also messed up my plans for the summer. I was chosen in February as a recipient of a 2020 Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship after a long and competitive application process. 

“I know the vast majority of us will survive the novel coronavirus, just as the vast majority of Syrians have survived the tragedies of dictatorship, war and indefinite exile.”

The scholarship includes a four-month training stint at three CBC bureaus and is considered one of the most prestigious journalism internships in Canada. I was supposed to start working with CBC’s investigative team in May. However, the lockdown forced CBC to delay the start date of the program from May 11 to October 16.

By that time, I had already started in another job. I was hired by The Canadian Press to work as a reporter in Ottawa under a one-year fellowship program. I had to decline the CBC scholarship.

On top of the profound anxiety that the lockdown has created for me and for so many other people, staying at home during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded me of bad times I previously lived through: the early days of the uprising in Syria, when people stayed home because they were terrified of going out and being arrested randomly by the regime security forces. 

The lockdown has also prompted memories of my early days in Canada, when I stayed home simply because I had no friends to go out with. 

Paradoxically, this leaves me optimistic about the COVID-19 situation, because I know the vast majority of us will survive the novel coronavirus, just as the vast majority of Syrians have survived the tragedies of dictatorship, war and indefinite exile.