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Settled in a strange land: What life is like in Canada for Syrian refugees




CALGARY—Fatima Alsaleh’s living room holds just two long cushions on the floor, and a TV on a stand in the corner that casts a glow on the washed-out beige walls. The wooden floors are bare but for a tan, brown and white geometric rug. By any Canadian measure, the decor is spare, sparse even.

Alsaleh spends most of her time inside the two-bedroom townhouse, cooking meals in the dilapidated kitchen for her two boys and two girls, ages eight to 13.

Fatima Alsaleh spends most of her time at her home in Calgary, although she ventures out for English classes and shopping when the children are at school. After three years in Canada, the single mother still yearns to go back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where the rest of her family lives.
Fatima Alsaleh spends most of her time at her home in Calgary, although she ventures out for English classes and shopping when the children are at school. After three years in Canada, the single mother still yearns to go back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where the rest of her family lives.  (Christina Ryan / Star Calgary)

When her phone buzzes, she plugs in her earbuds and wanders into the kitchen, where she is instantly connected to the familiar voices of the family she reluctantly left behind in a refugee camp in Lebanon. At night, Alsaleh sleeps in one bedroom with her daughters; her sons take the other.

After waiting 18 months for English lessons while the kids were in school, the single mother now leaves home four times a week to go to a newcomer’s centre for class. But learning the language has not been easy for Alsaleh, who left school in Syria when she was 12. Three years after coming to Canada, her proficiency is still Level 1—the most basic—of four levels.

Alsaleh speaks mostly in Arabic: to neighbours in what Calgarians call Little Syria, which is home to around 30 refugee families; on frequent calls through What’sApp to her family in Lebanon; and to her children at home. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn’t see herself ever getting a job.

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“I’ve never worked. Not in Syria, not here. So what would I do?” Alsaleh said in interview in Arabic.

This is life in Canada for Alsaleh. She was part of the first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada three years ago. As of Sept. 30, 2018, the latest data available, a total of 59,875 refugees call this country home.

The Star spent four months talking to dozens of settlement workers and Syrian refugees across the country, who described ongoing language barriers and mental health struggles, as well as child-care, employment and housing woes. With a $1-billion price tag, there is a dearth of comprehensive data to show whether resettlement has been the unprecedented success the government says it is.

Like Alsaleh, around 28,000 Syrian refugees were sponsored by the federal government, 27,000 were sponsored privately by friends, family and community groups, and around 5,000 arrived through a combination of private and public sponsorship. Government-assisted refugees were chosen by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) because they were deemed most vulnerable and in need of safe harbour. Most have little education or are even illiterate, belong to large families and have complex health issues.

“This is a group that is going to have a lot of challenges to find themselves,” said Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, an organization responsible for much of the Syrian refugee resettlement efforts in the city.

Their arrival was part of a government-led humanitarian effort that gathered political steam after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. A photo of the boy—who drowned as his family fled Syria trying to reach Canada—sped around the world and right into the middle of the one of the longest federal election campaigns in Canada.

During the 11-week campaign, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals each made a commitment to save Syrian families from what has been called one the bloodiest civil wars in recent history. Amnesty International estimates the death toll of the seven-year conflict to be more than 400,000, with more than 11 million people displaced from their homes.

Naomi Alboim, a political science professor at Queen’s University, recalled the three parties trying to “outbid” one another. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, the official opposition critic for immigration, described it as “an auction of sorts.”

After winning the Oct. 19 election, Trudeau swiftly fulfilled a promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. The deadline was extended to February 2016, but it was still a humanitarian effort the country hadn’t seen since the late 70s and early eighties, when more than 60,000 Southeast Asians fleeing oppression and war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos arrived in Canada.

The estimated price tag for the Syrian resettlement initiative stands at more than a billion dollars. $1,023-billion, to be exact. Despite the amount of taxpayer’s money poured into the relief effort, the country still has no comprehensive information to show how Syrian refugees are faring.

With a dearth of data to show whether resettlement has been the unprecedented success the government says it is, Star reporters spent months talking to 20 refugees from Saint John, N.B. to Vancouver, B.C., who told stories of ongoing language barriers, mental health struggles, as well as child-care, employment and housing woes.

These are all key metrics that can be used to measure integration, but the problem is Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has released exactly one report on how Syrian refugees are faring, and that Rapid Impact Evaluation only covered the first year.

The challenges faced by government-assisted Syrian refugees raise questions about whether the expeditious way they were ushered into the country, coupled with a big data gap that doesn’t allow for a quick policy response, is leaving a glaring hole in their future.

Alsaleh’s nightmare began on Oct. 16, 2011, when her husband went out to buy bread in their hometown of Homs and never came back. He was killed, seemingly at random, by snipers who lurked on the rooftops or hid around street corners. For several months, she and her children—the youngest was three when they left home and the oldest was eight—travelled from city to city in Syria, sometimes on foot, staying with friends and relatives.

In 2012, they crossed the border into Lebanon and found refuge in the Zahle camp, where two of her sisters were waiting. The camp was within sight of the Eastern Lebanon mountains; on the other side, just 11 kilometres away, lay Syria. Life there was harsh. There was no school for the children, vouchers to exchange for food and they had to live in ramshackle tents.

In December 2015, Alsaleh got the call so many camp residents coveted: A UNHCR officer was on the phone, offering Alsaleh and her children a home in Canada.

“I couldn’t picture in my mind what Canada even was, how people live here,” Alsaleh said.

The only catch: She would have to leave the rest of her family—her parents, six sisters and five brothers—in Lebanon. She felt pressured to make an impossible decision in just a few months. Alsaleh would have to leave her family, the only connection to her past, in order to secure her children’s future.

“I told my sister I didn’t want to travel to Canada,” she recalled. “It’s true that life was difficult in the refugee camps, but it was easier than being all alone with no family.”

Alsaleh eventually resolved to move 10,000 kilometres from the place she had lived nearly all of her 35 years. It was a decision she made for her children, especially for six-year-old Ahmed, who was born deaf in one ear. “People told me health care in Canada was better, and that they would take care of my son.”

Alsaleh left school at 12 in Syria and married at 18. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn't see herself ever getting a job.
Alsaleh left school at 12 in Syria and married at 18. When her government support ran out in January 2017, she went on welfare and doesn’t see herself ever getting a job.  (Christina Ryan/Star Calgary)

Every refugee’s story is different—some families have put down roots and built new lives, starting their own businesses and even buying houses. But, like Alsaleh, many government-sponsored refugees are on welfare, living in social housing, and struggling to make ends meet as they try to make sense of their new Canadian reality.

After three years in Canada and more than $1-billion spent on the resettlement initiative, there is little known about how many refugees are doing well, and how many have fallen through the cracks. Beyond the first report on year one, the IRCC has yet to release comprehensive information on basic metrics like employment outcomes or language proficiency. They cite a two-year lag between the collection of data from federal agencies like Statistics Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, and the synthesis and summary of that information as the reason for the delay.

“We know far, far more about his cohort than any arrival cohort in Canadian history,” said David Manicom, the assistant deputy manager for settlement and integration at the IRCC. “But that hard data requires a certain period of time for peoples’ tax filings to flow through data systems.”

The same unknowns surround the number of Syrian refugees who have transitioned from their first year of federal financial assistance to provincial social-assistance programs. Those numbers, Manicom said, are subject to the same time lags in data collection.

The data gap is “problematic” according to Rempel, the Conservative immigration critic. “If we wait that long for data, we can’t evaluate whether or not programs are working.”

And while the new data may help IRCC to evaluate future resettlement efforts, it may not make much of a difference to resettled families, said York University health researcher Michaela Hynie, the lead investigator on a five-year, $1.3-million project to examine how integration affects the health of Syrian refugees. “Many of them are no longer eligible for rapid services, many of them have moved on,” she noted.

The data may tell us how Syrians refugees are settling in, but “it’s not going to tell you who needs help and where they are, and what you can do to help them,” said Hynie.

Some settlement agencies have collected and analyzed their own data, like Toronto-based COSTI, which surveyed 351 government-assisted Syrian refugee families in the Greater Toronto Area during the fall of 2018, and found them doing better than expected: 33 per cent were currently employed, 63 per cent were attending English classes, and 87 per cent reported feeling happy. A similar 2018 survey of 241 government-assisted refugees in B.C. found 69 per cent were attending English classes, 27 per cent were working on a full-time basis, and 56 per cent were relying on local food banks weekly for meals.

The IRCC conducted its own survey of 1,250 adult Syrian refugees, a mix of government-assisted, privately sponsored or a combination of the two. That survey is part of a more detailed report coming out in a few months, but Manicom revealed some of its findings, telling the Star that 88 per cent of respondents had accessed IRCC-funded language training, 96 per cent reported feeling a sense of belonging to Canada and 86% said they had access to a health-care professional. Just under half of government-assisted refugees — 43 per cent — had a job. It did not ask specific questions about mental health.

Manicom acknowledged that a two-year gap between official data collection and reporting is not ideal. “They (the data) arrive a little later than one would like, from the point of the view of how to deal with very specific issues of very recent arrival,” he said. But he pointed out that the federal government is also funding about 60 research projects in partnership with universities across the country, including Hynie’s at York, and will now survey Syrian refugees annually to gather information on key measures of integration.

The federal auditor general pointed out that the IRCC fell short of a July 2017 commitment to measure key indictors of integration in a 2018 report, stating the IRCC had only collected data on seven of 16 indicators it was supposed to measure. Metrics on chronic health care issues, how many children were in school, and how many children had special needs, were missed, among other things.

Meanwhile, people like Alsaleh continue to struggle. “I told [the settlement workers] I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to stay in Canada,” she said, remembering the first few months in Canada. “I felt like a stranger. Life was difficult, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know anyone.”

Sam Nammoura, a volunteer who has helped Alsaleh and other Syrian families settle in Calgary, said some government-sponsored refugees feel trapped, with no work prospects and limited language skills. He believes settlement initiatives for government-sponsored refugees “need to be completely revisited,” with closer ties to local business owners and work programs linked to financial aid.

The Star talked to families that use child benefits to pay the rent, parents who can’t leave the house to learn English because they can’t afford child care, refugees who can’t get a job because of the language barrier, victims of torture triggered by the stress of settlement and, in almost every city, people struggling to navigate the bureaucracy to try to sponsor family members left behind in refugee camps.

Manicom said IRCC recognizes that “social integration is a challenge across Canadian society,” and Syrian refugees are no different. “We know they’re people, and some of them will do really well,” Manicom said. “Some will be traumatized and depressed and continue to struggle.”

In 2011, Alsaleh's husband went out for bread in Homs and was shot by a sniper. After three years travelling from city to city, sometimes on foot, with four young children, she ended up in a refugee camp in Zahle, Lebanon.
In 2011, Alsaleh’s husband went out for bread in Homs and was shot by a sniper. After three years travelling from city to city, sometimes on foot, with four young children, she ended up in a refugee camp in Zahle, Lebanon.  (Christina Ryan/Star Calgary)

IRCC Minister Ahmed Hussen deemed the Syrian refugee initiative a success in 2017, a pronouncement echoed by a department spokesperson in October 2018. But Manicom said both success stories and heart-rending histories like Alsaleh’s are part of the bigger picture, and it’s difficult to deliver services to fit the needs of every family. His conclusion is more realistic. “They’re doing at least as well as average government-assisted refugees, in spite of the very large family size and the low levels of education.”

When Reham Abazid arrived in Saint John, N.B., with her husband and two children in early 2016 after witnessing the horrors of the Syrian war and being displaced in a Jordanian refugee camp, she did not speak any English. Now she works as a translator for the YMCA, after picking up the language by practicing English with anyone who would listen.

“When I saw how the local YMCA was helping people, my primary goal was to learn English so I can work with them,” Abazid said. “Hamdillah,” she added, Arabic for being thankful to God. “I’m really comfortable here—a lot, not just a little.” Her two young children, who escaped airstrikes and destruction in their home town of Daraa, are now enrolled in French immersion school. Soon they will be fluent in Arabic, English and French.

In Calgary, Alsaleh’s children are flourishing, too. They’re all in school, and Ahmed had surgery and got an aid to restore his hearing, all free of charge. “They love going to the swimming pool, they love playing around,” said Alsaleh. “They love life here.” Her children spend down time on weekends playing video games, and when neighbourhood friends come over, they chat excitedly in a mix of English and Arabic in front of the living-room TV.

But a sadness lingers in Alsaleh, whose most fervent wish is for a sister in the Zahle camp to join her in Canada, but settlement workers have repeatedly told her there isn’t much she can do.

“I lost hope,” Alsaleh said.

She knows it could be years, even decades, before she sees her family again. The future is bright for her children, but as a single mother who left school at the age of 12 and married at 18, family is all she knows.

“I wish I could go back if there weren’t any airstrikes or any war,” Alsaleh said of Syria.

Calgary volunteer Sam Namourra, who has worked with Alsaleh for a year and a half, said she is one of his most difficult settlement cases. “So many times, she has asked me to go (back) to the camps.”

The despair lodged in Alsaleh’s heart, the feeling of living in one place and belonging to another, is at the crux of integration. Canada can offer shelter and food and education and medical care, but some refugees will never be able to call this country home.

“You still feel like you’re in a strange land,” Alsaleh said. “Like you’re in a country that isn’t yours.”

Nadine Yousif is a reporter/photographer for Star Edmonton. Follow her on twitter: @nadineyousif_


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