Syrian refugees adapting to new life in Québec

Syrian refugees adapting to new life in Québec

mag_dec2016_coverThis article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

In a church parking lot in Sherbrooke, Joy Korji, 20, kicks a soccer ball around as his mother and aunt exchange news on the war that has devastated their hometown of Aleppo.

In Montréal, Roula al-Romhin visits a park with her sister, and remembers the endless expanses of fir trees she saw from the plane. In Québec City, Nawal Zakariya, a pregnant mother of eight, scrambles to get her children to sit still as a social worker distributes winter clothing.

Since the beginning of 2015, Canada has welcomed close to 33,000 Syrian refugees, who have left refugee camps or cramped apartments in countries bordering Syria and been resettled across the country. Just over 6,500 Syrian refugees now call Québec home, over half in or around Montréal.
Nearly 5,000 have been sponsored by non-profit or religious groups like St. Ephrem’s Church in Sherbrooke. Around 1,100, including the Zakariyas, were resettled in Canada by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and then assigned to Québec by Canada’s Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees. A few hundred families, like the al-Romhins, were sponsored by relatives living in Canada.

One year later, here are a few of their stories.

Montréal: Christmas in February

Roula al-Romhin arrived from Damascus in February 2016 with her husband and two daughters. Her family had lived in the Syrian capital for generations, but as the conflict intensified, she realized she couldn’t stay. “There was shooting close to our house; two of my brothers had their windows blown out. One of my sisters lost a son, hit by a fragmentation bomb. Even now when I’m asleep, I think, am I really far away from all that?”

As gunfire echoed around their building, the family made plans to get out. Visas to the United States, which they had hoped to obtain in a few weeks and then cross the Canadian border, were denied.  A plan to live with a cousin in France didn’t work out either, so they applied to come directly to Canada.

Al-Romhin estimates she spent $6,000, saved from the sale of their possessions, on processing fees and travel to and from the Canadian embassy in Beirut.

“It took us months to fill out the papers with everyone’s personal details, and with two growing girls, their height kept changing! The Canadians were overwhelmed, but very helpful. When I got my permanent resident stamp, it was like Christmas.” At 3 a.m. on February 6, Roula and her family walked into the Trudeau International Airport arrivals lounge, into the waiting arms of Roula’s sister, Hala.LiQ_Sub_Dec2015

Roula’s daughters, Nibale, 15, and Sara, 10, are in school and her husband is in French language training. She has applied to volunteer at Sara’s school. “Take away all the Arabic speakers around her, and she’ll learn French,” says her sister.

Québec City: “We didn’t quite understand what was going on.”

In Québec City, many of the nearly 300 state-sponsored refugees have arrived knowing no one. Social workers Serif Pervanic and Neji Khediri, of the Centre Multiethnique de Québec, try to fill that gap with weekly tea parties, where families socialize and share information. Today’s topic is family sponsorship, and Ahmad Mustafa listens especially closely. He arrived in Québec City with his wife and younger children in May, but two of his adult daughters are still in Jordan. “Getting them here is my one worry,” he says.

Around 10 per cent of refugees resettled in Québec City in early 2016 have left the province, citing the possibility of working in English and the supposed ease of family sponsorship outside Québec. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada does not comment on processing times across provinces, although a ministry spokeswoman points out that Québec requires its own layer of provincial verifications before any immigration procedure.

“Everyone hears that it’s easier to sponsor family members outside Québec, but these things take time everywhere,” says Pervanic, himself a former refugee. “When we came from Bosnia, they told us our families could come in two months and it took three years.” Mustafa is not reassured.

Haidar and Nawal Zakariya sit toward the front, with four of their eight children, listening to Khediri translate Pervanic’s words. Their story is similar to that of thousands of displaced Syrian families.

“A few months after the protests started, it became dangerous to walk around our hometown,” says Nawal, who is from Idlib in southern Syria. “But there was still regular bus service, so I took the kids and we got out. No one in my family took a side; we just wanted to avoid getting mixed up in this.”

“We didn’t quite understand what was going on,” recalls Haidar, who met his family in Beirut, where he had been working. Together, they applied for refugee status at a United Nations office.

“From the time we signed up with the United Nations, it took us six months to learn where we were going. We knew nothing about Canada, only that it was cold.”

“In Lebanon we were still close to home,” says Haidar, who is learning French and eager to find work. “When we got on the plane, that was it, we were leaving. We don’t know many people here, but we feel at home because we’re together.”

The refugees assisted by the Centre Multiethnique are mostly large Muslim families, parachuted into the province at the height of the niqab debate; however, the Zakariyas say they’ve never felt singled out for their faith. Khediri, the social worker, says he has heard of one case of harassment in four years. “Hopefully, all that nonsense is in the past now.”

Sherbrooke: Those who pray together, stay together

Father Gabi Sorkys, the soft-spoken young priest of St. Ephrem’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Sherbrooke, has spearheaded the sponsorship of 100 families in the past two years and hopes to assist 400 more.

“This church was founded by immigrants from Turkey in the 1920s and has always welcomed immigrants,” says the priest. “In 2010, I went to Syria to help evacuate Iraqi Christians. When the war in Syria broke out, people immediately asked how they could help.”

Requests from uprooted families arrive faster than the church can keep up with them. “The Canadian government is only allowing us to sponsor 40 families a year, and that’s not enough,” says church volunteer Fanar Yousuf, a recent arrival from Iraq. “You need a budget of $21,000 per family of four, and we don’t have enough to bring more than 40. It’s difficult to decide who we assist now and who has to wait.”

Once an application is approved, another waiting game begins. “Some people wait a day, some people wait two years, and nobody knows why,” says Joy Korji, 20, who arrived earlier this year from Aleppo with his mother. “When you can’t work or go to school, a 24-hour day feels like a year. We waited only about a week; we were lucky.”

A student engineer in Syria, Korji is now learning French and teaching Sunday school. He acknowledges that with his language skills, he could probably find work faster in English Canada, but he has no plans to move on. “It would be hard to start everything over again, again.  I’m staying, and the reason is right behind me. When I go inside, I always remember my old church at home. So this is home.”


About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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